Shumlin proposes to make algebra and geometry mandatory for high school students

Gov. Peter Shumlin, Feb. 22, 2012. VTD/Alan Panebaker

Gov. Peter Shumlin, Feb. 22, 2012. VTD/Alan Panebaker

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.

Anne Galloway

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29 Comments on "Shumlin proposes to make algebra and geometry mandatory for high school students"

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4 years 2 months ago

Any given mandate may make a whole ton of sense but …

If you got the money honey
I got the time
We’ll get together and
Make those numbers rhyme

But it’ll take cash my dear
And that’ll come for your taxes
If you got the money honey
I got the time

And that is only one problem with the governor trying to micromanage our education system.

Ann Raynolds
4 years 2 months ago

To get to competency in Algebra and Geometry in High School, the preparation starts in Kindergarten; and the basic Math skills need far more learning time in the curricula from the beginning. My credentials in saying this? Tutoring Elementary School children in Math and as a Consulting School Psychologist for many years here and in Boston.

4 years 2 months ago
One major problem is these ideas being casually tossed around Montpelier have a huge local impact on required services and budgets; and yet nobody from the state government comes out to the local boards to discuss any of this. Our public education system (according to me aka youth services system) is a very complex intertwining of educational and community needs that will not respond well to simplistic jingoistic plans. This was true when the Douglas/Vilaseca tag team was busy beating up on local school boards; and it is just as true now with the Shumlin micromanagement team. I know of… Read more »
4 years 2 months ago
The following statement I made above is inaccurate: “yet nobody from the state government comes out to the local boards to discuss any of this”. What I tried to write was as far as I can tell nobody from the active legislative committees or governor’s office is coming out to the local boards to discuss any of this. Senator Mullin and Repesentative Donovan came out to a meeting held by a consortium of some Vermont school districts/supervisory unions (the Green Mountain Forest Collaborative); but there wasn’t any give and take – the two legislators were in “informing” mode. For that… Read more »
Christian Noll
4 years 2 months ago
How about making things that we actually use on a daily basis “Mandatory?” I mean boy, I really use my high school Algebra daily as an adult. I don’t know where I’d be without it. Its been a real life-saver! Please. The only high school math class skills that became useful (daily use) as an adult were Personal Finance and Accounting. Geometry and Algebra were manditory in my high school but have not assisted me in one way as an adult. AT ALL! SAVE IT. Sorry to abuse you math teachers out there but unless you’re going to be come… Read more »
Mike Curtis
4 years 2 months ago

“building a savings account IS USEFUL”

Building a retirement account is useful too. In fact, it’s nearly essential.

But you can’t make good choices about long term investing without a solid foundation in algebra.

Christian Noll
4 years 2 months ago
Mike thanks, I didn’t mean to so bash the math world out there but I just don’t think I’ve ever had to solve for “X” as an adult ever. If I’ve needed to “Make good choices about long term investing” I’d ask my financial advisor. Maybe he gets hit with daily algebra problems. Somehow I really doubt it though. On a daily basis, I’m guessing few adults go around with a slide rule and paper to engage in their next geometry or algebra task because its an everyday occurance. It is NOT an everyday occurance. It is quite rare in… Read more »
Curtis Hier
4 years 2 months ago

In my entire adult life, I have never had to solve for x. Let’s put all the unmotivated students in the college-prep math classes so then nobody can learn.

Jay Davis
4 years 2 months ago

Curtis, you have seen the truth. If students cannot make change or understand basic reasoning after reading a pareagraph, ho can everyone now learn geometry? Euclid is fine for some, maybe top 10-20 percent. This whole idea is so misguided. How about more vocational courses?

4 years 2 months ago

These are not very difficult subjects, but students really have to do their homework in order to “get it”. Parents need to make sure they do it and to get involved as much as they can.

Mike Curtis
4 years 2 months ago
Solving for X is one of the more basic skills needed to work in manufacturing, finance, and any number of other key growth areas of employment. Without that basic skill, I certainly wouldn’t have the good job that I have. Mind you, I don’t have a silicone-valley-high-tech-super-specialized job. The Vermonters that I know that work in the state and have good paying jobs all know how to solve for X. And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be nearly as valuable in the job market as they are. These are essential skills. And Ann makes a great point when she says… Read more »
Jay Davis
4 years 2 months ago

Is this just a political sound good idea. I used to teach mathematics and science. To believe you just make this or that a requirement is insanity. High schools need teach down to earth trades for those seeking employment.
You do not just teach latin,greek and algebra. These are courses that require excellence in preparatory skills,; they cannot in fact, be aborbed at any real competency level by many, in fact most students.
What is the Governor thinking of here?

Mike Curtis
4 years 2 months ago

I started as a very low wage worker. Without the ability to do algebra and geometry (learned in high school) I never would have worked my way up from there. I wouldn’t have gotten promotions. I wouldn’t have made significantly more money — which I used to work my way through college — which led to even greater opportunities. Good math skills were (and are) an essential foundation for me and I think that they are important for all young people.

