Thursday, April 14, 2011

Limiting Opportunities For Graduation

The governors and leaders in big business from the Achieve group have decided once again what is important for all students in our public schools to learn, and you the educator will soon receive your marching orders to implement it! According to a recent article by Peter Whoriskey in the Washington Post, the Achieve group, an influential education reform organization formed by business leaders and governors that focuses on high school graduation requirements is pushing for the requirement of Algebra II for high school graduation. According to the story, 20 states have already adopted this requirement.

Achieve is touting a study they commissioned that shows a strong correlation between Algebra II takers in high school and success in graduation from college. From this study they have concluded that if all high school students were required to take Algebra II they would have a much better chance of graduating from college and in getting a great jobs, and from that we can assume that our country would guarantee its position as the leader of the world in business and technology. Never mind what the teachers say about trying to force this medicine down the throats of every grumbling kid; the business leaders know best. These are the same business leaders by the way, who created sub-prime mortgages, mortgage backed securities, derivatives, credit default swaps etc. that ended in a meltdown of our financial system. Its ironic that the bankers and Wall Street firms were using the services of young math whizzes who were hired to create these complex scams for the enrichment of the few, who in turn were bailed out by the hard working people of this country who never use Algebra II in their daily lives!

If you read all of the Washington post article however, you find that the chief researcher, Anthony Carnevale, who produced this study for the Achieve group is highly skeptical that a causal relationship really exists between Algebra II and college success. He points out that it may simply be that smart, hard working students who are willing to tackle Algebra II are also smart and determined enough to succeed in college. . . . . Yet the so called business leaders who have never set foot in a classroom have decided that every student should be forced to take and pass this if they are to be granted a high school diploma. Soon I predict that Bill Gates and Arne Duncan then President Obama will insist that Algebra II be required in all states. You can be sure that our State Superintendent is already planning to add this requirement in Louisiana. Never mind that the graduates we are starting to produce have no clue how to build anything, how to hang a picture straight, how to use a square or a level, how to use power tools, or how to do basic math (because we are moving them on to Algebra) or how their bank plans to rip them off with excessive overdraft fees and traps in the credit card fine print.

These so called education reform leaders are still using the old discredited theory that requiring difficult subjects in school “trains the mind” to think better and solve many other problems in unrelated fields. It used to be that Latin and French was required of all educated people, but more recently it's difficult math courses that are never used again by the average person. Cognitive learning studies over the last 100 years have demonstrated that such “train the mind” theories are invalid. Training the mind to do Algebra II or Chess, or puzzles only trains the mind to do those very things. It does not transfer to other useful skills in life. That's why there are bums in Central Park in New York  who are experts at Chess but who have never held a productive job. I have a grandson who is a genius at playing video games on the internet but who dropped out of LSU because college was too boring and stressful. He had made an “A” in Algebra II and a 32 on his ACT, but never learned to work.

Arkansas was one of the first states to adopt the Algebra II “for all” requirement. Recently their students were tested after taking the Algebra II course and it was found that only 13 percent of the students had achieved any sort of proficiency in the subject. But instead of reassessing the wisdom of forcing all students to take this course, the state education officials said the teachers are just going to have to work harder to make the course work. What do the teachers think? According to the Washington Post article, some of them are worried about students dropping out without a high school diploma because of this requirement.

The personnel director at Northrup Grummond shipbuilding in New Orleans complained to the High School Redesign Commission that local kids were not prepared in high school to go to work at his facility because they did not know enough math. Yet when you check Northrup Grummond's employment of entry level workers, you would find that the company has a preference for hiring Hispanic/Mexican origin workers with no high school education at all and limited English skills. Why the discrepancy in their talk and their hiring practices? It turns out that Mexican origin workers have a habit of showing up for work on time every day and are willing to learn and do anything the foreman requires while many of the of the local origin kids are just plain unreliable no matter what their education. Its a sad fact that our young people failed on work ethics more than on math background. Do you think this could be fixed by requiring Algebra II?

Look, I was a Physics and Chemistry teacher. I love math and science. But I also know that every kid is different in his/her aptitudes and interests. Our country needs good plumbers, electricians, medical technicians, truck drivers, office workers, musicians and teachers just as much as it needs mathematicians. (Do you think our Superintendent or BESE members would pass an Algebra II test?) If we followed the example of Finland and tried to identify a student's aptitudes and interests and focused on developing the skills related to those interests instead of demanding the same of every student, our educational system may be more successful. It would also help if we did more to connect what we do in school to potential careers in many varied fields. Will it help our students and our state instead to flunk kids out of high school just because they have trouble with logarithms and quadratic equations?

1 comment:

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