INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD SCHEAFFER

Sherry Wasserstein
Freelance Journalist

Newsletter for the Section on Statistical Education
Volume 4, Number 1 (Winter 1998)


Every university professor has experienced the frustration that Dr. Richard Scheaffer felt. While teaching at the University of Florida he became convinced that a professor cannot start from scratch in teaching a three-hour introductory statistics course and expect the student to end up with a very good understanding of the subject. There were simply too many things to overcome, including a fear produced, in part, by ignorance of data collection and analysis.

But rather than throw up his hands and "just make the best of it," Dr. Scheaffer began on a mission, of sorts. And the mission went beyond the walls of the universities--it went all the way to kindergarten classrooms and to local industries in cities. He became one of the leaders of the movement known as quantitative literacy.

Scheaffer began his involvement rather by accident. In 1980, he was appointed to a joint committee of the American Statistical Association and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Under the leadership of Jim Swift, Dr. Scheaffer became involved in changing the way the system treated statistics.

While most mathematics textbooks rarely even talked about statistics, the group began writing material that could be introduced at the junior high and high school levels, emphasizing data analysis rather than probability or theory. Simultaneously, they began workshops for teachers in the field. Diann Resnick, a high school teacher in Houston, was one of the workshop attendees. Her praises for the projects and Dr. Scheaffer are enthusiastic.

"It used to be that statistics was never mentioned in the textbook," she said. "Now it is regarded as an integral part of the program. Quantitative literacy is now into elementary schools and high schools. And he is very, very much an integral part of it. He is a well-known statistician, a highly respected professor, and he is really interested in statistical education. And what is so extraordinary about him is that you could ask him a question and no matter how elementary it was, he would always take time to answer it."

The recipient of the Teaching Improvement Program Award in 1995, Dr. Scheaffer has been involved with a series of projects that included workshops, papers, committees and lectures to help schools better prepare students for statistics. The newest such program has been a successful push to get statistics into the Advanced Placement (AP) Program in high schools. The AP program gives students the opportunity while still in high school to take courses with content outlined and approved by a committee of high school teachers. They then may opt to test over the course and gain college credit. Last year, after years of preparation, the AP Statistics Course was offered. During the first year, 7600 students took the exam. Although not every student who takes the course finishes with the exam, some 10,000 students are expected to participate in the exam stage this year.

"The schools are in the through of change," Dr. Scheaffer said. "It is making math more realistic and something they can sink their teeth into."

Dr. Scheaffer noted that while the good side of the coin was that more and more high schools are participating in the effort to make students at an earlier age more quantitatively literate, the bad side might be that perhaps colleges are not convinced that it is an idea worth supporting with more time and money.

Several of the goals for quantitative literacy have been met, he believes. Part of the aim was to help ease the fear college students had about statistics courses they would be required to meet for their major. Earlier introduction to the subject allows them a greater chance to succeed. But another concern Dr. Scheaffer had was for high school students who would never go to universities. He felt that the elementary introduction of data analysis would eventually enhance their knowledge, producing people who would reason correctly with data and see its usefulness in their everyday life.

And while he is very excited about the results of these efforts, Dr. Scheaffer still has a vision for more. He is concerned, for example, that the workshops and papers only reach a limited number of teachers. Almost all the work has involved supplemental education and in-service with teachers who have already been in the field for awhile. To really meet the goals of quantitative literacy, Dr. Scheaffer believes that an effort should be made at colleges of education to train teachers there how to make the students more aware and less afraid of statistics.

Ms. Resnick agreed. "One of the problems is a funding problem," she explained. "And another is that teachers are trained in older methods. They are fine mathematics teachers, but they are not trained (in statistics) and are, thus, unprepared."

Another solution Dr. Scheaffer sees is the involvement of local industries. "Unless teachers and students in the schools see a payoff for the courses," he said, "the programs won't last. Part of the payoff is to see that it is actually used in the industry...something that will help them on the job.

Scheaffer added, "school districts are demanding more and more of their schools. They want to know what the payoff is. If a program in AP Statistics doesn't look like it is paying off for students, it won't last.

"So we need to encourage universities to look at their colleges of education and we need to encourage local industrial people to run courses and to keep this alive and expanding in schools. They need to see that it is something useful. The marketplace seems to have clout."

As a teacher himself, Dr. Scheaffer noted that active learning that involves students' own experiences was the very spirit that was tried in the AP program. That type of learning, he said, helps more than anything in teaching students and in motivating their attitudes.

He noted, as an aside, that some of his own students have come to him complaining that "you didn't teach me anything. I learned it all on my own." His teaching evaluations have even dipped as he gave more laboratory experiences. But his modesty and his great desire to help others are reflected in his response to those comments.

"I've given them the opportunity to learn and they learned it on their own," he said. "And that's fine with me."


Return to V4 N1 Contents
Return to Newsletter Home Page