There’s been much talk about reforming our high schools so that, according to the ubiquitous soundbite, our students are prepared for the 21st century in a global economy. Fine. So last Spring Corzine made some grand gestures towards reform, and in September DOE Commissioner Lucille Davy announced, with great drumrolls and pageantry, the results of the Secondary Redesign Committee, or “NJ Steps: Redesigning Education in New Jersey for the 21st Century.”
Some districts were sanguine: they were either already offering all the courses to the vast majority of their students mandated under the new graduation requirements – lab biology and chemistry, algebra II, economics – or were planning to do so anyway. Other districts panicked because they didn’t have the resources for extra lab space or more science teachers, or they knew their kids wouldn’t pass the promised rigorous subject tests. For example, our vo-tech schools were furious. From the Star-Ledger:
“We are adamantly opposed,” said Frank Garguilo, superintendent of Hudson County Schools of Technology and president of the statewide association. “The state thinks it can manage every single kid in every single detail when every kid is different in their abilities and how they learn.”
Yesterday, the grand reformation and upgrade of our high schools met another test at the Statehouse as Davy and a panel of educators appeared before the Assembly Education Committee to defend the new requirements, specifically algebra II. This particular course has been the subject of much criticism: if we demand that kids pass algebra II to graduate, will that lead to higher drop-out rates? If we put all kids in the course, will that lead to a dumbing-down of the curriculum, thus cheating kids who would benefit from a more rigorous offering? And anyway, do all kids really need algebra II? Rutgers math professor Joseph Rosenstein of the New Jersey Math and Science Coalition yesterday, who, according to the Press of Atlantic City “supports requiring more practical applied math courses,” said flatly,
Most of our students don’t need algebra II.
Rosenstein said if courses were tailored just to meet state requirements, students who should take a true algebra II course might not get the higher level of work they need.
Just what the DOE needs – a little more undermining, a little more loss in credibility. Now Davy is put in the unenviable position of defending the sweeping reforms grandly trotted out by the DOE. What’s at the heart of this? Ah – here it is. The Press of Atlantic City quotes Davy, who must have been feeling a bit defensive:
A lot of high schools provide more than this. This to me is an equity issue where these are the standards no matter where you are in high school.
Call it equity, call it politically-astute posturing as the State attempts to overturn the Abbott decisions on the (reasonable) premise that all our poor kids don’t live in cities, call it an underhanded ploy to leech power from local boards of education, call it a recognition that we won’t get our HSPA scores up unless we raise the bar in math, call it a magnanimous gesture to standardize course offerings so that all children benefit from a rigorous curriculum. Call it all of the above.
It’s one thing to pass a bill through the legislature, put it on the books, and use it to declaim that all our kids get equal treatment. It’s another thing to make it happen. Can we take our crazy-quilt school system, with vo-tech schools teaching plumbing and car maintenance and wealthy schools teaching Calculus BC and poor schools teaching underprivileged children how to write a sentence, and standardize high school graduation requirements? Probably not. Are you feeling cynical or idealistic today? Choose your poison.