Kate Schubart
4 years 2 months ago
The mismatch between available jobs and qualified workers to fill them is as good a reason as any to change the math requirements from the open-ended “three years of math in high school” to the specific algebra and geometry curriculum. What the U.S. broadly, and Vermont specifically, is facing is that the growth industries–other than low-level service jobs–are in science and technology. These now have twice as many openings as there are workers qualified to fill them. Janet Doyle, of IBM, underlined that this is true in Vermont. But other Vermont companies have gone public about their need as well.… Read more »
jim Christiansen
4 years 2 months ago

So 64% of 11th graders are not proficient in mathematics under the “leadership” of our local school boards.

Local control of failure is still failure.

4 years 2 months ago

You’re being illogical – what is the connection to local schools, local input and local governance?

Dave Bellini
4 years 2 months ago

Tyrannical! What next? Require students to read at grade level !? English composition? American Lit? Even . . . . Shakespeare?? No, I agree (with some of you) It’s a dangerous path.

Christian Noll
4 years 2 months ago

Dave understood.

Personally I do think that “reading at grade level” to be a little more important than algebra. That’s just me.

We read daily.

I see reading as a little more “Daily” and important than Geometry. Not to mention our high school reading scores are down nationally (accross the board.)

Technology, email, texting and cell phones have all contributed to reducing our reading scores.

Remember going to the library?

Remember books?

Curtis Hier
4 years 2 months ago
The students who cannot handle algebra and geometry are not going to be in line for those $60,000 IBM jobs. Yes, many of them will enter the service sector. What they will do in high school is disrupt the classes, out of frustration, to the detriment of the students who possibly could qualify for IBM jobs. And/or the curriculum will become watered down, again to the dtriment of the potential IBMers. The best thing we could do is insist that elementary school teachers be prepared to teach math. Then we wouldn’t have spend money on “math coaches.” And it would… Read more »
Dave Bellini
4 years 2 months ago

With the smallest class size in America and robust spending, Vermont students should be able to breeze through lower level math. Algebra used to be taught in middle school, it’s not too difficult for grades 9 – 12.

George DeMarse
1 year 11 months ago

Really? Have you looked at the failure rate in high school math at your local high school lately? It’s usually about 50%–unless you have very well resourced schools and highly educated parents influencing the kids.

4 years 2 months ago
Too bad the proposals regarding algebra and geometry are not so easy to implement (forget about whether or not these are even absolute requirements for everybody’s education). But how many of you know if your school even offers any of these classes? One really great facet of local schools, local input and local governance is that you can with ease find your local school board member and ask them whether your district already offers algebra I and II as well as geometry and what grades these classes are offered in. If your local board member doesn’t have the answer, she/he… Read more »
David Gross
4 years 2 months ago
My god, enough already with the pronouncements, the anecdotes, the finger-pointing, and the bluster. This is exactly why I left a 15-year career teaching science in Vermont to return to a career where I get well paid for my scientific skills. (Skills I could NOT have mastered without first mastering basic and then advanced mathematical concepts!)This is also why I answer the questions “Why did you quit teaching?” and “Will you ever go back to teaching?” with the response “The kids are great. The problem is with the adults.” My parents taught me, and life has confirmed, that one cannot… Read more »
John H. Clarke
4 years 2 months ago
I want to to express my deep concern about requiring a specific sequence of courses Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2 of all prospective high school graduates. 1) High Schools on the Move endorsed by the Board more than ten years ago outlined twelve principles for high school reform, the first of which was “multiple pathways to graduation.” The proposed requirement runs counter to this critically important principle and several others. 2) The State Board passed a rule at about the same time allowing high school students to graduate either by taking courses or demonstrating that they were proficient by… Read more »
Christian Noll
4 years 2 months ago

Mr. Clarke,

I was wondering when the cavalry was going to show up.

My sentiments exactly and THANK YOU.

Let us know when your book is published.

4 years 2 months ago

Thank you Mr. Clark for reminding us all that there is a history involved here. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget that Vermont’s public school system has been around and evolving for more than 200 years.

4 years 2 months ago
There’s always a lot of talk about teaching critical thinking skills from the education bureaucracy, which is simply “logic” wrapped up in a bit of touchy-feely speak. Geometry not only teaches logic but math, both skills that are entirely applicable in the real world – specifically, business. Does this mean you’ll have to prove a theorem at your desk on Monday? No. What it means, though, is that you won’t have to ask the dude next to you how to figure out a percentage of something, even with Excel and the Internet sitting right in front of you, which could… Read more »
4 years 1 month ago

This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

George DeMarse
3 years 18 days ago

Shumlin can make “anything” mandatory. He could make Latin and Sanskrit mandatory because it might make high schoolers
“more rigourous thinkers.”

Maybe but probably not. You can make them “take” algeba, you can’t make em’ “pass” it. You will probably produce more failure and turn “more” kids off to math than is already occurring.

The Sage of Wake Forest

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