Math = jobs. Local companies can’t find workers who have enough of a grounding in mathematics to run manufacturing equipment — or who qualify for jobs in the high tech industry. Meanwhile, test results this year show that only 36 percent of 11th grade students in Vermont have the basic math skills they need to go on to a two-year tech degree program or four-year college.
Gov. Peter Shumlin hopes to shift that calculus by requiring all high school students to take algebra and geometry. Under a plan he and Armando Vilaseca, the commissioner of the Department of Education, unveiled on Wednesday, all Vermont ninth-graders would have to take algebra I and all 10th-graders would face a geometry requirement this coming fall. By 2017, all high school juniors would be required to take algebra II.
“We all know that you can’t get into a four year college of quality in this country if you don’t have algebra and geometry,” Shumlin said. “When I go out and talk to job creators, they say to me, ‘Governor, we have jobs, but we can’t find enough students who have qualifications in math, who can do the math, that is required of today’s workforce.’”
The state’s biggest “job creator,” IBM, has had difficulty finding local technicians with adequate math skills. Janet Doyle, a program manager at IBM, said the company, which has a facility in Essex, has created internal training programs to help employees now working as production operators to move up the ladder. Technicians can earn as much as $60,000 a year; engineers can make $100,000 annually, she said.
Shumlin told reporters at his weekly press conference that “Bottom line, Vermont has a great jobs future, a bright jobs future, but whether you are running a piece of manufacturing equipment, or repairing an automobile or getting a job in computer technology or an entry-level job at IBM, you have to have these qualifications. I think that these basic standards are critical to ensuring that our kids, Vermont kids, have a great jobs future in this state.”
The State Board of Education must approve the curriculum change. Vilaseca also plans to review chemistry and physics requirements for students.
While the state has had a three-year math requirement and performance standards in place for more than a decade, until now the state has left decisions about specific curriculum choices up to local schools. Algebra and geometry courses are not specified in most schools. About 47 percent of high schools require students to take algebra and 31 percent require geometry, according to a recent survey from the Department of Education.
Vilaseca said the proposed curriculum change is a response to the state’s poor performance on math tests. The New England Common Assessment Program results this year showed that 36 percent of 11th-graders understood basic math, while 65 percent of third through eighth grade students are proficient in math. About 70 percent of Vermont students have good reading and writing skills.
The commissioner was careful, however, to criticize the educational system — not teachers. The problem, in his view, is that the state’s academic requirements don’t match the achievement standards adopted by the Board of Education.
“It’s not that our teachers aren’t doing a good job because we have some of the top teachers in the country here in Vermont,” Vilaseca said. “It’s not that our students aren’t capable of doing it, the system, whether it’s local boards not aligning the curriculum to the standards or the state board of education rules not requiring that, it’s really the system has not required that all students be held to a higher standard and that’s really where we’re going with this.”
The challenge, Vilaseca said, is creating a statewide system for academic standards within the context of Vermont’s schools which are run by local school boards.
“We have to make sure that all of our school districts see the value of this and implement curricula at the local level that will align with the Vermont standards,” Vilaseca said.
The low test scores released last month caught Shumlin’s attention, and he called Vilaseca and asked why the state results are not better, given Vermont’s highest in the nation per capita spending on education. The answer came down to an uneven application of the standards from school to school across the state.
“I’m a big believer in local control but we’ve not adopted the requirements that would actually match those standards, and that’s what we’re trying to put together here today,” Shumlin said. “The bottom line is if you have state standards, which we do, and you don’t have the requirements to match it you are only giving local communities half a loaf. We either should have no standards, no assessments and no requirements or we need to have standards and requirements.”
The nearly 30 percent gap between 8th-graders and 11th-graders is partially attributable to lower educational expectations for students from low-income families, according to the commissioner.
Vilaseca said Vermont has a two-tiered system in which many students perform well in high school and go on to college, but about half of Vermont’s students don’t have the math skills to get into post-secondary programs.
“It’s a terrible thing when you have a 14-year-old making a decision that impacts their future,” Vilaseca said. “So if they’ve at least gone through algebra and geometry and then eventually Algebra II it doesn’t matter where they want to go. They will be prepared to achieve at a level that will be commensurate with their education.”
The commissioner said under the plan local superintendents and board chairs would be asked to sign an agreement that will “guarantee their curriculum is aligned with the standards.” He is also considering a math endorsement or certification requirements for elementary school teachers.
Changes in mandatory requirements are necessary in order for Vermont to participate in national “common core of standards” system for public school curricula that will be put in place in 2014, Vilaseca said.