Educational Studies in Mathematics

, Volume 99, Issue 1, pp 57–71 | Cite as

The promises of numeracy

  • Jeffrey CraigEmail author


In this article, I consider the question: why did numeracy become a relevant and sensible thing to consider in mathematics education? I historicize the numeracy discourse by writing a genealogy of how the concept of numeracy emerged in scholarship, with a focus on the USA. I argue that numeracy descends from three mathematics education reform narratives and emerged, in part, as a compromise among these narratives. The numeracy discourse unites reform narratives about technological change, equity and justice, and social stability. I find these narratives in the numeracy discourse and describe them as promises—or assurances about the present and future—central in the numeracy discourse: (1) numeracy promises to reflect modern reality, (2) numeracy promises to empower, and (3) innumeracy promises to have social costs. These three promises seem to each emerge from different conceptualizations of the importance of numeracy and the purposes of reform in its name. Finally, I consider the purposes of genealogy by discussing my current thinking about numeracy.


Numeracy Mathematics education reform History of mathematics education Discourse Historicizing 



I would like to thank my dissertation committee, Drs. Beth Herbel-Eisenmann, Higinio Dominguez, Vince Melfi, and John P. (Jack) Smith III, for their thoughtful feedback. I would like to thank Dr. Lynette Guzmán for her insightful revisions. I would also like to thank the excellent feedback I received from reviewers at ESM.


