‘Make believe’ numbers don’t tell the story | NevadaAppeal.com

‘Make believe’ numbers don’t tell the story

Bill Hanlon

Make believe numbers versus imaginary numbers – what are these people talking about? In the last few weeks, I have heard a number of people in positions of power or influence toss out numbers describing the state of public education that are not very familiar to me.

In fact, what I have heard would seem to contradict fact.

In the field of mathematics, number sets are developed that allow us to compute or solve problems. In second grade, if we ask a student to evaluate 2-5, the student responds by saying that you can’t take five from two. At that age, that is the correct answer. However, when the student reaches sixth grade, another number set is introduced, the integers, that allow students to actually do that problem.

Later in high school, students sometimes come across an equation of the form x2 =n-k, where k is a positive real number. In order to solve that equation, we would have to have some number i so that i2 = -1. In the set of real numbers, we know any time you square a number, you get a positive number. So that’s not working. That would lead us to developing the complex numbers. By developing the set of complex numbers, we can now solve the equation. Piece of cake, right?

Now that set of complex numbers with imaginary units is different from the set of “make believe” numbers. The set of “make believe” numbers doesn’t seem to satisfy any given mathematical problem or concept. What the set of “make believe” numbers seems to do is satisfy a person’s need to either give incorrect information or exaggerate statements to advance their own agenda.

For instance, I have heard on more than one occasion that teachers in Nevada are the highest paid in the western states. That’s just plain wrong. Teacher salaries are in the bottom half nationally. I have heard that Nevada puts more into education than most other states. Wrong again. Nevada per pupil expenditure is $581 below the nation average. Multiply that by 300,000. That is a shortfall of close to $176 million per year.

I hear that the state pays for special education units. It costs approximately $58,000 per unit. The state pays $28,000 in matching funds. Statewide, local school districts are paying about $100 million per year out of their general budgets to make up the shortfall.

Other “make believe” numbers include the information being given out to describe Nevada’s test scores. I have heard repeatedly that Nevada’s test scores are going down. That again is just plain wrong. The fact is in math, the scores are up on both college entrance exams, the ACT and SAT. Not only are the scores up, so is the number of students taking them. That’s been occurring for the last three or four years.

The number of students that passed the new, more rigorous high school proficiency tests are also up. And while they have not been published yet this year, it’s also my understanding that the TerraNova scores are also up in mathematics.

Local school districts have made a concerted effort, at great expense, to decrease the “dropout” rate. Again, I believe you will find the number of students dropping out has stabilized and fluctuates a little, but the trend clearly indicates the percentage of students dropping out has also declined.

The point I want to make is there is a difference between “make believe” numbers and “imaginary” numbers. Both serve a purpose. The imaginary units make up the set complex numbers and allow us to solve problems. The set of “make believe” numbers are usually wrong and are generally used to advance a political agenda.

Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a member of the Nevada Board of Education. His views do not necessarily reflect those of other members. His e-mail address is bhanlon@accessnv.com.