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Math Education For The Benefit of MasterCard

Back to the topic of how poor American students are doing in math when compared to those in other countries. Or not.

Roger Shank has a great (re: snarky!) piece in which he dissects the press release announcing a summit populated by “global thought leaders” in math education. Sponsored by MasterCard.

Just what qualifies one to be a “global thought leader”?

Ah. Global thought leader means someone who makes test scores go up. Got it.

Why do we need this summit? Because there is “widespread evidence” that math education in the US is crap, of course.

That evidence is what, exactly? That we are behind in test scores? That is the evidence that we need to win the test score contest!

And why is MasterCard so interested in math education? They need workers who can get high scores on international standardized math tests, right?

Really? Math is core to MasterCard’s business? Are they doing a lot of trigonometry over there at MasterCard? Congruent triangles on the MasterCard logo? How exactly is math core to MasterCard’s business?

Ah. They mean they like people who can add. I am sure they do.

As Shank notes, MasterCard, like most other companies, needs employees with a good basic skill set that includes some math but certainly not the Calculus track through which we force most students.

However, the reality is that MasterCard is probably better off with a math-ignorant population anyway.

Their profits depend on large numbers of people (aka “members”) with no clue what 21% APR (not to mention the tiny print legalese in their agreement) means.

The bottom line is that math education in this country would be vastly improved if kids graduated with an understanding of just how they’re being ripped off by credit cards and other everyday financial scams.

At the same time, maybe they can also learn just how badly they’re being cheated by the all-testing-all-the-time curriculum in which most are now trapped.

education, math, mastercard


  1. organized chaos

    Think of how much more engaging and meaningful the lessons on credit-card rip-offs would be. Whenever I’ve had a student in first grade who was utterly uninteresed in learning to count change I’ve put it in terms of the ways they can be cheated out of money if they don’t learn. Works every time.
    well written post!

  2. Dave

    Devil’s advocate: Maybe they’re trying to push education towards outputting more Financial Risk Analysts, who I seem to recall being in high demand (and thus being rather expensive to hire).

    Actual: If someone claims that MasterCard is taking advantage of customers with poor math skills, would this not be an excellent point for MC to counter with? What bothers me is the implication that MasterCard may be supporting math education in intentionally unproductive ways, with the goal of not actually improving the skills of students.

  3. Ian

    Convince a population to develop their financial literacy?

    “If one wants an end, one must also want the means: if one wants slaves, then one is a fool if one educates them to be masters…..”
    Friedrich Nietzsche, (1874)

  4. Tim

    I never intended to imply that MasterCard had some evil motive in sponsoring this event. They, like many other corporations, have bought into the concept that kids must have more higher level math classes, the general subject of Shank’s essay. But, I doubt their marketing people have any real goal beyond adding another gold star next to their name.

    However, I also stand by my point about the need to teach kids the basics of personal finance and how to understand the border-line deceptive practices of many financial companies. And that this goal is more important than the Trig, Calculus and other courses the attendees at this conference will probably be pushing.

  5. Alan Cooper

    I think you are right that MC are doing this mainly for the “gold star” – ie for PR purposes. It would be great (they think) for them to be seen as supporting both well trained workforce and well educated consumers (and then as a bonus, perhaps some of the elite among those students will come to work for them in their efforts to invent some yet trickier scams to bewilder those newly trained to resist the old ones).

    But how do you know what it is that “the attendees at this conference will probably be pushing” ? and why is it only “the basics of personal finance” that people should be exposed to, rather than the more serious tools that are needed to interpret and evaluate statements and claims about data and the economy?

    Schank may be right in his judgement that much of the public hysteria about math “scores” is misguided, but where he is wrong in my book is in his going overboard in reaction to any mention of math at all, and in his failure to acknowledge either the political importance of an electorate with sufficient numeracy to make informed political judgements, or the economic importance of ensuring that everyone with the capacity and inclination to become technically competent has the maximum opportunity to do so.

  6. pensven

    If they (Schank & company) were interested in actuaries, we might have more emphasis on statistics in high school math than in Calculus. That could be positive for many higher math students. Having been a HS principal, I have seen much to suggest our current orientation in math misses the mark at multiple levels.

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