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When are we going to use this stuff?

Knowledge is one thing—being able to apply what you know to everyday challenges is the mark of being literate in the subject. More than knowing how to read a textbook or complete a math worksheet, being literate in reading and math might mean being able to understand a technical manual, for example, or adjust a recipe if unexpected guests are joining the dinner party.

An international assessment known as PISA—Program for International Student Assessment—is designed to measure this kind of practical literacy. Developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA assesses literacy in three subject areas: reading, math, and science.

Reading literacy. In the early grades, young children learn to read. As they get older, they read to learn. And that’s what reading literacy is all about. In essence, literacy in teenagers and adults can be defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

In today’s world, literacy is critical for success in many spheres of life. For example, the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that adults who have stronger literacy skills …

  • are more likely to be employed, to have higher-status jobs, and to earn significantly more.
  • are less likely to receive public assistance (or, if they do, they receive it for a shorter time).
  • are more likely to read to their children, talk to them about school, and help with homework.
  • are more likely to vote and to volunteer in their communities.

In fact, when the Conference Board surveyed employers about the most important skills for entry-level employees, “reading comprehension” ranked above technology skills for every educational group.

Mathematical literacy. Also called quantitative literacy or numeracy, mathematical literaciy is the ability to understand real-life situations in mathematical terms and decide which specific formulas and algorithms are useful. This ability has become increasingly important in today’s world. Occupations from farming to auto repair to business and law all require understanding and manipulating numbers and data via computer algorithms, spreadsheets, and the like.

What’s more, as Lynn Steen pointed out in his 2001 book Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy, almost every important public issue—from health care to international economics—“depends on data, projections, inferences, and the kind systematic thinking that is at the heart of quantitative literacy.”

Just as mathematical literacy can have obvious career benefits, so “innumeracy” can have worrisome repercussions. As workers are asked to take more responsibility for their own health care and financial planning, for example, they face a welter of confusing numerical information. Poor decisions about such matters—especially decisions that involve financial risk—can have serious negative impacts on people and their families.

Scientific literacy. Just because you’re not going to become a scientist doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know how to understand and apply science-related information. From personal matters such as health to public issues such as climate change, today’s students will need basic scientific literacy if they are to make informed choices.

PISA’s definition of scientific literacy has four parts:

  • Scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, acquire new knowledge, explain scientific phenomena, and draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues
  • Understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry
  • Awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments
  • Willingness to engage in science-related issues and with the ideas of science as a reflective citizen

Other areas of literacy. While reading, math, and science represent the most familiar areas of practical literacy, others are increasingly recognized. One is civic literacy, which includes knowledge about government, skills in understanding issues, and attitudes and values such as a sense of personal responsibility and a willingness to participate in civic life. This is one area where the U.S. is ahead of the rest of the world.

Information and media messages are proliferating at such a rate that students will find it difficult to make sense of and act on them unless schools specifically teach media literacy, sometimes called information literacy. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills defines media literacy as being able to (among other things) evaluating information critically; understanding how media messages are constructed; understanding how values and points of view are included or excluded and how media can influence beliefs and behaviors; and the ethics of accessing and using information.

Another area is technology literacy, or digital competence, as it is sometimes called. Information and communications technology (ICT) is increasingly important not only in the workplace but in people’s personal lives. Schools needn’t worry about teaching kids the mechanics of using technology – it changes too rapidly -- but schools can help young people learn to use information technology more responsibly, reflectively, and effectively.

For more, see Practical literacies in the full report, Defining a 21st century education.


This summary was based on a work by Craig D. Jerald. Craig D. Jerald is president of Break the Curve Consulting, specializing in education policy, communications, research, and practice. Previously, Craig was a Principal Partner at the Education Trust, where he worked on issues related to teacher quality, accountability, federal education policy, and the practices of high-performing schools and districts. Craig was also a Senior Editor at Education Week, where he founded and managed the organization’s research division and helped create Ed Week’s special annual reports series, Quality Counts and Technology Counts.

Posted: September 21, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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Home > Policies > Putting it all together > When are we going to use this stuff?