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March 02, 2007 04:41 AM UTC

Graduation Requirements 101

  • by: Swimmingupstream

This week the Colorado Senate voted on Senate Bill 07-131,which would require that all students, while in high school, complete 4 years of math courses and 3 years of science courses as a condition of high school graduation.  Unfortunately, the bill passed.

It is the opinion of the sponsor, Rep. Penry(R) Grand Junction, that this bill will somehow address the shortage of engineering students and make students more competitive in a global economy.  Penry states that within five years, 90 percent of the engineers in the world will be in Asia, and seems believe that the solution to this problem is to mandate that all high school students take 4 years of math and 3 years of science in order to graduate.  Perhaps Rep. Penry doesn’t realize that reason we lost that leadership to China wasn’t because we weren’t good at manufacturing or producing a highly trained, efficient workforce.  We lost because Chinese workers were willing to work for $0.25 an hour. 

Due to their population, China now has more honor students than North America has students, and they are turning out highly trained engineers who are willing to work for $7,500 per year.  With more and more technical jobs being shipped overseas by our own American corporations, is it any surprise that America’s best and brightest are not flocking in droves to engineering schools?  It seems to me that if a person believes in the power of the free market to address supply and demand, they would automatically see the fallacy in thinking that the way to get more engineers is to force high school students to take more math and science.  Do we address the teaching shortage by mandating that all students take education course work?  No, we talk about increasing teacher wages, improving working conditions and providing incentives in tuition to lure them to the profession.  If our best and brightest young minds are deciding for themselves that a career in engineering is not in their best interest, no amount of high school mandates will force them into the career. 

I would predict the exact opposite effect.  Since Rep. Penry didn’t have the courage to demand increased money to fulfill these increased requirements, schools would probably end up having to increase class sizes to accommodate the increased number of students taking higher-level math and science classes.  Larger class sizes logically result in less personal attention and decreased achievement of many students. 

Furthermore, since schools are under increasing pressure to reduce their drop out rates, a logical result of this bill would be that high schools would reduce the vigor of their math and science course work, since it must be passable by 100% of the student population. 

Furthermore, as the much quoted education report “Tough Choices or Tough Times” states, our future graduates must be more creative and innovative in order to remain competitive, and this bill would actually narrow options of students and cut off multiple paths for their success.  This unfunded mandate would decrease the resources available for school districts to offer more rounded curriculums that include art, music and civics. 

Hats off to Senators Bacon(D), Boyd(D), Brophy(R), Fitz-Gerald(D), Isgar(D), Mitchell(R), Morse(D), Renfroe(R), Takis(D) and Windels(D) for voting “no” on SB131.  I’ll be watching this one in the House. 


17 thoughts on “Graduation Requirements 101

  1. As a social studies teacher also very well-educated in math and the sciences (I use to mathematically model social systems, using a combination of game theory and network analysis, as a grad student), I have mixed feelings on the clarion call to improve our math and science education. I actually do believe that mathematics and language skills deserve their privileged place ineducation, and do indeed need special emphasis. On the other hand, the mechanistic models of why that is so make my skin crawl. One of the U.S.’ best assets is the liberality of our education, the fact that students even through their first years of college are required to learn broadly rather than just train to be able to perform technical tasks. I believe that that is a very important basis for education, because generally well-trained minds, practiced in various forms of thought in variuos disciplines, can adapt to changing circumstances and meet new challenges better than minds simply trained to perform specific functions. It also is aesthetically more appealing to me, the idea that as human beings the value of developing our minds goes beyond our economic productivity, but also extends to our appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the universe (and world) to which we belong.

    I agree that China’s comparative advantage is certainly lots of cheap labor, and the same is true of India, though India also offers lots of cheap, technically skilled labor. I don’t agree with those who are fighting the last economic battle, over sectors of the economy that are slipping down the pyramid of information-intensivity. Our comparative advantage remains at the top of that pyramid, in technical creativity, in nobel-prize-winning innovation. We enjoy hefty returns on that comparative advantage. And, personally, I think the focus on national economic supremacy is largely a red herring: A prosperous world is good for us, as well as simply being a morally laudable humanist goal. And while wanting people everywhere to enjoy more wealth, one has to recognize the realities and paces of economic development: It would be a mistake to complain about cheap labor in poor countries on the basis of either unfairness to us, or unfairness to them. We are the ones benefiting from the more basic unfairness (we’re rich, they’re not), and they work cheaply because they need the money they are earning at those jobs. I’d like to see those wages rise as fast as possible, under economically viable conditions, but I don’t believe they can be artificially jacked up to our level without actually depriving them of those jobs altogether (e.g., by imposing higher import tariffs, raising the prices to us rather than the wages to them).

