"Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white." - Andrew Hacker
I am not a fan of rigid high school graduation requirements. Although I favor many more opportunities to learn foreign languages in public schools (early start immersion programs are most effective) and recognizing proficiency levels, I do not favor making some level of foreign language proficiency or time spent studying (like two years of high school foreign language study) a requirement for high school graduation. Most students should graduate from high school bilingual (and not doing so should be seen as receiving a second rate education), but I would not favor making it a requirement.
Likewise with math. We do need more engineers and scientists, but Oregon (and many other states) moved in the wrong direction in raising the math requirements for high school graduation. It has had negative consequences.
From the NY Times opinion article “Is Algebra Necessary” by Andrew Hacker (here)
…. This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.
Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry….
One thing the new Oregon Educational Investment Board could do if they really wants us to move towards their “40-40-20” educational goals is to rethink the high school graduation requirements, to make them more flexible, and to reduce the math requirements. I'd trade, in terms of Oregon's econmic future, less high school graduates knowing algebra for more graduates speaking Mandarin.