  1. Ball, D. L., Ferrini-Mundy, J., Kilpatrick, J., Milgram, R. J., Schmid, W., & Schaar, R. (2005). Reaching for common ground in K-12 mathematics education. Notices of the AMS, 52(9), 1055–1058.Google Scholar
  2. Black, S., Yasukawa, K., & Brown, T. (2013). Investigating the ‘crisis’: Production workers’ literacy and numeracy practices. Australia: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.Google Scholar
  3. Bullock, E. C. (2013). An archaeological/genealogical historical analysis of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Standards documents (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3571369)Google Scholar
  4. Carnevale, A. P., & Desrochers, D. M. (2003). The democratization of mathematics. In B. Madison & L. A. Steen (Eds.), Quantitative literacy: Why numeracy matters for schools and colleges (pp. 21–31). New York, NY: Woodrow Wilson National Foundation.Google Scholar
  5. Coben, D., & Weeks, K. (2014). Meeting the mathematical demands of the safety-critical workplace: Medication dosage calculation problem-solving for nursing. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 86(2), 253–270 Scholar
  6. Cohen, P. C. (1999). A calculating people: The spread of numeracy in early America. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Craig, J. C. (2017). Real fantasies in mathematics education: Numeracy, quantitative reasoners, and transdisciplinary wicked problems (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 10621502)Google Scholar
  8. Crowther, G. S. (1959). 15 to 18. A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England). London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.Google Scholar
  9. Douglass, H. R. (1942). Mathematics for all. The Mathematics Teacher, 35(5), 212–216.Google Scholar
  10. Fendler, L. (2003). Teacher reflection in a hall of mirrors: Historical influences and political reverberations. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 16–25. Scholar
  11. Frankenstein, M. (1990). Incorporating race, gender, and class issues into a critical mathematical literacy curriculum. The Journal of Negro Education, 59(3), 336–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Frankenstein, M. (2010). Developing a criticalmathematical numeracy through real real-life word problems. In U. Gellert, E. Jablonka, & C. Morgan (Eds.), Proceedings of the sixth international mathematics education and society conference (pp. 398–407). Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin.Google Scholar
  13. Foucault, M. (1977). Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews (pp. 139–164). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Jablonka, E. (2003). Mathematical literacy. In A. J. Bishop, M. A. Clements, C. Keitel, J. Kilpatrick, & F. K. S. Leung (Eds.), Second international handbook of mathematics education (pp. 75–102). Netherlands: Springer.Google Scholar
  15. Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732–735. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Karaali, G., Villafane Hernandez, E. H., & Taylor, J. A. (2016). What’s in a name? A critical review of definitions of quantitative literacy, numeracy, and quantitative reasoning. Numeracy, 9(1), 1–34. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kemp, M. (2005). Developing critical numeracy at the tertiary level (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Murdoch University, Western Australia.Google Scholar
  18. Lawrence, E. D., & Sides, J. (2014). The consequences of political innumeracy. Research and Politics, 1(2), 1–8. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lerman, S., & Zevenbergen, R. (2004). The socio-political context of the mathematics classroom. In P. Valero & R. Zevenbergen (Eds.), Researching the socio-political dimensions of mathematics education: Issues of power in theory and methodology (pp. 27–42). New York, NY: Springer.Google Scholar
  20. Lusardi, A. (2012). Numeracy, financial literacy, and financial decision-making. Numeracy, 5(1), 1–12. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Madison, B. L. (2003). The many faces of quantitative literacy. In B. L. Madison & L. A. Steen (Eds.), Quantitative literacy: Why numeracy matters for schools and colleges (pp. 3–6). New York, NY: Woodrow Wilson National Foundation.Google Scholar
  22. Madison, B. L., & Steen, L. A. (2008). Evolution of numeracy and the National Numeracy Network. Numeracy, 1(1), 1–18. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. The Elementary School Journal, 84(2), 113–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.Google Scholar
  25. National Education Association. (1894). Report of the Committee of Ten on secondary school studies. New York, NY: The American Book Co.Google Scholar
  26. National Education Association. (1895). Report of the Committee of Fifteen on elementary education. New York, NY: The American Book Co.Google Scholar
  27. National Research Council. (1989). Everybody counts: A report to the nation on the future of mathematics education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  28. Orrill, R. (1997). Foreword. In L. A. Steen (Ed.), Why numbers count: Quantitative literacy for tomorrow’s America (pp. vi-xiv). New York, NY: College Entrance Examination Board.Google Scholar
  29. Paulos, J. A. (1989). Innumeracy: Mathematical illiteracy and its consequences. New York, NY: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  30. Peters, E. (2017). Overcoming innumeracy and the use of heuristics when communicating science. The Oxford handbook of the science of science communication (pp. 389–398). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Popkewitz, T. S. (2008). Cosmopolitanism and the age of school reform: Science, education, and making society by making the child. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Popkewitz, T. S. (2013). Styles of reason: Historicism, historicizing, and the history of education. In T. S. Popkewitz (Ed.), Rethinking the history of education: Transnational perspectives on its questions, methods, and knowledge (pp. 1–28). New York, NY: MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Porter, T. (1997). The triumph of numbers: Civic implications of quantitative literacy. In L.A. Steen (Ed.), Why numbers count: Quantitative literacy for tomorrow’s America (pp. 1-10). New York, NY: College Entrance Examination Board.Google Scholar
  34. Reyna, V. F., Nelson, W. L., Han, P. K., & Dieckmann, N. F. (2009). How numeracy influences risk comprehension and medical decision making. Psychological Bulletin, 135(6), 943–973. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Root, R. (2009). Social justice through quantitative literacy: A course connecting numeracy, engaged citizenship, and a just society. Democracy and Education, 18(3), 37–43.Google Scholar
  36. Rose, N. (1991). Governing by numbers: Figuring out democracy. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 16(7), 673–692. Scholar
  37. Rothman, R. L., Housam, R., Weiss, H., Davis, D., Gregory, R., Gebretsadik, T., … Elasy, T. A. (2006). Patient understanding of food labels: The role of literacy and numeracy. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 31(5), 391–398.
  38. Rowell, A., & Bregant, J. (2014). Numeracy and legal decision making. Arizona State Law Journal, 46(1), 191–230.Google Scholar
  39. Schoenfeld, A. H. (1992). Learning to think mathematically: Problem solving, metacognition, and sense making in mathematics. In D. Grouws (Ed.), Handbook for research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 334–370). New York, NY: MacMillan.Google Scholar
  40. Schoenfeld, A. H. (2004). The math wars. Educational Policy, 18(1), 253–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Schwartz, L. M., Woloshin, S., Black, W. C., & Welch, H. G. (1997). The role of numeracy in understanding the benefit of screening mammography. Annals of Internal Medicine, 127(11), 966–972. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Stanic, G. M. A. (1986). The growing crisis in mathematics education in the early twentieth century. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 17(3), 190–205. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Stanic, G. M. A., & Kilpatrick, J. (1992). Mathematics curriculum reform in the United States: A historical perspective. International Journal of Educational Research, 17(5), 407–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Steen, L. A. (Ed.). (1997). Why numbers count: Quantitative literacy for tomorrow's America. New York, NY: College Entrance Examination Board.Google Scholar
  45. Steen, L. A. (1999). Numeracy: The new literacy for a data-drenched society. Educational Leadership, 57(2), 8–13.Google Scholar
  46. Steen, L. A., Burrill, G., Ganter, S., Goroff, D. L., Greenleaf, F. P., Grubb, N. W., … Wallace, D. (2001). In L. A. Steen (Ed.), Mathematics and democracy: The case for quantitative literacy (pp. 1–15). Washington, DC: The National Council on Education and the Disciplines.Google Scholar
  47. Tsatsaroni, A., & Evans, J. (2014). Adult numeracy and the totally pedagogised society: PIAAC and other international surveys in the context of global educational policy on lifelong learning. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 87(2), 167–186. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tunstall, S. L. (2017). Quantitative literacy for the future flourishing of our students: A guiding aim for mathematics education. Numeracy, 10(1), 1–16. Scholar
  49. Vacher, H. L. (2014). Looking at the multiple meanings of numeracy, quantitative literacy, and quantitative reasoning. Numeracy, 7(2), 1–14. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Valero, P. (2013). Mathematics for all and the promise of a bright future. In B. Ubuz, C. Haser, & M. A. Mariotti (Eds.), Proceedings of the eighth congress of the European Society for Research in mathematics education. European Society for Research in Mathematics Education: Ankara, Turkey.Google Scholar
  51. Wiest, L. R., Higgins, H. J., & Frost, J. H. (2007). Quantitative literacy for social justice. Equity and Excellence in Education, 40(1), 47–55. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Zevenbergen, R. (2004). Technologizing numeracy: Intergenerational differences in working mathematically in new times. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 56(1), 97–117. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Personalised recommendations