    Technicalities of how to do it effectively aside, though, I do agree with demanding three or four years of mathematics as a graduation requirement, though with lots of qualifications about how it should be implemented. Class size, by the way, can be restructed for efficiency: Large classes for delivery on basic instruction and individual practice interspersed with small classes for more one-on-one attention without wasting small-class time on general instruction. Even with the same amount of money to spend, there are a lot of things we can do to spend it more effeciently.

    1. I agree that all kids with IQs in the 115-120 range and above should be required to take English, writing, math and science courses to graduate.

      At the same time, education critics should come up with schemes for educating the 50% of the population that have IQs under 100. They’re not going to benefit from or endure college prep courses, but they would thrive in classes that teach them to do the kinds of things that they can do well.

      Read the three-part series by Charles Murray in last month’s Wall Street Journal.

      Measure school success in terms of the achievements of kids versus the expected performances of the kids, given their intellects, handicaps and limitations.

      It’s bad for the kids to throw them into one pool and grade them on a curve that is rigged for the gifted and against the less gifted. And it is bad for teachers, schools and taxpayers to demand more than they ever will produce, given the raw materials that nature and parents hand them.

      To me, the whole education debate is totally off track.

      1. I would say that ALL students should say should be expected to take English, writing, math and science courses to graduate.  My issue with SB131 is the number of years that are mandated for all kids. 

        I can just imagine the screaming from parents if they thought that their kids performance was somehow being labeled based on IQ.  However, there is a movement in Colorado to change the way we use the grades from standardized tests like CSAP.  Right now schools are ranked based on their aggregate CSAP scores, basically comparing this years group of third graders with last years group, or a group of different kids in a different part of town and making judgments about the quality of the school or teacher by that aggregate score.  The movement is to use longitudinal data, comparing little Johnnie’s score on the 4th grade CSAP to little Johnnie’s score last year on the 3rd grade CSAP and seeing how much he’s grown academically during the year. 

        I think this is a superior way to hold schools accountable because it looks at individual student growth over time, rather than large groups of children.  It also makes schools accountable for all children.  When you lump all grades together, it doesn’t show whether an individual student has plateaued or stagnated.  It also doesn’t give teachers or schools credit when children make excellent growth within the school year, but still haven’t hit proficiency on the test.  For example, if a child is two years behind on his reading at the beginning of fourth grade, and is only one year behind by the end of fourth grade, he has made two years growth in a years time. The way we are currently using CSAP scores, that child is considered a failure.  Using longitudinal data, he would be a success.

        If you’ve got a link to those Wall Street Journal articles, I’d love to read them.

      2. Yes, A.S., you’re right that a “one size fits all” approach is seriously flawed, and that we shouldn’t be shoving college prep down everyone’s throat. On the other hand, tracking students in their early teens (as European school systems used to do: I don’t know if they still do) places heavy costs on immature decisions. I think we need to strike a middle road between the two: Give students more opportunities to pursue technical or trade training, and even to forego some academic rigor, but not too much, so that if, as they mature, they decide they would rather take advantage of academic opportunities, the door hasn’t been closed to them. That’s also good for us collectively, since the better educated the population, the better prepared we are to dominate information-intensive fields (even globally, the better educated the human population, the better able we are to put human resources to their most productive uses). Clearly, though, there are some students who just are not, and will not be, prepared to fill intellectually challenging roles, for whatever reasons. If that could be predicted with absolute certainty, I would waive academic requirements accordingly. The fact that it can’t be predicted with much certainty (kids change a lot in their teens), makes it more complicated. I still advocate, as a general rule, stringent math and language requirements (science, less so. Lots of math education and a moderate amount of science education leave students well-prepared to follow any scientific path they want after high school). Exceptions can be made to such requirements, but should not be over-generalized.

