insights (2006-13)

More Math Needed

Study after study has hammered away at the deficiencies of U.S. high school math and science education relative to much of the rest of the world. And with the hammering have come dire warnings that, unless a lot more U.S. high school students become a lot more proficient, the nation is at risk of losing its technological edge and even its economic prosperity.

Against this backdrop, it’s a matter of concern that Knox County schools only require three years of high school math and science for graduation. That’s all the State Board of Education presently mandates, and its executive director, Gary Nixon, is unaware of any school systems in Tennessee that require more, though they are free to do so. A state board task force is due to make recommendations on whether to require a fourth year of math as Arkansas and Kentucky have recently, following the lead of many other states.

Knox County will be taking the initiative sooner if Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Donna Wright and Director of Secondary Instruction Ed Hedgepeth have their way. While she cites a number of obstacles to requiring four years of math, Wright says, “We are headed in that direction, and we are not going to let them be deterrents to pursuing that end.” Hedgepeth asserts that, “Entering college without having taken math as a high school senior is no different than an athlete trying to play as a college freshman after sitting out their senior year in high school.” Yet only 57 percent of last year’s high school graduates in Knox County took a math course in their senior year.

The obstacles to be overcome start with the budgetary constraints that stand in the way of funding the additional teaching positions that would be needed. Even if funding is available, Wright cites the difficulty of recruiting more qualified teachers for upper-level math and science courses. “We’re having a hard time right now even fielding our math and science courses with qualified personnel,” Wright says.

Beyond that, she foresees, “a battle to educate parents why they want their children to have more of these courses.” Resistance on the part of many students can also be anticipated for reasons that include aversion to taking a more rigorous course and fear that it could lower their grade point average and thus jeopardize their chance for admission to the college of their choice or their eligibility for lottery or other scholarships. Then, there’s what Wright terms a “rite of passage mindset” on the part of many high school seniors who believe, especially during spring semester, that they’ve already done all they can do to bolster their college admission credentials and are therefore entitled to relax and enjoy themselves.

It’s not as if there’s a dearth of course offerings available to students beyond the three years of math and science required for graduation. In the case of math, for students on a college-bound track Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II are required, and are typically completed in their junior year. Beyond that, different levels of calculus and a yet more rigorous advanced placement math course, as well as courses in trigonometry and statistics, are offered at all high schools.

For the 20 percent plus of seniors who are on what’s called a technical track, Algebra I, geometry and a less demanding course such as business math are presently required. But Wright is clear that these students should also be subject to a four-year math requirement for graduation. “When we’re saying a fourth year of math, it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be taking calculus. But it does mean that there will be a math course available to them such as more business math for those that are going to exit into the work force.”

More collaboration between Knox County schools and Pellissippi State or UT could be one way of bringing more faculty resources to bear in meeting both advanced and remedial high school math needs. The state Board of Regents, which oversees community colleges, has been encouraging them to offer dual enrollment courses in which students get both college and high school credit. Despite the advent of lottery scholarships, enrollment at most of these colleges, including Pellissippi State, has been surprisingly stagnant over the past two years. And this year, for the first time, lottery funds are available to cover the tuition cost of one dual enrollment course per student per semester.

Yet despite all of the emphasis and inducements, enrollment in dual credit courses on the part of Knox County high schoolers is disappointingly low. Only 77 of 3,412 seniors partook of them during the fall semester even though Pellissippi State instructors came to their respective campuses (Bearden, Karns and West) to conduct them. Worse yet, from a math and science standpoint, all of the dual enrollment offerings were in English composition. Pellissippi State’s president, Allen Edwards says, “We’d be delighted to offer math, but no one has asked us to do that.”

As Wright envisions it, the four-year math and science requirements would be phased in starting with members of a high school graduating class who’d be made aware of them prior to their freshman year. “We’ll roll it in so their expectation will be that by their senior year that will be a requirement to graduate,” she says. Under that approach, the cost during the first two or three years might be minimal.

When might the roll in start? “Next year I hope,” says Wright. And so do I.