Why High Schools Should Prioritize Proficiency in Writing and Algebra II

Image credit: VLDS

Virginia high school students who earned the more academically demanding Advanced Studies diploma were six times more likely to have earned an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree within four years of graduating. That’s one of the most recent findings to emerge from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS), a system that matches de-identified data from multiple state data sources, allowing researchers to track the progression of Virginians from school to college and into the workforce.

A study of “postsecondary persistence,” the likelihood of a student persisting through college long enough to earn a degree, also found that students who scored “advanced proficient” on their Algebra II Standards of Learning and end-of-course writing SOLs were far more likely than their peers to enroll and graduate from college within four years.

Why does this matter? Because experts estimate that by 2018 65% of all jobs will require some level of post-secondary education or training. “It is critical that Virginia’s high schools ensure that students graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for success in post secondary programs,” write the authors Deborah L. Jonas and Marshall W. Garland in “Virginia’s 2008 On-Time Graduation Rate Cohort Four year college enrollment, persistence and completion.

“This research provides important insights into the value of the Advanced Studies diploma — and the courses within the diploma – in preparing students for success in life.” In particular, it documents the importance of ensuring students reach high achievement in mathematics and English courses.

That may not sound like the most dramatic finding in the world, but it does lead to important public policy conclusions. (The authors did not draw these conclusions — I am drawing them.). Not only should high schools encourage students to strive for Advanced Studies diplomas, they should focus resources (e.g. the best teachers) on English and algebra courses. Students need writing and math skills to make it through college. All other courses — history, foreign languages, physical education, various elective studies — are worthwhile but less essential.

In the future, we should be seeing more research like this based upon VLDS data. Hopefully, Virginia’s government and political leaders will use the research to guide public policy. I don’t under-estimate the power of ideology and bureaucratic inertia to trump research when it comes to reforming the system, but hope springs eternal.


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31 responses to “Why High Schools Should Prioritize Proficiency in Writing and Algebra II”

  1. larryg Avatar

    More and more data points to the fact that high school students, both college-bound and workforce-bound, evade and avoid the more robust academic courses. The former because the parents and kids want good a good QCA to get into a “good” college and the later – so they can graduate with a diploma rather than be counted as a dropout.

    consider this from the Wall Street Journal:

    Skills Shortage Means Many Jobs Go Unfilled
    More Small Businesses Find Qualified Workers Are Hard to Come By

    About 33% of 848 small-business owners and chief executives said they had unfilled job openings in June because they couldn’t identify qualified applicants, up from 31% of 811 owners nearly two years ago,


    The tightening of the labor market is one factor, according to economists. The unemployment rate in June was 6.1%, down from 8.2% two years ago. A shortage of workers with the right skills and experience is also a major impediment.

    In the latest WSJ/Vistage survey, 35% of 270 services businesses said they couldn’t identify qualified candidates, versus 12% of the 135 manufacturing firms, and 8% of 85 wholesale trade businesses.


    You really can’t blame the schools if the parents themselves don’t want their kids to graduate with robust academic knowledge.

    The “dumbing down” is not the schools – it’s the parents and the schools are basically responding to what their clients (parents and kids) want.

    More and more, AP is considered a scam because the kids who earn AP cannot go much further in College without remedial courses.

    we have a 21st century economy and the kids and parents want 20th century College degrees.

    so the companies can’t find enough qualified workers … that’s terrible when we talk about high jobless rates and people who need entitlements. US companies are advocating for more H1B visas to bring in qualified foreign workers.

    we spend a lot of time blaming colleges and we fight against tougher standards in high school…

    it’ s really us. Almost no one is demanding that we have a more rigorous curriculum and we have more and more people opposing the Common Core which is aligned with European Standards.

    we fret about the deficit and debt. we worry about entitlements and the welfare state. We blame the schools and the colleges but really at the end of the day – too many of us are looking for the easy way ahead.