        Charles Murray, by the way, has always had a tendency to exaggerate human inequalities. I don’t say that because his conclusions have been politically incorrect, but rather because his methodology has been generally flawed, at least in past works. I have no knowledge of the articles you cited. The overwhelming evidence, from a variety of academic disciplines, is that the human species is a single race with no statistically significant genetic differences between categories (that is, that genetic variation within a race or category is as great as genetic variation between races or categories), and that the range of innate differences among us is, for the most part, fairly narrow. Most humans are capable of being extremely intelligent, with the right education. That’s why it makes sense to emphasize highs standards for nearly all children.

    2. It seems that our two discussions on two educational threads are getting entangled (and I agree with your analysis on the other thread that it’s ALL a big tangled mess).  Over there you said something about making opportunities available for those who want them, but not trying to force them on people who aren’t motivated to take advantage of them.  (I may be misquoting you, because it’s difficult to page back and forth between the two threads, so I’m relying on memory.)

      I agree that we should make a rigorous math and science courses available for those who want them, and I’ll also concede (in advance) that even people who plan to enter the work force or attend technical college will require more technical knowledge than they did a decade ago.  However, I feel that my earlier analysis of what will likely happen if these higher standards become requirements for ALL high school graduates, especially, (but not only), because the higher standards don’t come with additional funds.

      You wrote, “I do agree with demanding three or four years of mathematics as a graduation requirement”.  Three years I could accept, it’s that fourth one that gives me the willies when I look at the unintended consequences of it.  I don’t have any problem with higher ed requiring that freshmen entering certain curricula having four years of math, but that’s different than saying that all high school graduates need to have four years of math, because not all will choose to go into those curricula. 

      You talked about Jeffco in your other thread.  It may be fairly easy for a district like Jeffco to add a few math classes to their course catalog, math classes designed specifically for people uninterested and untalented at math (although then we’re in danger of handing out those meaningless credits you talked about in your other thread) but a small district, like the one where my kids go to school would have great difficulty adding additional classes to their catalog and would instead probably reduce the rigor of the ones they already have to make them more passable by 100% of the student population.

      Oh, one other thing that chaps me.  The focus of this bill is to mandate “seat time” rather than discussing what a student should know when they graduate.  Many districts, (ours included) are making progress on changing their class formats to a “standard’s based” format, where students are able to progress through a subject matter at their own pace.  If a student is able to complete four years of course work in three years, they should be encouraged to.  SB 131 does not allow for this kind of innovative format.  It’s another example of bureaucratic meddling.  I don’t have a problem with the idea of accountability, but I strongly believe in local control and think that locally elected boards of education have a better feel on what their community values, needs and demands than the “one-size-fits-all” mindset of many serving in the Denver legislature.

      1. My comments about not throwing money at unmotivated students was not intended to say that we should lower expectations for unmotivated students: Just the opposite, in fact. Currently, special ed. programs include, at least informally, dramatically lowered expectations for students who aren’t doing well. The problem with that is that the majority of students who aren’t doing well are not doing well due to maturity issues rather than aptitude issues, and lowering expectations for them simply enables their immmature decisions. I have no grudge against such kids: I was one myself (though my natural aptitude allowed me to fly under the radar). I simply believe we have to impose more discipline on them (“discipline” meaning both positive and negative motivations, as in making “disciples” of them, rather than drop outs or skaters-by). So, as I said in a response to someone else a little higher on this thread, I do believe in generally stringent math and language skills requirements, with some flexibility for special circumstances. My reasons are outlined in that post.

        The issue of making classes available, and requiring them, is a tricky one. Kids are immature, and parents are often not involved enough. My earlier comments, on that other thread, referred to making special programs available to kids who are struggling (not somethiing you would want to require of everyone), but not reducing expectations in the process, and not wasting money on kids who were not really taking advantage of the special programs. That’s a different scenario. Here we’re talking about general expectations. The concept of “making available but not imposing” does not apply as directly in this context. Kids require guidance, expectations, and impositions. They are the last non-emancipated segment of our society, and, as I used to explain to my students, since we all know that we cannot emancipate toddlers, the question is not whether that condition is right or not, but rather where to draw the line. The older you get, in general, the older the age at which you would draw that line.

