Algebra II for all?

Interestingly, the same ETS Study which is misinterpreted as to its implications regarding the need for post-secondary education, is the foundation for the often quoted finding that Algebra II is the threshold course for getting a top-tier job and geometry for getting a middle tier job.  This finding is based on statistics showing that the most people in the top tier of the economy progressed through Algebra II in high school and most in the second tier progressed through geometry, but people in the bottom third have often taken neither.  

 The authors of the study concede that there is little to suggest that high school mathematics content is actually relevant to most jobs.  At note 6, they state that:

 “Even a casual analysis of the distribution of occupations demonstrates that relatively few of us- fewer than 5 percent-make extensive use of geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, or calculus on the job. In the year 2000, there were 146 million people in the workforce. Roughly three million were in “computer and mathematical occupations,” including actuaries and statisticians. There were roughly 1.5 million engineers and architects and 1.2 million life, physical, and social scientists. In addition, there were 132,000 secondary school science teachers and 180,000 secondary school mathematics teachers (Hecker, 2001). But the fact that only 5 percent of us use advanced mathematics on the job does not mean that we should stop teaching algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or calculus n high schools. In the current educational curriculum, these higher-level courses are the means by which people learn higher-level reasoning skills even if they are not directly applicable on the job.”

 This statement about “higher-level reasoning skills” is potentially a deep one, but there is no evidence offered in support of it.  

The American Diploma Project conducted a process where they developed a curriculum based on the courses that people in what they defined as the top two thirds of the economy had taken (based on the earlier ETS work) and circulated it to panels of employer representatives.  These employers generally blessed the inclusion of Algebra II in the curriculum. At page 107 of the ADP report, the authors state that:

Employers specifically reiterated the value of the knowledge and skills typically taught in Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. Employers not only validated the importance of the content and skills that those courses convey, but also recognized the usefulness for students in having taken those courses to stay on a positive intellectual trajectory. Staying on the trajectory, they reasoned, is the best way for students to preserve the choice to complete any degree-granting or other postsecondary education and training programs, including apprenticeships in the “skilled trades.” 

The rationalization about “positive intellectual trajectory” suggests a weak endorsement of the specific content taught in the standard mathematics courses.  And busy front-line managers being asked to react to a proposed curriculum probably should not be expected to strongly disagree — it seems especially improbable that they would dumb down what is put in front of them.  It is also worth noting that the study (a) apparently did not randomly sample employers, rather apparently used hand-picked panels of employers; (b) conflated employers at multiple levels in designing the curriculum.   

While it seems clear that the sorting that goes in high school predicts future occupational sorting, the ADP/ETS line of reports does little establish the on-the-job value of particular high school courses.  A more convincing approach would actually study job content and would probably find clear necessity of this training in a relatively small segment of jobs.

Another source cited by the Achieve fact sheet for the proposition that all students should study college preparatory courses, is an ACT report which studies a middle tier of jobs just above the 200% of poverty range which do not require a bachelor’s degree.  It compares student performance on ACT work skills tests with performance on ACT academic tests and finds that they are similar.  From this finding, the study infers that the high school preparation for work in the middle tier should be the same as high school preparation for college.  This inference depends on validation of the work skills test (“WorkKeys”) as a measurement of necessary skills for middle-tier jobs.  No evidence of this validation is supplied in the report, other than a statement that “Developed with input from employers, labor organizations, educators, and policymakers, ACT’s WorkKeys tests are criterion referenced tests anchored to the skills needed for workforce readiness in nine areas.”  The materials on the ACT WorkKeys siteappear to be primarily marketing materials for the test suite, which can be customized for employers.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.