Good grades are not enough

What has happened to high school graduates’ math skills?

The only benefit I can think of to eating lunch alone is that you sometimes get to hear interesting conversations. It seems a couple of best friends were meeting at the next table. One of them owned a machine shop and had hired the son of the other.

“So how’s Johnny doing?”

“Well Jack, I hate to have to tell you this, but I’m afraid I have to let him go.”


“Jack, his math skills are practically non-existent. Johnny can’t do basic arithmetic in his head. I can’t afford any more of his mistakes.”

“Bill, he’s gotten straight A’s in math throughout school. Math is his strong suit.”

“Jack, that’s one of the reasons I hired him, but I’ve noticed a lot of the younger folks are weak in math compared to us. The schools must have reduced the criteria and made it easier to get high marks. In my machine shop, we depend on real proficiency.”

“Can’t you give him another chance? I’ll send him to night school.”

“I’d like to, but his mistakes are killing me. We make complicated precision parts often for prototypes. Last week, we spent most of the week machining three parts. We were almost done. I gave them to Johnny to put a 1/16 inch dimple per the print in each of them. He drilled 15/16 inch holes instead and ruined the parts. We had to start all over and work the weekend to try to recover. We were still late for the customer. Luckily we had the stock, but this is the second time this has happened. I’m gonna lose customers if this keeps up. Johnny sets the machine, but he has no feel for whether or not his settings are right.”

“I thought you guys are on the metric system.”

“Some customers are and others aren’t. We have to be proficient in both. Johnny doesn’t understand fractions: 1/16 is actually 0.0625 inches, not 0.9375. He should know that instinctively. Furthermore, he should have noticed right away that there was something wrong while doing the first part. A dimple is not a hole. Instead he went on and ruined all three and was surprised when I discovered the problem.”

Their food arrived and things got pretty quiet. Neither of them looked happy.

The next morning, I found myself talking to a middle school teacher and asked the question.

“They’re not getting the rigorous math education you and I got when we went to school. Over the years, we’ve had to make it easier for them so we could keep moving them along. Some colleges have to provide remedial math courses to freshman to help them learn what they should have learned in high school.”

None of this was a surprise to me, nor should it be to you. We graduate thousands of kids from high school, many of whom can’t make change from a dollar without a machine to figure it out for them. We see people using calculators to figure tips in restaurants.

Some people find this amusing, but I think it’s a disaster. Between the jobs going offshore and those being replaced by automation, the better-paying jobs often require a fair level of math proficiency. What’s the game plan for the thousands of Johnnys we’re graduating?

Without such skills you can flip burgers, work in retail, work as a janitor or any number of low-paying jobs, but it’s really tough to support yourself much less raise a family.

Movies, TV programs and advertising often show affluent lifestyles with all kinds of nice things we desire, but too many of our kids will never be able to afford these.

With all the money we spend on education can’t we teach our kids to have the requisite skills for making an honest living in today’s world? Do we really need to automate or go offshore to get these skills, and if we do, how are our kids going to make decent livings?

And of course, how competitive can you be hiring people without the necessary skills?  

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or