Will we ever learn?

Will We Ever Learn? ask Robert Lerman of the Urban Institue and Arnold Packer of SCANS in Education Week. That is, will we ever learn to stop forcing a one-size-fits-all college-prep curriculum on all students.

Many high schools require Algebra 2, they write, but “Northeastern University sociologist Michael Handel has found that only 9 percent of people in the workforce ever use this knowledge, and that fewer than 20 percent of managerial, professional, or technical workers report using any Algebra 2 material.”

Part of the reason high schools fail so many kids is that educators can’t get free of the notion that all students—regardless of their career aspirations—need the same basic preparation. States are piling on academic courses, removing the arts, and downplaying career and technical education to make way for a double portion of math. Meanwhile, career-focused programs, such as Wisconsin’s youth apprenticeships and well-designed career academies, are engaging students and raising their post-high-school earnings, especially among hard-to-reach, at-risk male students.

Research shows what employers want:

Successful workers communicate effectively, orally and in writing, and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savvy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simple math to real-world problems such as those concerning financial or health literacy. Employers never mention polynomial factoring . . .

The proposed common core standards ignore career readiness in favor of college-prep, they write. “We need rigorous but basic academics, homing in on skills that will be used, and not short-shrifting the ‘soft skill’ behaviors that lead to success in college and careers.”

I’m not sure how schools could get rigorous about “soft skill” behaviors. But I see very little in most high schools to engage career-minded students.

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  1. Tom Linehan says:

    Maybe people can get away without the math. But that does not mean they are better off.

    Unit pricing in stores is essentially an equation. Most people look at the price because they do not know enough math to know the significance of the unit price.

    I wanted an elliptical archway in my house. The contractor did not know how to create the shape. So I did on a piece of plywood.

    Statistics is basically applied algebra II. If more people knew more algebra, perhaps most media would not have to be at a junior high level.

    Finally many of the jobs that we have to import people to do or worse yet to outsource to overseas companies require math. We are essentially exporting high paying jobs to people in other countries because too many of our kids do not know math.

    Knowing math and not using it on a regular basis does not harm. On the other hand I know of many people who put a lid on their lives by not knowing math. The school administrator who could not get an advanced degree because he could not do the statistics is one example. When I was in real estate few people could calculate the square footage of an irregular shape floor. And the list is endless.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    Look at who sets education policy in DC. They are all Ivy league, prep schools who would be seen as failures as parents if their children attend a public university.

    Do you really think that people who see Northwestern or Duke as safety schools for the children as capable of understanding public school issues?

  3. Requiring more from college bound HS students isn’t because we think every student will need Algebra II, its to give them the option in their future to decide careers for themselves. Educators already act as gatekeepers, but it would be worse so if we helped them choose a career at 8th or 9th grade, picked schedules based only on that, and watched them be unable to change their mind about their own future later down the road because we decided that didn’t need those pieces of prerequisite knowledge.

    I firmly believe in educating all college bound students to a consistent standard across all subjects. This allows them options if they decide to change their major in college, and also gives all students a common shared knowledge base.

  4. GoogleMaster says:

    Maybe Robert Lerman is right. Let’s teach in high school only what the majority of the students will need in their careers.

    Let’s get rid of literature. No one uses that.
    Let’s get rid of history. No one uses that, either.
    And biology, chemistry, physics.
    Of geography, we could keep the map-reading lesson, but nowadays your GPS will tell you where to go, and no one really needs to know which country is Iraq and which one is Iran, anyway.

    Hey, it’s true! All I need to know I learned in kindergarten!

    Oh, I forgot one.

    Foreign language — In my area, conversational Spanish would be helpful, especially in the type of jobs you can get with no math, science, literature, or history education, so you can work out splitting up your tips with the bus boy.

  5. GoogleMaster says:

    I’m guessing Lerner has never heard the phrase “classical education” and sees no benefit to an educated populace.

  6. Paul and GoogleMaster, Lerner is not recommending abandoning classical education. He’s recommending that some proportion of students (he doesn’t say how many) who are not ready for or interested in the entire college prep curriculum, be provided with other, challenging, worthwhile options. Forcing everyone to take Algebra 2 (and I agree that more occupations than 9% do use it to some extent, and students don’t necessarily know in 10th grade what they want to do) is going to either drive our dropout rate higher, or water down Algebra 2 until it is really something else. My contractor brother does know most of Algebra 2. But he learned it in apprenticeship training and on the job, having meentally checked out of high school by 10th grade because he found it so boring.

  7. The problem of a one size fits all is nothing new in education (or in anything else). That being said, many students come into high school with their math skills woefully inadaquate for the work they (have to or might want) to do (take your pick here).

    The overuse of electronic calculators (I was in high school when the first scientific calculators which cost under $200, and can be bought for about $20 today) came out in the late 1970’s, and after a period of time, students don’t know how to perform basic math calculations (esp. multiplication and division, percentages and fractions), this is elementary school math folks (or at least it used to be).

    I’d love to see students have a good enough grasp of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, and fractions (this will solve about 90% of all the problems one might encounter in most jobs).

