Requiring Algebra II in high school gains momentum nationwide
By Peter Whoriskey, Sunday, April , 7:57 PM
With its intricate mysteries of quadratics, logarithms and imaginary numbers, Algebra II often provokes a lament from high-schoolers. What exactly does this have to do with real life?
The answer: maybe more than anyone could have guessed.
Of all of the classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success, according to research that has launched a growing national movement to require it of graduates. In recent years, 20 states and the District have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II, and its complexities are being demanded of more and more students.
The effort has been led by Achieve, a group organized by governors and business leaders and funded by corporations and their foundations, to improve the skills of the workforce. Although U.S. economic strength has been attributed in part to high levels of education, the workforce is lagging in the percentage of younger workers with college degrees, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
But exactly how to raise the education levels of the U.S. workforce is a matter of debate. And whether learning Algebra II causes students to fare better in life, or whether it is merely correlated with them doing better — because smart, motivated kids take Algebra II — isn’t clear. Meanwhile, some worry that Algebra II requirements are leading some young people to quit school.
You'd kind of hope that state governors and business titans like Bill Gates would form an Inner Party where, like O'Brien in 1984, they discuss policy more realistically than they do in public. But, is there any evidence for that? The education policy recommendations that Inner Party organizations like Achieve come up with sound like they were based in private on the same Oprahtastic thinking that is used to justify them in public.
Overall, this Algebra II requirement to graduate has been talked about endlessly, frequently officially approved, but its actual implementation is usually repeatedly postponed at the last moment as the reality of the Deserving Dumb becomes manifest down in the trenches, and thus the Outer Party (e.g., school teachers) pushes back. But that doesn't stop the Inner Party from continuing to issue pronunciamentos about how Come Next Year we will require Algebra II to graduate. The Inner Party never learns.
By the way, very little thought has been devoted to developing carrots for the huge numbers of high school students who aren't going to get into selective colleges. The top quarter or so of teens are motivated to pile up an impressive Permanent Record to get into a fancy college and the bottom quarter or so of teens drop out of high school. But the middle 50 percent, especially the second quartile up from the bottom (roughly, kids with IQs in the 90s), doesn't have much motivation other than fear of not graduating from high school and thus not "walking the stage." Their plans are generally, "Well, I think I'll take some classes at the community college, or maybe get a job." So, they don't face many incentives in high school to try harder than the minimum to keep from flunking out. They know employers like high school grads over dropouts, but the usual entry level employers don't care much whether you got a 2.75 gpa or a 2.25 gpa as long as you graduated it, so why sweat it?
One thing that could be done is to make clear to high school students that they can't begin taking community college classes for credit if they get stuck in remedial courses, so expose them to the JC's test that gets you past remedial math and into the real stuff. That might encourage some to study harder in high school and discourage others from bothering with community college, which seems like a win-win to me, but not to the Obama Administration, which wants everybody to take a year of education after high school.
I don't have many other practical suggestions, but it would make sense for the Inner Party to think hard about problems like this rather than about how to sprinkle magic Algebra II dust on everybody.