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.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Privacy policy
Anne Galloway

Recent Stories

  • 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

    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.

    • 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 nobody who thinks advanced math of any type is a bad idea; but we need to know what is coming down the road for districts vis-a-vis the Common Core curriculum. We need to know for sure that insisting grade level instruction as opposed to content ready instruction is the way to go. We need to know what has to be given up to fit these requirements in schedules. We need to know what extra costs to plan for when it comes to proper elementary school preperation (you know – teachers, materials, curriculum – minor details).

      We really need to look at this at the practical level where delivery actually happens.

      But of course Shumlin and Vilaseca can figure this all out with the help of the House and Senate education committees will figure it all out from their cloistered little rooms – because we at the school board level really haven’t a clue.

      How about some REAL investigation this time?

      • 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 matter I know of extremely little communication between the state board of ed and the local boards.

        This is a HUGE problem in my opinion.

        Because of this lack of communication very little is known of the large amount of work that has already been done much less is still in process. The Orange North Supervisory Union, for example, is a good decade ahead of the state mandated consolidation requirements of Section 9 of Act 153 (2010).

        Interesting to note this work was done because the ideas were good, and, because the relationships developed from the bottom up, trust was established. Another advantage of bottom up was that complex systems such as book and other record keeping could be merged in a sustainable manner. Yet one more point of interest being that because these ideas were smart and well thought through – the ONSU didn’t require any incentives beyond the organic local needs.

        Help is needed in improving curriculum. As the science of education advances and the sciences involved in how the brain works advance, great improvements are being made in how and when things are taught.

        It’s pretty cool to see that sometimes the “new” is nothing more than a return to the old. Remember those endless circles you used to make during script writing practice? I listened to a math consultant last summer talk about the physical growth in brain connections that occur because of that action and how that growth improves certain math related thinking skills.

        So there’s a taste – come out and visit sometime! The water’s great.

  • Christian Noll

    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 a math teacher, how in the world does Algebra and Geometry help you in your daily chores?

    Don’t streach it, please!

    Balancing your checkbook IS HELPFUL, buidling a savings account IS USEFUL, knowing and building a budget IS USEFUL but Algebra. Come on, get real. I’ve heard all kinds of “long streach arguments” about how essential they are but as an adult FEW have used either since then.

    In real terms, when was the last time you came accross the the need to complete, construct and correct an algebra or geometry problem?

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t have these subjects. I’m just saying we don’t use them on a daily basis and to act as if we do,(without streching it) is unrealistic. They are not “Daily Skill” sets. Nope, sorry.

    Personal Accounting use useful.

    • Mike Curtis

      “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

        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 fact.

        I understand that we must learn to process problems analytically and use proper methods of problem solving and thought, BUT having to find or solve for “X” ISN’T as daily as you might think, unless you’re going to be a math teacher.

  • Curtis Hier

    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

      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?

  • 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

    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 that preparing kids for success starts very early.

  • Jay Davis

    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

    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

    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.

    Local school boards, whatever their feelings about a requirement being handed down from ‘above,’ are, surely, likely to take this into account as the process for setting the requirement goes on.

    AARP has an interesting comparison. Fifty years ago, when manufacturing was the basis of the U.S. economy, the five largest private employers were General Motors, AT&T, Ford, GE and U.S. Steel. Now the five largest employers are Walmart, Kelly (a temp firm), UPS, McDonald’s and IBM. At $60,000 for a technician’s job at IBM, or nearly $30 per hour (engineers can get $100,000 or more), the lifetime payoff for getting those specific math skills is clear.

    Are these subjects too tough for high school students? As many of us from the Fifties, when these were required high school subjects, can attest, it’s quite possible to do well whether you are a ‘math type’ or not. What was needed then and is quite likely needed now is to make the connection to practical life skills, which several comments have spoken to, for students.

  • jim Christiansen

    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.

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

  • Dave Bellini

    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

      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

    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 be much more effective.

  • Dave Bellini

    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

      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.

  • 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 will be able to get get one with quickness and ease because the today the supervisory unions still work for the local districts (not the other way around – ala Act 153 of 2010).

    That will provide you the best starting point for a conversation – especially the ever important follow up question of “why?”

    One thing that to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been addressed by anybody is are there enough qualified and licensed teachers to do a major statewide push? As a local board member of a local school that enjoys local input and local governance I do not want to be spending a bunch of much needed cash on “make the governor feel good and re-electable” initiatives – and I doubt the community I represent does either.