        And yes, I agree with you that what students learn should be the measure, and not “seat time.” I would also loosen up our system of levels and advancement, to better reflect that. We should strive to design the system so that kids move at the pace that is most effective for them individually. Obviously there are many challenges involving excessive demands with limited resources, but life is full of such challenges: The way to address them is first to identify goals independently of resource constraints, design programs to fulfil them, and then start the process again from scratch in the context of resource constraints. Use the former to inform (but not define) the latter, and, a when truly necessary, fight for more resources.

        The problem you cited about the difference between large and small school districts has a lot to do with the problem I cited in another thread about how we recruit and maintain teachers, though that may not be obvious. There are a lot of brilliant people in this country who would love nothing more than to live and teach in a small town in rural America: For certain kinds of people, who exist in large numbers, that would be the ideal life-style. The politics of education have simply removed too much of the appeal.

        1. I agree whole heartedly with your comment, “The way to address them (challenges) is first to identify goals independently of resource constraints, design programs to fulfill them, and then start the process again from scratch in the context of resource constraints. Use the former to inform (but not define) the latter, and, a when truly necessary, fight for more resources.”

          So often what happens is that instead of looking at problems with a clean perspective, all the state and federal legislatures do is add another band-aid mandate, which may seem to address a specific problem or issue, but not the program as a whole.  I’ve often used the analogy that the American educational system is sort of like the Model-T.  It was innovative and ahead of its time when it first rolled off the production line.  Every few years something is added to it to make it better or safer.  It now has air bags and safety glass, a multi-zone heating and cooling system, anti-lock brakes and all weather radial tires, but it’s still a Model-T under all these new contraptions.  Not only that, no one ever took off the starter crank when the electric ignition was added, a roll bar was welded on twenty five years ago and the driver is still required to wear those silly goggle and carry extra inner tubes in the back seat even though the days that these were important safety measures are long gone.  Not only that, but it’s dragging an oversized trailer along with it that contains a kitchen, a counseling office, a CPA and legal office and a physical therapy suite that the poor Model-T’s engine was never designed to pull and the whole system keeps overheating.  We keep trying to retrofit what we have, rather than shut down production and re-tool based on what we’ve learned from the last model. 

          I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that there are plenty of brilliant teachers who would love to work for a pittance in rural America, but I’ve come to respect the way you think enough to believe that you have some qualifiers to that statement that I might agree with if I knew what they were. 

          1. And you’re exacly right about american education being an outdated model laden with superficial innovations that are still being hauled by the same tirel ol’ engine. In economics, that’s called “path dependence,” the tendency to retain anachronistic technologies and institutions due to the costs of installing revamping through-and-through (and is also part of the explanation for Japan’s and West Germany’s rapid industrial growth after WWII: The old physical plant had been demolished, solving those path dependency problems for them. Of course, the Marshal Plan certainly helped off-set the costs of replacing the destroyed physical infrastructure).

            As for my seemingly far-fetched claims about the supply of brilliant people who would be willing to teach in rural schools in a vastly different political climate, my justification goes as follows: There is a large never-placed (as opposed to “displaced”) population of itinerant, idealistic intellectuals who pursued some impossible dream or another rather than taking a more profitable road, who shot too high or were too inpractical, and who simply want to ponder life’s wonders, comfortably and, often, collectively, in some quiet place, engaging in something that celebrates the human mind in some way or another. If education were less of a factory system, were less of a mine-field, were more respectful of wonder and passionate contemplation, then education, in spite of the challenges of working with adolescent priorities, would be a very satisfactory home for them. Often, by the time the “path-less-traveled” arrives at the “vacant-lot-with-nowhere-to-go,” it’s too late, or one doesn’t have the wear-withall, to go down the more traditional path they might have gone down in their youth if they had been a bit more practical (finishing the Ph.D., or going to law school, or getting into journalism, or whatever). Not only is this scenario somewhat autobiographical, which, as “an N of 1,” wouldn’t really mean much, but it’s also based on what I’ve seen in years of Bohemian drifting: People who have gone nowhere, but have done so very thoughtfully, and have great, well-developed minds that they would love to share in a meaningful way. There’s a lot of us out there, and what I discovered, to my amazement, is that we aren’t what school district administrators are looking for. It’s a waste all the way around.

