Saturday, February 7, 2009

Math Moment at Au Bon Pain

Last week I was in Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings. During a break, I went across the street to a bakery/cafe called Au Bon Pain. There I sat at my table, watching an employee as she restocked paper cups and plates. At one point, I saw the woman, about 25 years old, waving her hands over a tray loaded with paper cups arranged in nested stacks. Thinking she must have been counting the cups, I said, "How many?" She said, "No, I didn't count them, I was just wondering would they fit on this shelf."

A minute later I said, "OK, I can't resist, I have to know how many there are." So I stood up and counted: "16..." (the number of cups in one stack) "...times...7" (the number of stacks) "'s 112."

"Wow!" she said. "I never could have figured that out."


A very informative report has just been published by the National Governors' Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. The full report, titled "Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education," is here. Of particular interest are pages 20-21, which address many of the myths about why other countries outperform the U.S. on international exams.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the academic underperformance of poor children in this country. Figure 15 from the Achieve report is worth looking at in this connection. Click to enlarge:

(n.b. From Sweden on up, the country's performance is measurably better than the U.S. as a whole; from Italy on down, the country's performance is measurably worse than the U.S. as a whole.)

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