  • David Gross

    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 separate responsibility from authority. When one yells “local control!”, that assigns the responsibilty for student success or failure at that level. It also defines, locally, the terms “success” and “failure”. This debate about educational success has arisen because what is considered “successful” for one Vermont school is not for another. In fact, as witnessed by some of the comments posted here previously, “success” in the same school is defined by what expectations the “adults” have for a particular child. I cannot tell you the number of times I have had to restrain myself from throttling a peer or administrator who would state that a student “didn’t need” a piece of knowledge, a skill, or a course in order to “graduate”. And graduate nearly all of them did. Some were well educated because the “adults” in their lives decided they “needed to be”, and the rest were processed through high school with an exposure to the minimum amount of information, concepts, and challenges because the “adults” decided that was all they “needed”. Thus, at a “local” level, there is no problem with Vermont education because the adults in the community have the schools that they created and maintain, with the “educational outcomes” which they find acceptable.

    The Vermont education “problem” exists because as the world changed from the 19th to the 20th century, the responsibilty for a particular child’s education in Vermont changed from the adults in a town to the the adults in the entire state. This is not a debatable issue, but a settled point of law thanks to a Vermont Supreme Court decision. The only reason the debate still drags on is because the State of Vermont continually refuses to accept the dual mantles of responsibility and authority.

    Thus, we continue to have well-intentioned people pointing out the obvious that Vermont public education is a hodge-podge in which geography and “adult expectations” are the driving factors that determine how well any one child is prepared for life. What we don’t have is a system in which those with the authority (The State) reach down into each and every town and say “This child gets an equal chance. We, The State, do not care what his/her parents expect, what his/her teachers expect, what his/her principal and guidance councilor expect, or what his/her school board expects. You WILL place this child in a rich, varied, and CHALLENGING educational environment and then we will KNOW what this child is capable of achieving.”

    Back to the issue of the day, the proposal of mandating the exposure of high school level mathematics to all high school students is an important first step in addressing our failure as “adults” to adequately education the next generation. However, under our present educational framework it is a dangerous step, much like a step taken out upon what one assumes to be thick ice. For Vermont still has no mechanism to insure that a “geometry credit” awarded in one high school represents a standard level of mathematical ability. We all assume that courses simply titled “Geomentry”, or “World History”, or “English Composition” are giving a similar level of instruction and that a “credit” given in these courses require a similar level of mastery. For those of us who have actually taught in Vermont schools, we know that nothing could be further from the truth. The State of New York recognized this issue and has addressed it since 1866 with their Regents Exams. How long into the 21st century will it be before Vermonters have the political will to rise to the educational standards of 19th century New York?

  • John H. Clarke

    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 other means.

    3) An attempt to require all young adults to take courses that do not promise them benefit or support their movement toward personal goals will not accomplish its purpose. The kids will flunk or drop out, as they did before applied mathematics became commonplace.

    I have been writing about student engagement and personalized learning for many years. Currently, I am completing a book for Corwin Press about personalized learning at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, where more than 200 students each year opt to design courses that let them clarify and pursue their own dreams. More than 40 design a personal pathway to graduation. Although the program does require three math courses and succeeds in moving even the most disengaged students toward graduation, requiring a set sequence of abstract math courses for all students would push up the dropout rate up toward levels we have steadily reduced over ten years.

    South Burlington, Burlington, Winooski and U32 are adopting similar strategies. I would hope that the Board would interview teachers and students about personalized learning before adopting requirements that cannot serve their stated purpose, nor serve all the diverse students in our schools.

    John H. Clarke, EdD
    Professor Emeritus,
    Secondary Program

    • Christian Noll

      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.

    • 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.

  • 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 literally walk you through it step by step.

    Until we teach people to be responsible for themselves, to work out problems on their own, we’ll continue to raise legions of adult children. One of the many benefits of taking math and science classes as a student is to create the person who does not shrink from a challenge they do not yet understand, because they’ve been challenged before, and worked the problem until they found the answer. No amount of “critical thinking” exercises will produce the same results as someone breaking their teeth in a challenging math or science class.

    What’s amazing is that Shumlin has suddenly decided that our educational system isn’t providing graduates with the skills they need to find a job. I hope he wasn’t stunned out of his shoes by this revelation. Anyone who’s hired anyone in Vermont knows that the pickings are slim out there, in terms of qualified applicants, for everything from entry-level to mid-management.

  • 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

    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