  2. normally presupposes the professor/TA mechanism to accomplish – not something available to public schools. Also, the educational paradigm that this is predicated upon is one in which every student is capable of accomplishing four years of math – not necessarily so. Again, the crux here is that the bill is pushing for a goal that is in direct contradiction with such things as NCLB. Also, everyone talks about “school choice” – isn’t this a reduction in school choice?

    1. You’ve touched on something that drives me crazy about many of our legislators, especially the Republicans.  They will advocate for school choice, stating that competition is the cure to what ails our educational system and then turn around and propose legislation to mandate that all schools be exactly the same.  They claim to believe in free markets and limited government, but don’t seem to feel that applies to them telling school districts what to do.  I must ask, what would Nelson Rockefeller do?

    2. Actually, there are two ways to simulate the professor/TA structure of universities, one cheaper and more productive than the other. The first is to utilize paraprofessionals more, who are college graduates without teaching licenses who can do a lot of the one-on-one  more cheaply than teachers. Better yet, have high-performing upper-classman perform more of that role, to the advantage of the students they assist and to their own as well.

      “School choice” usually refers to the choice of which school to attend, not choices within a school. The first has to do with creating market-like pressures on schools to perform (and giving parents and kids market-like “shopping” options). That’s a completely different issue than choices within a school. One can argue either side of the latter issue, but it has no connection to what is normally meant by “school choice.”

    3. Actually, there are two ways to simulate the professor/TA structure of universities, one cheaper and more productive than the other. The first is to utilize paraprofessionals more, who are college graduates without teaching licenses who can do a lot of the one-on-one  more cheaply than teachers. Better yet, have high-performing upper-classman perform more of that role, to the advantage of the students they assist and to their own as well.

      “School choice” usually refers to the choice of which school to attend, not choices within a school. The first has to do with creating market-like pressures on schools to perform (and giving parents and kids market-like “shopping” options). That’s a completely different issue than choices within a school. One can argue either side of the latter issue, but it has no connection to what is normally meant by “school choice.”

  3. but I’m assuming that since Penry is in the minority party, the majority Dems helped to carry it forward. They must have seen some value in it. 

    1. With some things, you can usually predict how Republicans or Democrats are going to vote, but with education topics, it doesn’t seem to be so predictable, especially when it comes to the state legislature micro-managing school districts and imposing unfunded mandates.  It’s interesting how the idea of local school districts being controlled by locally elected boards of education is pooh-poohed in our State Capital, even though it is part of our State Constitution.  All this uproar about “fixing” Amendment 41, which some say can’t be touched by the legislature because it is a Constitutional Amendment, but no such uproar about usurping power from boards of education to make decisions on behalf of the communities the represent.

      1. There is no absolute superiority of local decision making over more remote decision making. There are a complex set of plusses and minuses in both directions. For instance, in order to ratify the U.S. constitution, it was necessary to include a bill of rights to guarantee the states the power to protect their citizens wouldn’t from a remote federal government. After the civil war, however, it became apparent that the more local government (southern state governments, in this case) could be the oppressors (vis-a-vis African Americans), and the more remote government their champion. That is precisely the moral logic we us in our many non-defensive overseas adventures: We are always, propogantistically speaking, saving oppressed populations from their own governments. I personally do not absolutely favor more local control, nor more remote (state, national, global, whatever), in any blanket way. Local school boards are sometimes horrible little hubs of organized ignorance, and I don’t like having to bear the costs on the rest of us of the ignorant citizens they are producing. The balance between local and remore authority, in whatever sphere (national v. international, state v. family, federal v. state, community v. family, and so on) involves a complex set of considerations, none of which should be ignored. One, and only one, of those considerations is the value of leaving people to pursue their own lives as they see fit. Few of us honestly (i.e., non-hypocritically) believe that that value is absolute and inviolable: How many people believe businesses should have the right to discriminate on the basis of the owner’s racist prejudices, or that parents should have the right to physically abuse their children (as was the case until little more than 100 years ago)? Obviously, we generally believe in balancing values defined more globally with values exercised more locally, especially as our moral sensibilities are won over by those more local values (and the reverse is true as well: We reject remote impositions when they are not supported by values that have become a part of our own value systems). I am not arguing against local autonomy, per se, but rather in favor of not using local autonomy as a decisive argument in and of itself. Convince me that the local authorities are doing a better job, serving their constituents’ interests, as well as the general interests of the larger polities to which those localities belong, and then I will fight hard for local autonomy on those particular issues.