    I don’t use advanced math in my job, but math teaches critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving skills (which are three things that many employers say job interviewees lack), along with writing and communication skills.

    An example from my recent past, I took a course in bioinformatics as a favor to some people in industry to see how well students were being prepared (the course covered some basic statistics – mean, mode, variance, std. deviation, and probability).

    When the time for the exam came up, some 25 students took the exam (no calculators), the average score on the exam was 69 (I got a 93), and all of the formulas were on the professors web site and if you knew how to do this math using pencil and paper, the test was a breeze.

    The students who did the best on the exam were three of us who were over the age of 40, and 2 engineering majors. The rest of the students (mostly under 25) were just stunned over the scores (and we’re talking high school math skills here folks).

    The issue of ‘subject’ phobia is one that people will have to face up to (now and in the future) or we will be left behind.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Problem with two years of Algebra is the same as with two years of foreign language; some kids won’t get it and some kids won’t bother to try. You have to flunk them. Can’t flunk that many people or keep them from graduating. So you have to dumb down the class. Result, at best, lots of kids have Algebra II on their record but don’t know jack.

    The soft skills are hard to teach rigorously, but extra-curricular activities teach them quite well, which is by having the other kids judge you without having to worry about school boards or annoyed parents or any such nonsense.
    I once talked to the band director who was getting ready for the musical how he liked his new gig. Loved the work ethic. “Even the techies [lot of goth there] show up like this little army, know everything and ready to go.”

    I know, I know. “What about the kids who don’t/won’t/can’t/are too damn’ lazy? Huh? Huh? What about them?”
    Lead a horse to water….

  9. He’s recommending that some proportion of students (he doesn’t say how many) who are not ready for or interested in the entire college prep curriculum, be provided with other, challenging, worthwhile options.

    Well, yeah. That’s what we used to do. The problem is, the races of students who select or are ready for college bound material are disproportionately white and Asian, while the races of students who want “career options” are disproportionately black and Hispanic.

    Which is why we declared that cognitive ability and interest had nothing to do with it–everyone takes college prep. And here we are.

  10. You hear arguments like this all the time and they crack me up. If you never learned Algebra II or calculus or trig or whatever, then it’s 100% certain you will never “need” to use it in your job.

    You will always find some workaround or kludge to fix it. I’ve seen programmers invent their own made-up statistical solutions to problems, for example, because they themselves had never heard of standard deviation before.

    Conversely, someone who understands trig, for example, will estimate the height of the tree in their front yard by combining the length of the shadow with the angle of the sun. Someone without those tools would not “need” them because they would use, say, similar triangles or an outright guess.

    You can’t possibly generalize about the usefulness of math in everyday life if you don’t know any math to use in everyday life. By doing so, you expose your own lack of exposure to another mathematic discipline: logic.

  11. Cal is right, unfortunately. The kids who would have graduated from HS in the 50s or 60s with real vocational skills now have to pay for that training after HS. It seems likely that those who drifted through HS because they were uninterested in or unable to do college prep work are less likely to have the grades to get into post-HS programs and less likely to qualify for financial aid. I was recently told by graduates that a 10-month medical assistant (MA) program cost $10k and a cosmetology program about the same. I’ve been told that auto mechanics is more.

  12. Result, at best, lots of kids have Algebra II on their record but don’t know jack.

    Lots of people in community college are in courses called Algebra II, but aren’t learning jack either. They are all dumbed-down.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    For most people, the forefinger and middle finger can diverge by about 45 degrees. For measuring height or distance…there’s your protractor.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose. But it occurs to me that the students will be moving onward and upward where, say, Algebra III, although dumbed down is beginning, by mere accumulation, to amount to something.

  15. prometheus says:

    All well and good that various academic disciplines are offered in high school – that should continue. What should not continue is that they be required for graduation. The reality is, academics is not for everyone, and requiring it of everyone is just cruel.

    I would make the same argument for literature, math, science, or whatever other topic one might care to study. One could conceivably approach much of that material from a practical point of view rather than an academic point of view. It would work similarly to music appreciation courses and music theory courses. Everyone takes it, but the depth of study is different, in order to better match individual abilities.

  16. If we don’t ‘require’ certain classes for graduation, the students (the majority of them) won’t take them (it’s called the path of least resistance). The other issue is that you want to graduate students with vocational skills, but many vocations (auto tech, HVAC, electrician, plumber, radiological tech, etc) all require at least mastery of algebra or higher (and the principles regarding many of the technologies has changed within the last 25-30 years).

    A friend of mine who is a auto body and shop manager told me he can get anyone to replace parts, but it takes some intellect to really troubleshoot a difficult problem and repair it (they don’t give ASE certification to just anyone), and if you don’t know your material, you fail (it’s not like high school where they pass you along just for making an effort).

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    Yeah. The cruel reality is that some people just don’t have the horses and there’s less and less for them to do.
    The other is that some kids are–in the words of a professional development speaker at my wife’s high school–voluntary non-learners, irrespective of their horsepower.
    If people in the first class have really, really serious motivation, they might get someplace. And in the second class, maybe they’ll have a change of direction and get some place.
    But neither are going to happen before HS graduation.


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