Tuesday, February 14, 2006

From fixing cars to farming, math more important than ever

As Tennesseans consider the wisdom of requiring a fourth year of high school math, it's important to keep a few things in mind about the modern workplace and workforce. First and most importantly, today even students headed for a technical education instead of college must have excellent math skills to succeed. The line between what college-bound students and technical students need to know has become blurry indeed.

In the 1970s, students who couldn't do anything else enrolled in automotive classes because they required the least proficiency in basic skills such as math and reading. Today, auto mechanics is one of the most challenging curricula in technical schools, with the advent of computer-controlled automotive systems and computer-driven diagnostics. These days, to succeed in auto mechanics school and in the workplace diagnosing problems and repairing cars, students need very strong math and reading skills. The engines are all different, the manuals are online, and automobiles are increasingly complex. Sure, there will always be a need for people to change the oil, and that doesn't require math, but stepping up to be Mr. Goodwrench does.

Many other program areas at Tennessee Technology Centers also call for advanced math skills. Certificates in drafting, electricity and industrial maintenance all demand a good grasp of intermediate algebra and trigonometry, while a field such as machine tool technology requires advanced algebra, solid and coordinate geometry and trigonometry. So advanced mathematics is in no way irrelevant to the technical track in high school.

Second, some argue that college-bound students who have already decided to pursue studies that don't require much math shouldn't have to take a fourth year of it in high school. But the reality is that on average, people change their major three times while they're in college and change their jobs seven times during their working lives. Over 11% of the students enrolled in Tennessee Board of Regents universities have "undeclared" majors, meaning they haven't yet decided on any course of study, much less a career plan. So, preserving all the options for young people requires strong grounding in math, science and reading.

Finally, careers that don't necessarily require any education beyond high school and that might seem math-free really aren't anymore. Being a homebuilder requires knowledge of measurement, geometry, trigonometry, ratios and proportions along with a little algebra. Graphic artists, especially those working in animation, have to understand sines and cosines from trig plus key concepts from calculus and how mathematical functions and equations work. Farming demands the ability to use weights and measures, basic arithmetic, rates and ratios, geometry and area, interest and percentages and computers to run soil tests and the new generation of farm machines linked to satellites.

There is a general correlation between earnings and technical skills required in a job, and mathematics forms the basis of technical skills. While some students have more aptitude for math than others, most students, if they apply themselves, can learn it quite well. Why decide to limit exposure to such an important tool at such an early age? Math is good for students, and it's good for Tennessee



California again

They're among the San Juan Unified School District's most beloved institutions - and among its most controversial. San Juan's eight public "choice" schools are models of academic success, regularly posting some of the district's highest scores on state tests. But some say these schools foster racial and economic segregation by drawing savvy, education-minded parents away from lower-performing schools throughout the district. [And what is wrong with that?]

In December, Superintendent Steven Enoch proposed changes to San Juan's open enrollment policy. In doing so, he turned up the heat on a long-simmering debate over whether the district's choice schools are equally accessible to all. "I'm very mindful of the pros and cons of our system, which has a long standing in this district," he said recently. "The reality is our choice schools, for a variety of reasons, are generally successful. ... But there is a question about whether or not it is a level playing field."

The district typically assigns every family to a neighborhood school that must accept all comers within a geographic boundary. But many families opt instead for the district's choice schools, which have no geographical boundaries, offer alternative teaching styles and admit students who apply through a lottery system called open enrollment. The popularity of open enrollment is part of the fast-growing school-choice movement. Most states offer some choice in the form of charter schools, vouchers, and transfers within or between districts. School choice advocates say the movement puts pressure on low-performing schools to improve and offers families more options. Opponents say choice debilitates public school systems and threatens the ideal of free and equal schools for all. "The underlying tension in American education today is between those who want to advance the spirit of common schooling ... versus those who believe that market forces are sacred," said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

In San Juan Unified, the growing furor over choice schools illustrates the larger rift over the goals of public education. Critics say the schools "skim the cream" and leave neighborhood schools bereft of involved parents. Proponents say they attract parents who might otherwise head for private schools, charter schools or other districts - an important consideration for San Juan Unified, which is struggling with declining enrollment. Regardless of their stance, many people seem to agree that choice is necessary to accommodate children's different learning styles. But making neighborhood schools more appealing, some say, is just as important. "I would like for us to be a place where all our schools are perceived to be very strong community schools," said San Juan board President Larry Miles. "If you decide to go to El Camino (a choice high school), it's because something there attracts you - not because you don't want to go to Mira Loma or San Juan."