        On a vaguely related tangent, I have sometimes wondered if it would not be an improvement in international and local politics if governments were hired by, as well as elected by, the citizens of individual countries. Governments anywhere in the world could bid on contracts to perform governmental services for populations anywhere in the world, and thus, whenever any population felt that there was a foreign government that could better serve their interests than their own national government, they could hire that foreign government to do so. Obviously, there are a truck-load of design issues involved, but probably none that are insurmountable. The biggest obstacle would probably be nationalism itself, which is not likely to persist indefinately into the future in any case.

        1. I’ll agree “There is no absolute superiority of local decision making over more remote decision making.”  And I’m sure that you are correct in your assertion that “Local school boards are sometimes horrible little hubs of organized ignorance”.  However, as an elected member of a local board of education I have my own viewpoint, and having networked and with members of other boards of education from around the state, I feel confident in asserting that they are more and more, an exception rather than the rule.  I have also met a number of legislators who I think qualify as one-man (or woman) marching-horrible-little-hubs-of-organized-ignorance.

          So my perspective is something like this, and let’s simplify matters somewhat and give every elected official the benefit of the doubt that regardless of their background or qualifications, they ran for their office because they wanted to serve their community and make it better, although they might disagree as to what “better” means and how to accomplish it.

          I was elected to a five-person board along with two other brand new board members.  We spent at least the first two years of our term on a tremendous learning curve, learning district players and operations, learning state and national law, studying “best practices” from other parts of the state, country or planet, learning the complexities of our state financial tangle and so forth.  Along the way, we’ve voted on stuff and argued over stuff but for the most part whatever changes we’ve made have been pretty minimal: upgrading the headlights on the Model-T and converting a few test vehicles to bio-diesel, to use the analogy I used above.  Now, after more than three years, I think we know enough to make some pretty innovative and system wide changes to the way our entire district operates.  Plus, we’ve earned the trust of the community that elected us and the administrative team and staff that work for us by working hard, listening hard and not making a bunch of stupid decisions, based on our ignorance, that they have to live with and fix. 

          Compare that with the way our state legislature works.  They get elected in November and, regardless of whether they are freshmen or more seasoned representatives, they have to have the majority of their 5 bills in place before the session starts in January and voted into law by May.  There is no way on earth that they can possibly know enough to make thoughtful, informed decisions on the wide range of topics that they are expected to vote on.  The bills they propose are usually riddled with problems and unintended consequences or are so watered down and weak that you have to ask, “what’s the point?”

          Term limits mean that at both the state and local level, you are dealing with people who are in a decision making position who don’t really know what the heck they are doing.  But at least local boards of education are NOT imposing those decisions on EVERY school district in the state. 

          To switch metaphors, we as a BOE have spent the past two or three years rearranging the deck chairs and updating the dГ©cor of the state rooms and are now ready to grab hold of the wheel and steer the boat in a new direction.  We’re finding that the wheel is locked in place by legislative chains, some of which are decades old and some that were added yesterday.  It’s very frustrating. 

          1. You make a lot of good points, and I can certainly understand your frustration! And you’re absolutely right that one of the things that tends to favor more local over more remote is local’s ability to invest time and energy focused on issues specifically relevant to them, and to their jurisdiction (both geographically and in terms of subject matter). There really is no perfect fix, no way to avoid all possible pit-falls at all possible levels. Justified frustration will be a major factor in the lives of all people of good will (and all people of ill-will as well, for that matter) for as long as humans are humans. Thanks for the great conversation.

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