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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

We Can Afford More Math Textbooks

By Jeff Danner Posted January 19, 2014 at 9:05 pm

As an engineer, I have had a lot of math education in my life, everything from multiplication tables to systems of partial differential equations.  I was quite successful in these classes due in part to the good fortune of innate ability, but also, I firmly believe, because for every class I had a textbook of my own filled with helpful explanations and examples.

I frequently tutor my children and my friends’ children in math and have being doing so for years. As such, I believe I have sufficient data to make a few valid conclusions. I have no doubt that having a textbook increases understanding and improves performance for every student, irrespective of ability. The value of a textbook is amplified for students who either do not have an adult or older sibling at home to help out or (and this is a big one) do not have the fine motor skills required to transcribe a large volume of detailed notes during class. If my observations are correct, then there is an easy solution to improving math scores in North Carolina: buy more textbooks.

Consider Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools, the best funded and highest performing school district in North Carolina. To be diplomatic, our supply of math textbooks is deplorably bad. My children have been provided with their own textbook at most 50% of the time. Sometimes the teacher may have 30 of them, enough to allow the students to refer to them in class, but not to bring one home at night. Since home is where homework happens, this is where reference and examples from the textbooks are most needed. When these situations occur for my children, I find out what textbook is being used in class and then order a used one on amazon.com, often for as little as $5.00. I am certain that buying these books improves my children’s grades and standardized test scores. As such, my actions and expenditures are contributing to the stubbornly persistent achievement gap between students from homes with higher and lower socio-economic statuses.

If we are not providing textbooks to students here in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, I can only imagine the sad state of affairs in school districts with even lower levels of per-student funding. The North Carolina General Assembly is currently making the situation even worse. State funding for textbooks has dropped from $67.15 per student in 2008 to $14.26 per student in 2013. Several times now, I have attempted a cogent sentence to close out this paragraph on the absurdity of this. Words have failed me, so I will simply let the numbers speak for themselves.

I have often heard those opposed to more funding for education, be it textbooks or salaries for our hard-working teachers, claim that we “just can’t afford it.” Let’s evaluate that statement and let’s do it with math. I submit that the best measure of the prosperity of our state, or any state for that matter, is gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.  The graph below shows the North Carolina per capita GDP from 1977 to 2011 in constant 2005 dollars. The reason for using constant 2005 dollars is to eliminate the effect of inflation, making this an accurate measure of the growth of the wealth of our state.

NC Per Capita GDP

Since 1977, inflation-adjusted per capita GDP has almost doubled from $22,000 to just over $40,000 per person. Good work, everyone.

This is an impressive achievement and ranks North Carolina 31st among the states with a per capita GDP in 2012 dollars of $42,884. Of the states commonly referred to as “The South,” only Virginia, with its concentrated wealth near Washington, DC, and Louisiana, with revenues from the oil industry, have higher per capita GDPs than the Tar Heel state. The generally accepted driving force behind our relative prosperity in the region has been a commitment to education, a commitment which is slipping away.

Despite being ranked 31st in per capita GDP, with total annual expenditures of $8,312 per student, North Carolina ranks 46th in per student education funding. Mathematically speaking, these numbers indicate that we are choosing to allocate a lower-than-average amount of our resources to education compared to other states. Consider Alabama: at $36,333, they rank 46th among the states in per capita GDP, yet they devote $8,813 per student for education, $500 more per every student than we do!

Let’s calculate what spending per pupil in North Carolina would be if it were at the same ratio to GDP as in Alabama.  In this case, education spending in North Carolina would be:

$8,312*($42,884/$36,333) = $9,811 per student.

This would move North Carolina into an effective three-way tie with Iowa and Oregon for 26th place, just behind Montana.

I can find no way to look at these numbers that suggests that we don’t have the resources to buy more textbooks. This is especially true for math. Since calculus doesn’t change, the same books can be used for many years, which helps to lower the cost per student through reuse. So the next time someone tells you that we “just can’t afford” more education funding, please send them a link to this column.

Have a comment or question?  Use the interface below or send me an email at commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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