    In the best country on the planet – we whine about immigration and overseas workers taking our jobs – but we leave … good jobs..21st century jobs on the table – because we’re not willing to work hard to get them – we forfeit them to others.

    the only gloom and doom here – is self inflicted.

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      Hi Larry –

      I don’t see the data at that link to support your argument. Yes, some kids avoid hard classes. However, more kids are taking much harder classes than they were when I graduated. We didn’t have the option of AP and IB – the wide availability of those courses is something terrific and new – and good competitive schools look at what classes you took, not just your GPA.

      Taking a light load is a way to be uncompetitive right from the start. I have a teenage family member who is hoping to go to Stanford – she isn’t taking a light load, and no one has suggested that she do so. Same for lots of her friends. Who are these parents supposedly avoiding tough courses? I don’t see it among my friends and acquaintances.

      I looked at the WSJ article you linked to. It actually didn’t support your argument.

      The examples of unfilled jobs were for a landscape manager with both landscaping and managerial experience, a small business having trouble competing with larger companies for Microsoft talent because the smaller company had less opportunity, and a small company that was having no problems with recruiting because they offered generous salaries.

      NONE of these are cases where the education system has failed, or that we do not have domestic talent. In one case, they are looking for a particular combination of experiences – not training – that are not particularly academic; in another, they are competing for PC certifications that are open to all comers and that are often mastered by people with no college, but are having difficulty competing for talent because they are not offering as good a career and benefit path as larger companies; and the last is a small company successfully competing for STEM talent by paying them well.

      The marketplace works for hiring, too. If you are not offering as good a chance for pay, benefits, advancement, and learning as another employer, you may have trouble hiring even if there are plenty of people with the qualifications you seek. Try paying them more – as the article shows, that works.

      I am at a loss as to your statement that AP results in kids needing remedial courses. In some cases AP can substitute for a college course, in some cases not – but it provides a chance for further study in a topic beyond the usual high school level. That’s not a scam.

      I’m also very confused as to this conflation of introductory courses and remedial courses. They are not the same thing.

      1. larryg Avatar

        let me quote from the article: ” Americans Think We Have the World’s Best Colleges. We Don’t.”


        ” The fair way to compare the two systems, to each other and to systems in other countries, would be to conduct something like a PISA for higher education. That had never been done until late 2013, when the O.E.C.D. published exactly such a study.

        The project is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (known as Piaac, sometimes called “pee-ack”). In 2011 and 2012, 166,000 adults ages 16 to 65 were tested in the O.E.C.D. countries (most of Europe along with the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) and Cyprus and Russia.

        Like PISA, Piaac tests people’s literacy and math skills. Because the test takers were adults, they were asked to use those skills in real-world contexts. They might, for example, be asked to read a news article and an email, each describing a different innovative method of improving drinking water quality in Africa, and identify the sentence in each document that describes a criticism common to both inventions. The test also included a measure of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” reflecting the nature of modern work.

        As with the measures of K-12 education, the United States battles it out for last place, this time with Italy and Spain. Countries that traditionally trounce America on the PISA test of 15-year-olds, such as Japan and Finland, also have much higher levels of proficiency and skill among adults.

        Of course, all 15-year-olds are required to go to school. College is voluntary. But when the Piaac numbers are calculated for people with different levels of education, America stills falls short of most other countries.

        Only 18 percent of American adults with bachelor’s degrees score at the top two levels of numeracy, compared with the international average of 24 percent. Over one-third of American bachelor’s degree holders failed to reach Level 3 on the five-level Piaac scale, which means that they cannot perform math-related tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies.” Americans with associate’s and graduate degrees also lag behind their international peers.

        American results on the literacy and technology tests were somewhat better, in the sense that they were only mediocre. American adults were eighth from the bottom in literacy, for instance. And recent college graduates look no better than older ones. Among people ages 16 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or better, America ranks 16th out of 24 in numeracy. There is no reason to believe that American colleges are, on average, the best in the world.

