From the Washington Post:
By Peter Whoriskey, Sunday, April , 7:57 PM
With its intricate mysteries of quadratics, logarithms and imaginary numbers, Algebra II often provokes a lament from high-schoolers. What exactly does this have to do with real life?
The answer: maybe more than anyone could have guessed.
Of all of the classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success, according to research that has launched a growing national movement to require it of graduates. In recent years, 20 states and the District have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II, and its complexities are being demanded of more and more students.
The effort has been led by Achieve, a group organized by governors and business leaders and funded by corporations and their foundations, to improve the skills of the workforce. Although U.S. economic strength has been attributed in part to high levels of education, the workforce is lagging in the percentage of younger workers with college degrees, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
But exactly how to raise the education levels of the U.S. workforce is a matter of debate. And whether learning Algebra II causes students to fare better in life, or whether it is merely correlated with them doing better - because smart, motivated kids take Algebra II - isn't clear. Meanwhile, some worry that Algebra II requirements are leading some young people to quit school.
The poor quality of elite-level thinking is on display at Achieve. You'd kind of hope that state governors and business titans like Bill Gates would form an Inner Party where, like O'Brien in 1984, they discuss policy more realistically than they do in public. But, is there any evidence for that? The education policy recommendations that Inner Party organizations like Achieve come up with sound like they were based in private on the same Oprahtastic thinking that is used to justify them in public.
The childishness of elite thinking today ...
Granted, if you demand more of young people, you will get somewhat more of what you demand, although probably not as much as you hoped.
But there are side effects. One problem is that credible demands include sticks as well as carrots (in fact, little thought has been devoted to developing carrots), and the stick being talked about here is a big one: going through life as a high school dropout.
I want to introduce a concept to public discussion based on the old Victorian concept of the Deserving Poor: the Deserving Dumb. There are many millions of children in America who, at least when it comes to passing a non-watered down version of Algebra II, are truly the Deserving Dumb. If you force them to take Algebra II, they will come to class, not disrupt the teacher, ask questions, try to do their homework, maybe get some afterschool tutoring. And they will still bomb the final and, thus, fail to graduate. They simply don't have the powers of abstraction necessary for Algebra II.
In fact, under this system, the cleverer members of the Deserving Dumb will tend to drop out of high school earlier because they can read the handwriting on the wall.
Moreover, the kids who should be taking Algebra II in public schools are likely to find their classes crammed with kids who just don't get it, thus bogging down the classes and boring the bright kids.
Overall, this Algebra II requirement to graduate has been talked about endlessly, frequently officially approved, but its actual implementation is usually repeatedly postponed at the last moment as the reality of the Deserving Dumb becomes manifest down in the trenches, and thus the Outer Party (e.g., school teachers) pushes back. But that doesn't stop the Inner Party from continuing to issue pronunciamentos about how Next Year we will require Algebra II to graduate. The Inner Party never learns.