There's long-standing precedent for San Juan's choice schools. In the 1970s, parents and employees successfully lobbied the board to establish a few alternative schools that offered innovative teaching styles. Some were "open," stressing hands-on, self-directed learning. Others were "fundamental," emphasizing structure and discipline. Meanwhile, magnet schools were popping up nationwide. These schools, aimed at desegregation, usually lacked traditional geographic boundaries and drew white students to African American neighborhoods with alternative programs.

San Juan Unified soon adopted the magnet school concept for purposes other than desegregation. In the late 1970s, declining enrollment on the west side led the board to establish a set of alternative magnets near its western border in Sacramento. Within a decade, San Juan had eight such schools across the district: six elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. They were so popular the district eventually switched from a first-come-first-served system to a randomized lottery. "We had families that actually stayed up all night, and they were lined up around the buildings in sleeping bags and lawn chairs so they would be first in line for enrollment," said Pam Costa, director of schools and programs for elementary schools.

Today, a student at one of San Juan's choice schools is more likely to be white and well-off than is an average district student. But the schools do reflect the demographics of the census tracts in which they're located, according to figures from the state Department of Education and the 2000 U.S. Census. The same can't be said of the district's lowest-performing schools. For instance, 20 percent of students at Dyer-Kelly Elementary on Edison Avenue are white, but the census tract in which the school is located is 66 percent white, according to state and census data. Fully 95 percent of Dyer-Kelly's students qualify for reduced-price lunch, a key indicator of poverty, while in the surrounding neighborhood, just 38 percent of families with school-age children fall under the poverty line.....

As part of his redesign plan, San Juan Superintendent Enoch has proposed that each choice school approach the board for approval every three years. "These schools get to distinguish a philosophy and set expectations that are maybe more restrictive than neighborhood schools - and it seems like that's a privilege," he said. For their part, however, parents who have children at choice schools embrace the programs, saying they offer distinct teaching styles and strong extracurricular opportunities. Fair Oaks resident Dená Leineke said that after years at her assigned elementary school, one of the district's best in terms of test scores, her fifth-grade daughter still couldn't write a sentence. "She didn't fit into the cookie-cutter shape," she said. After a year at Green Oaks Fundamental Elementary in Orangevale, she said, her daughter writes multi-page essays. Leineke said the difference is the school's structured program. "I don't think Green Oaks is better, exactly, but they set high standards and they're really teaching the kids to respect discipline and responsibility," she said.

More here

Comment on yesterday's posts about the Queensland meltdown -- From Education Unbound

Recent reports out of Brisbane concerning the poor literacy standards of Queensland Year 7 students should make all parents sit up and take notice, but there is more to the story and the official responses to it than just the issue of poor literacy.

Colin Lamont who has had experience both as a teacher and as Queensland chairman of the Australian Council of Educational Standards has put his finger on the real issue when he lays the blame squarely on educational bureaucrats and not the teachers. This is not to say that teachers are all perfect. Many who went through the system in the later 70's and 80's were themselves products of a flawed education, but on the whole most teachers try hard and let's be honest they are teaching primary and secondary kids here not university students. So why is there so much fuss about teacher standards? Because it deflects attention from the real masters of the system and the real culprits in the mess that is public education - the educational nomenclature in their ivory towers in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane etc. What made the Sunday Mail test so relevant is that its marking was not controlled by the bureaucracy and so could not be massaged to hide the failings of the system.

Make no mistake - it is the system that is at fault not teachers as a group. The response of the Education Minister was clearly written for him by a member of his Department. It is designed to soothe and reassure that the Department is doing something about literacy but that in general all is well in the cloud-cuckoo land of state education. Likewise the response of the Teacher's Union reflects only the cosy relationship of the leadership of that group with the Department. Both have a vested interest in things as they are. Both will screw the actual teachers in the front line as the easiest scapegoats. When I was growing up, "professional" meant working "autonomously" today it means keeping your mouth shut about the failures of the system. The failure of the current Education System is systemic not individual. It is time we got rid of bureaucrats and employed more teachers to teach basic knowledge that kids can use to access other areas of life. Education is about opening doors not giving guided tours.


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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