        Instead, Piaac suggests that the wide disparities of knowledge and skill present among American schoolchildren are not ameliorated by higher education. If anything, they are magnified. In 2000, American 15-year-olds scored slightly above the international average. Twelve years later, Americans who were about 12 years older scored below the international average. While American college graduates are far more knowledgeable than American nongraduates, creating a substantial “wage premium” for diploma holders, they look mediocre or worse compared to their college-educated peers in other nations.

        This reality should worry anyone who believes — as many economists do — that America’s long-term prosperity rests in substantial part on its store of human capital. The relatively high pay of American workers will start to erode as more jobs are exposed to harsh competition in global labor markets. It will be increasingly dangerous to believe that only our K-12 schools have serious problems.”

        Thus – my concern is – is the USA going to be competitive for 21st century jobs or are we going to continue to believe – that having to compete with the rest of the world is somehow wrong or unfair – or that comparisons themselves are invalid even as we fret about people on entitlements.

        somehow – we set ourselves apart from the rest of the world – not only when we are successes – but when we are failures. Comparisons with other countries are “invalid”.

        we seem to think that if we graduate the best and brightest – our country will be the best in the world – and that’s a losing proposition if more and more of our less than stellar students are such abject failures that they have to receive entitlements.

        we should all worry about his. Most people rightly advocate for their kids and somewhere in the middle of that – they rationalize that if the other 1/2 of the school goes on to do service jobs – that we’re still okay.

        we’re not. the only way we’re okay – is if the rest of the world is even worse off and all the indicators say otherwise.

        we obsess over “our jobs’ going overseas or H1B coming here to take “our jobs”.

        we have to compete and that means our education systems have to compete with other education in the world

        and where we fall down – badly – over and over – is the ability to read and understand real world problems – and to be able to use core academic competencies to solve them.

        we’re not doing that. we’re actually avoiding those kinds of problems in education.

        you cannot design and build or even help to operate an autonomous vehicle with the kinds of education that most kids get these days.

        you cannot write an “app” that finds available parking spaces if you do not understand the current technologies.

        you can’t even operate a crop dusting or power line drone much less build one if you do not understand the technologies associated with them.

        these jobs – are not going to go to American students.. if we don’t recognize the realities of the PISA testing…

        every kid that gets into college via AP – is going to end up competing for fewer and fewer plane jane college grad jobs while folks with foreign surnames are going to take the high tech jobs.

        we are in denial on this. we used to be the best educated country in the world and the country that scooped up the best jobs in the world.

        that’s no longer true but we deny the reasons why.

  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    Gee ma, Algebra is so hard! And the teacher hates me! I don’t have time to do an hour of homework every night! It is just so unfair! Here I am agreeing with Larry (always worries me) but the problem is the students don’t want to do the work and their parents refuse to make them because they didn’t do it either. Expecting remedial courses in community college or college to fill the deficit is inefficient as the bad work habits and attitudes go back to elementary and middle school. I never loved math but I got through calculus. And don’t get me started on writing. Before you can teach these little losers to write you first have to get them to read and good luck with that. Seriously — look around — do you see teenagers with books? Even easy books, let alone the real stuff. Perhaps we can blame the schools a bit more for this, as long reading lists are a thing of the past, but again this is deep in the new culture.

    I’m not sure what we do. My two turned out great with their STEM careers. My two read books and that was very much parental influence and example. But I still think this country is in deep, deep kimchee.

  3. larryg Avatar

    well… kids don’t read the way their parents did.. it’s totally different!

    kids will “follow” a subject they want to learn through all kinds of non-book paths…

    I find us doing the same. want to change the battery on a key fob or the cabin filter on your car -just go to you tube!

