The deadline for registering for the First MathNotations Math Contest on Tue Feb 3rd is drawing to a close but you still have an opportunity to register! Look here for details and email me if you want a team of your students to participate!
As I've reported for some time (look here), here in NJ the Commissioner of Education has been promoting higher standards and more ambitious graduation requirements, choosing Algebra 2 as the cornerstone. I've had misgivings about this as a requirement for all students for several reasons although I'm a strong supporter of the American Diploma Project's Algebra 2 benchmarks and the End of Course Test for all students who choose to take the course because of their educational goals.
A recent article (1-27-09) on the website pressofAtlanticCity.com gives an excellent account of the debate raging over this topic at the State Legislative level. I will reprint a good portion of the article and then reprint the comment I posted on the site. I strongly encourage my readers to read the entire article and all of the comments posted thus far. It is a microcosm of much of the current debate in math education. Several of the commenters provided a commonsense view of these issues and gave me food for thought.
Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and a panel of education and business professionals appeared Monday before the Assembly Edu-cation Committee to discuss the Department of Education's High School Reform project.
The requirement that all students take algebra II has been controversial, and on Monday it dominated a discussion that attempted to identify just what students need to know to succeed and compete in the 21st century.
Davy insisted the algebra II requirement would not be so rigorous that it would lead to high rates of failure or students dropping out.
She said it would be a continuation of algebra I, but schools could offer more rigorous honors courses to those who would need them.
But Rutgers math professor Joseph Rosenstein, of the New Jersey Math and Science Coalition, wondered if the proposed courses might then get so watered down they would no longer really be algebra II.
"Most of our students don't need algebra II," said Rosenstein, who supports requiring more practical applied math courses.
Rosenstein said if courses were tailored just to meet state requirements, students who should take a true algebra II course might not get the higher level of work they need.
The algebra II issue has also frustrated vocational high school officials, who worry that too many requirements will make it impossible for students to complete programs in high school.
"These are students who benefit from applied learning," said Thomas Bistocchi, superintendent of the Union County Vocational School, adding that their goal is to have students graduate as industry-credentialed professionals. "We just want students who want to become plumbers have the time to do it," he said.
Davy said there will be flexibility in how the coursework is offered, so that it could be integrated into vocational coursework, but opponents wonder if that could be done and still teach what would be tested.
Stan Karp, of the Education Law Center, said reform is needed, but the state needs better education, not just more requirements. He said teachers and students will need better preparation to meet the new requirements.
"Less than half of the high schools now require those courses," he said. "What is it going to take to get there?"
Asked about the cost of reforms, Davy said the state already spends the most of any state and should not need more money, just a better reallocation of existing funds.
Business representatives said they just need students who can perform modern jobs.
Dennis Bone, president of Verizon, said students need the foundation of skills to be able to adapt to new and changing technology.
"We are being revolutionized by technology," he said. "Billboards now are electronic, run by someone sitting at a computer, not climbing a ladder."
"So what does algebra II have to do with that?" Education Committee Chairman Joseph Cryan, D-Union, asked.
Dana Egresky, of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said that if taking algebra II can help a carpenter solve more problems on the job, then that is the carpenter who would get the job.
Assemblyman Joseph Malone, R-Ocean, Monmouth, Burlington, suggested asking professionals ranging from carpenters to doctors how they actually use algebra skills.
"We need to do a better job at finding out what people actually need to know, not what we think they should know," he said.
Here was my comment:
I thoroughly agree with Prof. Rosenstein that not all students will need the skills/concepts of a more advanced algebra class. While I admire Commissioner Davy's desire to significantly raise the bar for NJ students there are some underlying issues that must be addressed first. How many of you believe that the majority of NJ students have demonstrated proficiency in the foundational arithmetic and prealgebra skills needed to be successful in a legitimate Algebra 1 course, never mind Algebra 2? As a retired math supervisor, believe me, that question was rhetorical!
However, we must clearly distinguish between the issue of a graduation requirement for all and the need for consistent, clearly stated and rigorous standards for a 2nd year Algebra course. Despite opinions to the contrary, I believe the latter is necessary for most college-intending students. The American Diploma Project (NJ is a member of this consortium) has developed precisely those kinds of world-class standards and the result is the new End of Course Test in Algebra 2. This test, which many NJ students have already taken, requires a deeper conceptual understanding of topics such as mathematical modeling which separates the Algebra 2 of the 21st century from the Algebra 2 course many of us remember. And, yes, there are still some mechanical skills which students need to master away from the calculator!
I strongly advocate that NJ adopt these higher standards for those students who will go on to take more advanced math courses. Clearly, it isn't for everyone and therefore we should reexamine it as a grad requirement for all.
I felt it was important to make a clear distinction between Algebra 2 as a high school graduation requirement and the need for a high-quality curriculum which should be uniform for all students who need to take the course. Many commenter ranted about the evils of testing, the "who really needs algebra anyway" argument, allowing politicians to make educational decisions they know little about (imagine acknowledging that it should be left to math education professionals!) , the skills needed for the 21st century, etc. Fascinating stuff...
Is this same discussion happening in your district or state? Your thoughts are important to me. Do you take strong exception to my comments? Do you agree with the NJ Commissioner of Education or has she gone too far? What do you say to the many adults who argue that, in their occupation, they haven't ever used any of the 'stuff 'they learned in Algebra 2?