Missing from the debate over No Child Left Behind is whether what is tested for is even worth learning. Arithmetic, for instance, was a vital skill to fill the clerical needs of the 19th and 20th centuries. Nobody uses it anymore except elementary school students. This is especially the case with fractions. As for carpenters, all their fractions are powers of two and have nice decimal equivalents such as 0.25; 0.75 and 0.125. Can anyone honestly come up with a practical use for the skill to calculate 2 2/3 divided by 1 1/6?
It is sometimes stated that knowledge of arithmetic is essential to understand how the number system works. That’s doubtful. Most of arithmetic is learning complicated algorithms or memorizing tables, which actually do more to conceal the number system than [promote its] understanding. But, even if true—it’s irrelevant. I don’t have to know electronics to use a TV, or mechanical engineering to drive an automobile. You might just as well require kids to learn weaving or soap making, two other previously important skills that might be fun but are hardly essential. Indeed, we ask our children to spend so much time learning useless skills that there’s scant time left over to learn how to use numbers in practical applications.
The obvious alternative to “manual” arithmetic is hand-held calculators. Sometimes I hear the argument “But what will you do if you haven’t got a calculator?” Actually, that’s pretty hard to imagine. Our world is filled with computers and smart cash registers. It hard to imagine a need so urgent it couldn’t wait until a calculator could be found. It would be far more practical to buy a stack of $5 calculators and store them in libraries and schools, free for the taking. It is sometimes said that most of Einstein’s time was spent doing sixth-grade arithmetic. How might the world be different if he had had the use of a simple calculator?
Once the absurdity of the situation is acknowledged, the question rightly arises, “So why are we doing it?” Aside from leaders so invested in things that have “always been done this way” that they have no idea how the world has changed, I think the real reason is that so many of them struggled with arithmetic in grade school that they want modern kids to suffer just as much as they did. Standardized tests on irrelevant skills is one good way to accomplish this.
— George Gjelfriend