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Want To Keep American Jobs and Avert Class Division? Try High School Trig

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The difference in high school course-taking between a future engineer and an auto-trade journeyman is ... well, there is no difference.

The results of the newly piloted regents' math exam in New York state did not bode well for students there: More than 80 percent of high schoolers in the sample failed the test, which included items in algebra, geometry, statistics, and trigonometry. Similarly lackluster performances on Michigan's rigorous new assessments prompted many parents in that state to opt out rather than risk tarnishing their children's academic records. Widespread hand-wringing over these early returns is bound to accelerate as more states attempt to demand more for a high school diploma, particularly in the areas of math and science. But before the public shoots the messenger and returns to the old, familiar days of minimum competency, it should first consider what the auto industry says about workplace readiness for today's young people.

The General Motors Corp. distributes a two-part job-recruitment brochure to high schools in areas where it has plants. Each section--one for "engineering," the other for "skilled trades"--describes various industry-related occupations and recommends courses that will help students prepare for each of them.

According to GM, high school students thinking about an engineering career would do well to take advanced mathematics, complete a science sequence through physics, and hone their computer skills. Students who want to step into skilled-trade apprenticeships should consider: algebra, geometry, and physics for future carpenters and pipefitters; additional units in chemistry and trigonometry for aspiring electricians, machinists, model makers, and tool and die makers; and courses to develop communication and computer skills across the board. The difference in high school course-taking between a future engineer and an auto-trade journeyman is ... well, there is no difference.

General Motors has zeroed in on an economic phenomenon that many states are attempting to respond to: Jobs in the future will require a much stronger academic foundation than previously thought viable for everyone. Yet the system's traditionally shortsighted view of what all students are capable of learning has driven an economic wedge through the country based on who gets an education and who doesn't. And poor and minority youths are typically given short shrift when it comes to deciding who gets to cross that dividing line.

Led by the high-tech field, industry is creating plenty of jobs that pay well, and not just for professionals. Workers making semiconductors earned an average of $54,000 in 1996, and a factory job in the auto industry can pay up to $70,000 with overtime. But these jobs are available only to those with a high level of knowledge and skills, which often includes knowledge of such "elite" subjects as trigonometry and physics. For those young people without it? As one industry representative recently explained, "We don't have unskilled jobs on the factory floor anymore." The auto makers are like other manufacturing and service fields in this regard. While opportunities are expanding for young people with a solid educational background, they are rapidly drying up for those without it. Unable to fill high-skilled jobs domestically, more and more companies will ship the work overseas.

The vast majority of states are ambiguous about where to draw the line for high school achievement.

Nationally, the education system has not been totally oblivious to the economic need to raise the level of student attainment. The movement to establish academic standards is the latest manifestation of an effort that began in the 1980s to raise graduation requirements. The new standards in most states are high, and at least pay lip service to applying to all students. But the vast majority of states are ambiguous about where to draw the line for high school achievement. The few states that explicitly link standards to a diploma have tended to take a minimalist view--that is, until now.

What will happen if states back down from demanding high performance from all students? Lacking the force of state-mandated accountability, districts will be left pretty much to do what they have always done: educate the few and allow the rest to muddle through high school, minimally challenged and minimally prepared for adult life. But the penalty today for anything less than college-prep-level achievement can be severe. The poorly prepared young people face a likely future of menial work with low wages when they find jobs at all. The fact that this price will be paid most often by the children of poor and minority families raises the ugly specter of a de facto caste system in the land of opportunity.

In 1994, a survey of high school seniors showed that two-thirds or more had taken one year of algebra and geometry, and almost everyone had had a year of biology. As the math and science become more sophisticated, however, overall enrollments drop and gaps between racial groups widen. Advanced algebra was taken by 62 percent of the white seniors, but by only 51 percent of the Latinos and 44 percent of the African-American students. Enrollments in trigonometry fell off dramatically: 17 percent overall, 14 percent of the African-Americans, and a scant 10 percent of Latino seniors. And while one in four seniors had taken physics, fewer than one in seven African-American or Latino students had.

Course enrollments in high school are also closely related to household income. In another study, seniors were asked to report the type of high school program that they had participated in. The survey showed that families whose income fell in the middle two quartiles had 62 percent of their seniors in academic or college-preparatory programs. Of the upper-quartile students, a full 78 percent were enrolled in the college-prep track. Yet only 45 percent of students who come from the bottom income quartile had participated in an academic program. The rest found themselves in general or vocational courses. Whatever other merits such programs may have (though other data show those merits are doubtful), they do not prepare students in the high-level math and science that both industry and higher education need.

We need an educational policy with some muscle, one that won't buckle in the face of outdated beliefs about which students can learn.

There is no educational justification for keeping so many young people out of higher-level courses. Contrary to widespread belief, expanding these opportunities does not result in more student failure. In fact, when districts have mandated high-level courses for all students, the passing rates have tended to remain constant or, in some cases, improved. For example, a few years ago, the El Paso, Texas, school district raised the mathematics requirements for its student population of mostly poor and Latino youngsters. Three years later, participation in algebra had close to doubled, and the passing rate had increased from 52 percent of all algebra students to 60 percent. The net gain was 2,599 more students passing algebra by 9th grade than before the new requirements went into effect. Similar results were reported in New York City after then-Chancellor Ramon Cortines mandated the rigorous regents' courses for all 9th graders. Just one year after the decision, the number of African-American 14-year-olds passing regents' science doubled, and the number of successful Latinos tripled.

The poor showing on the piloted regents' test statewide should not be taken as a sign that New York--or any--students are incapable of performing well on complex, high-level math problems. Rather, the results should raise a red flag about what is not being taught in the schools. State officials have already pointed out that test items related to geometry, statistics, and trigonometry go beyond what most test-takers had studied in school. In addition, math instruction in New York, as across the country, does not typically prepare students to handle open-ended problems like those on the new regents' exam. Yet the ability to manage such ambiguity in math as well as other subjects is precisely what the real world demands.

States like New York are attempting to give GM and other industries what they are asking for. The economy needs academically prepared workers; our young people need jobs. The debate over whether or not all kids can learn high-level material is old and irrelevant. All kids must acquire this knowledge if they are to be employable in the very near future. Yet to date, our school districts have been taking baby steps when leaps are called for. And higher education continues to be left off the hook.

Nationwide, we need an educational policy with some muscle, one that won't buckle in the face of outdated beliefs about which students can learn. It is no longer justifiable to blame students for academic failure without first questioning the classroom practice that is supposed to teach them. Requiring all students to master high-level subject matter is a move in the right direction. But we need to do more than even that. We need to provide supports and resources to make sure all young people are able and qualified for the high-skilled jobs of the future, whether journeyman or engineer.

And we can begin this whole process with a course in trig.


Patte Barth is a senior associate at the Education Trust in Washington.

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Web Resources
  • Read "Mathematics Equals Opportunity," from the U.S. Department of Education. This October 1997 document looks at the importance of mathematics for college and work.
  • The College Board has posted a detailed description of its Equity 2000 initiative, which focuses on math enrollment for all students, on its Web site.
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