The young man came back to the large math lab help room where I had been working the past three hours.  Some time earlier, I had helped him.

“I took a practice test,” he said, showing me a paper, “and I think I probably would have failed.”

I looked at the questions and his answers, and well, I’m not really sure he would have failed, but I don’t grade at Lane, I just am a volunteer there to help students.

The young man was learning decimals and percentages.  He had almost mastered cross-multiplication, except he needed to slow down, so he wouldn’t make simple mistakes, which he immediately understood when I pointed them out. Percentages were different matter.  Part of the difficulty he had was that to him one hundred per cent was a ceiling.  He had difficulty conceiving of “138% of 87,”  a typical problem.  Mathematically, there is no upper or lower bound on what a per cent can take, but he was absolutely correct when he didn’t understand the statement “he gives 110% effort,” which I can’t either, because such is impossible unless there is some form of comparison, like to a previous year.  Trying your hardest is 100%.  Period.  I am really sure about that.

Indeed, he told me he had never understood percentages in high school and had spent the past five years not understanding the difference between 3% and 33%, so natural to me that I don’t even think about it.  Had he not come to the community college, he could have spent his whole life not knowing the difference.  It’s difficult to plan retirement when one doesn’t know rate of return.  Indeed, it’s difficult to live without knowing how to work with percentages.

I’m not really sure many know when or how to use percentages. People confuse a 25% increase in the possibility of getting an uncommon disease as a 25% probability of getting the disease itself, whereas the truth is far less.  We read about the percentage of growth’s declining and think the actual amount is declining, when it is not. I’d personally like an end to the term “three hundred per cent decline in xxxx,” because per cent decline is decrease over the original amount, and one cannot decrease sales, to give one example, three times the original amount, without a major giveaway.

Yes, the high school my student  attended should have taught him percentages better. But I was dealing with reality:  he was no longer in high school, and the community college—and I— was doing the teaching.  If the young man sticks it out long enough he will learn how to work with percentages.  That is assuming the community college sticks around long enough to be able to help people like him. A lot of CCs are under fire to cut programs because there isn’t money to fund them.  Mind you, we continue to fight in both Afghanistan and Iraq, because …. well, I am not really sure….  We eventually disengaged from Vietnam, a horrid mess, but we had to do it at some point.  I’m really not sure after somewhere between $2 and $6 trillion spent what we are getting for our money in southwest Asia.  Yes, trillion.  I wonder how many people can put in the correct number of zeroes.  Or can relate it to something physical, like the number of days the Earth has existed or the number of seconds in 31,700 years.

You see, when a person understands math and numbers, he can make more sense out of the world.  Note the he:  it is too often boys and men who have trouble, and that disturbs me greatly. I’m not disparaging other subjects, but math is so fundamental that a person without a good math background is forever handicapped in this society.  I could continue with my complaints about high schools, but it may be summarized by saying we as a country are slowly dismantling public education, one of our great gifts to the world.  We are leaving a lot of students uneducated, because … well, I am not really sure….  The pendulum swung towards standardized tests, because we were graduating students who couldn’t do basic math, write a coherent sentence, or know history.  Now, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, because there were unpopular consequences—students didn’t graduate if they didn’t pass tests—so now we are backtracking from testing without well, I’m not really sure what….At some point, we have to determine competence.  I could come up with a 25 question test in a variety of subjects that I think every student ought to know in order to graduate.  I know educators could do better.

Back to money: for a lot less, say fifty million dollars, many community colleges in a region could have their budgets balanced with enough teachers and technology to teach things like percentages … or calculus, to their students.  It’s really cool to see a young person at a community college know calculus cold.  For one of those trillion dollars I discussed, we could remove all student loan debt nationally, which is holding young adults back from funding their retirement, which is critical, should Mr. Rubio become President Rubio and dismantles Social Security and Medicare for those under 45.  Will Rubio become president?  Well, I’m not really sure….

Until high schools are able to graduate those who should graduate and hold back those who clearly shouldn’t, the community colleges will have to pick up the slack.  It shouldn’t be the job of the CC, but somebody has to do it, and we need a lot of free help or money from those who can afford to give either—or both.  The tutoring I do at the CC helps the school helps keep open a pair of rooms to help students in lower or upper math courses.  I’ve worked in both, and it’s busy.  Tonight, I stayed an hour later in the upper level room.  My presence allowed the students to get help with less waiting time.  I was doing heavy duty calculus and pre-cal non-stop,  digging long forgotten math out of ….well, I’m not really sure where.  I found the derivative of arc cosine, and while I may have learned it once, it was a half century ago.  I was graphing fourth power functions, re-learning inflection points, and learning when L’Hopital’s Rule didn’t work.  It’s good for me, I think. But I’m really not sure….

Enough about me.  We need to pay teachers more and lower costs to attend community colleges.  I can’t think of too many better investments.  These students are training, not to become math professors, but as skilled workers in a very different economy from the one I grew up in.  I want them to have a solid educational background in order to live a fulfilling life.

Maybe they will get what they need, but I’m not really sure….

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