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Broadening and Deepening Statistical Thinking: Educating for 2014 and Beyond

1 August 2012 No Comment
The ASA will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2014. In preparation, column “175”—written by members of the ASA’s 175th Anniversary Steering Committee and other ASA members—will chronicle the theme chosen for the celebration, status of preparations, activities to take place, and, best yet, how you can get involved in propelling the ASA toward its bicentennial.


Contributing Editor
Richard ScheafferRichard L. Scheaffer, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, has dedicated much of his academic work to the improvement of statistics education throughout the school and college curriculum. He directed the first ASA Quantitative Literacy program and the task force that developed the Advanced Placement Statistics Program. He also has served on numerous education committees and advisory boards.


As I write this column, the debate about the future of the American Community Survey is taking place in Congress, with one member stating, “We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective, especially since, in the end, this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.” How better to state the need for expanded statistics education for all?

The ASA has a history of leaders with a penchant for education, such as 1944 president Helen Walker, who, from at least a decade earlier, pushed for more and better statistics education at the college level and encouraged adding statistics to the school (K–12) curriculum. Fred Mosteller, 1967 president and a phenomenal educator, established the ASA/NCTM Joint Committee on Curriculum in Statistics and Probability, influential in expanding statistics in the schools ever since. That committee developed the quantitative literacy projects of the 1980s, which led to the inclusion of statistics in NCTM mathematics standards and, later, provided support for the AP Statistics program. These efforts to build statistics into school mathematics have led to such programs as the Meeting Within a Meeting Statistics Workshop for Mathematics and Science Teachers and Beyond AP Statistics Workshop for AP Statistics teachers.

The Journal of Statistics Education and Significance provide valuable resources for both school and college statistics education, while the GAISE report provides guidelines for statistics teaching in both venues. The latter has become a standard reference wherever standards in statistics teaching are being addressed and will continue to carry the mark of sound statistics education into the future. In light of its primacy, the ASA should consider updating this report.

Today, the future of statistics education in the schools is intimately connected to the future of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics, an effort coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Even though the standards were released some time ago, there are numerous support activities open to contributions from interested parties such as the illustrative tasks project. Progress on the all-important assessments being developed for these standards can be viewed (and periodically critiqued) at Smarter and Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

How can colleges aid the CCSS project to improve statistics education? The statistics and probability standards of grades 6–12 are well beyond what one finds in current state standards, with few exceptions, and beyond what many mathematics teachers have experienced in any deep way. Thus, a central task of colleges and universities is to improve the education of prospective teachers.

Guidelines on what is needed and how it may be provided can be found in a soon-to-be-released report of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, titled “The Mathematics Education of Teachers II.” This report challenges mathematics and statistics departments to work with colleges of education to develop sound courses for future teachers that emphasize the topics they will actually teach.

Typically, statistics departments are not engaged with education departments in any productive way; this will have to change if statistics education at the school level is to make any pronounced improvement. Otherwise, the statistics standards will be sidestepped or, perhaps worse, taught poorly.

As expected, total enrollment in the typical college introductory statistics course is low in statistics departments as compared to mathematics departments across four-year and two-year colleges, with the most rapid expansion taking place in the latter. So, statisticians (and the ASA) need to reach out to improve statistics teaching from this wider perspective. More alarming, though, is that enrollments in second statistics courses drop dramatically across the board. Greater emphasis must be placed on devel­oping useful second courses in statistics to serve the needs of many students who need to think statistically at a deeper level, including future K–12 and college teachers and, perhaps, even future politicians.

With the support of the ASA, statistics educators are making progress in developing sound curricula, informative assessments, and innovative materials for both schools and colleges. This progress must continue and expand to include ever-widening domains of students. Such would provide a worthy tribute to the first 175 years of the ASA and bode well for the second.

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