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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Light Snow
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To hell with algebra!
More high school math and science might not fix anything
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Dennis Redovich is a former high school math teacher with a master's degree in chemistry, but he opposes a new push by Wisconsin lawmakers to increase high school math and science requirements.

'Nobody needs to know algebra and all this baloney that I used to teach,' says Redovich, 74, who's also the former director of research, planning and development of Milwaukee Area Technical College. 'No more than 5% of all jobs in the U.S. require math or science skills.'

The real effect of more mandated math and science courses, says Redovich, is the 'destruction of students' who may be deterred from learning other ' and, in his mind, more important ' things and who may drop out of school altogether.

'I'm a big academic person myself, but so what if someone knows calculus and algebra?' says Redovich, whose intriguing analyses of job and education data can be found at jobseducationwis.org.

Important people disagree with Redovich, including Gov. Jim Doyle and key Democratic and Republican legislators, who've proposed requiring an extra year of math and science courses to earn a high school diploma, starting in 2011.

'Math and science are essential ingredients to prepare students academically,' Doyle said in a statement announcing his proposal. More coursework is needed, he argues, 'to open new doors of possibility, and to attract and prepare students in science, technology and engineering ' fields that are vital to entrepreneurship, innovation, and to the creation of good jobs in Wisconsin.'

The new requirements could become law this summer as part of Doyle's budget, or they could be cut from the budget and taken up by the Assembly and Senate as a separate piece of legislation.

'I'm hearing a lot from employers and tech schools that kids aren't necessarily coming out of high school with basic skills either for the workforce or for college,' says state Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon), chair of the Assembly's education committee. Davis, who's authored a bill calling for three years of math and science, says the goal 'is not to make everyone take calculus, but to have kids graduate with the basics.'

Wisconsin's proposal follows in the steps of 40 other states that have revised math standards upward since 2000, according to a recent study. Neighboring Illinois and Michigan recently hiked requirements to three years; Minnesota now requires four.

Why the changes? The declining math and science performance of American students compared to foreign students, waning student interest in taking those math and science classes, and complaints about curriculum rigor are the reasons cited for the toughened graduation requirements.

Still, you have to wonder: How does adding another year of science and math address any of that? Doesn't the problem owe more to how existing math and science classes are taught?

Besides, at the high end of the curve, college-bound students are already taking more math and science courses. In Madison, for example, 73% of 2005 graduates took three or more years of math, and 70% three or more years of science.

And for struggling students, let alone the great bulk of average students, Redovich has a point worth considering. Those kids might be better served by taking other classes that play to their strengths and interests. Indeed, forcing another year of science and math on them just might push the vulnerable ones out of school altogether.

The real potential for positive change probably lies in finding better ways to teach the existing math and science classes. Last week, for example, ACT released a study showing two-thirds of college instructors believe that state learning standards prepare students 'poorly' or 'very poorly' for college-level work.

To its credit, Wisconsin is one of 29 states participating in the American Diploma Project, which aims to evaluate state educational standards. How do the standards measure up for preparing kids for college, for satisfying the workforce needs of employers, and for preparing graduates to function in an increasingly global economy?

The state Department of Public Instruction hopes to use the evaluation to make changes in which skills and content are emphasized in Wisconsin classrooms. And DPI also appears to be thinking differently about the nature of math and science requirements. For example, DPI is encouraging school districts to use agricultural courses to meet science standards.

'Ag courses have changed a lot over the years, and many of them are much more science oriented, and that gives school districts additional options for science,' says DPI's Tony Evers. Similarly, he says career and technical education courses could satisfy math requirements for graduation.

Meanwhile, opposition to the toughened graduation requirements is coming from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. 'State credit requirements might be an anachronism in the current education environment,' says the association's Annette Talis. 'We feel high school reform works best locally, and some of these state mandates can become the biggest barriers to the reform of public education.'

Many of those reforms are aimed at deepening content for high-flying students while ensuring basic skills for low-performing ones. But why the emphasis on math? Redovich has a cynical explanation: It's the easiest subject to test, and thus gives education critics an easy measure to label schools as failures.

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