    I don’ think it is STEM per se. It’s the language of communication, of math, of science… and not necessarily in the way it has been written in books.

    but I still think it’s a hell of a thing when in this country – we are leaving 21st century jobs on the table because we have not produced the educated workforce that can take those jobs.

    and for those that think we have the best colleges – we don’t:

    Americans Think We Have the World’s Best Colleges. We Don’t.

    Americans have a split vision of education. Conventional wisdom has long held that our K-12 schools are mediocre or worse, while our colleges and universities are world class. While policy wonks hotly debate K-12 reform ideas like vouchers and the Common Core state standards, higher education is largely left to its own devices. Many families are worried about how to get into and pay for increasingly expensive colleges. But the stellar quality of those institutions is assumed.

    Yet a recent multinational study of adult literacy and numeracy skills suggests that this view is wrong. America’s schools and colleges are actually far more alike than people believe — and not in a good way. The nation’s deep education problems, the data suggest, don’t magically disappear once students disappear behind ivy-covered walls.

    The standard negative view of American K-12 schools has been highly influenced by international comparisons. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, periodically administers an exam called PISA to 15-year-olds in 69 countries. While results vary somewhat depending on the subject and grade level, America never looks very good. The same is true of other international tests. In PISA’s math test, the United States battles it out for last place among developed countries, along with Hungary and Lithuania.”


    but remember – for the US to leave 21st century jobs – on the table – for foreign-educated to scoop up – is a telling indicator of our problems – that we seem to spend a lot of time trying to blame on others.

    I don’t care if kids learn by squinting at a cell phone or spending the day on you tube but I do care that our parents are lobbying against more robust tougher academic standards. I cannot imagine a dumber thing to be doing. We live in a 21st century world and we have a way over-valued perception of our college system that we think is world class. it’s not.

    we have the best higher education in the world – yes – but the average graduate is average at best.

  4. Darrell Avatar

    And of course those 21st Century jobs left on the table are exactly the ones Americans won’t do. They won’t do them, not because they are unqualified, but because the company management won’t pay the salary. They won’t pay the salary because the H1B types work for lower wages and less benefits.

    But it’s all because our students are just slackers, isn’t it?

  5. larryg Avatar

    To Darrell and Virginiagal

    BR limits the number of links I can provide before it takes it to moderation but in general – US Schools rank about 25th in core academic disciplines compared to other countries -that’s pretty well known.

    In one of my other posts – I provided – the studies are also showing that our Colleges – not our top colleges but our middle pack colleges rank lower than Europe.

    if you GOOGLE : ” Americans Think We Have the World’s Best Colleges. We Don’t.”

    is there a skills gap that is driving the 1HB or is it foreign people no better qualified that are willing to work for less? That’s what Darrell thinks but clearly there are even folks like Bill Gates and others who believe that our documented lower academic performance is showing up by prospective employees who are not qualified for the higher skilled jobs.

    The WSJ article did get into other issues and yes it did talk about landscaping as having a skill deficit – for management – and yes I agree that does not seem to ring true and I should have said also quoted that to be fair.

    Google this: ” Nearly 1 In 4 High School Graduates Can’t Pass Military Entrance Exam”

    then this:

    ” U.S. Manufacturers Say Skills Gap Could Compromise Competitiveness”

    then this:

    ” College Preparedness Lacking, Forcing Students Into Developmental Coursework, Prompting Some To Drop Out”

    then Virginiagal:

    ” Are AP courses worth the effort? An interview with Stanford education expert Denise Pope”

    My view is that there is abundant evidence that US students score lower on core academic and technology subjects – both in HS and College.

    we do have some very bright kids who score high but they are a smaller percentage of the total than other countries who generally have more students scoring higher.

    Darrell, if I understand it right, thinks we should protect US jobs that pay more, (I think) and not allow foreign folks to come here to take them or allow our jobs to be outsourced if the goal of that is to get cheaper labor .

    I’m conflicted on that but I feel that we clearly are not graduating an employable workforce – except for the sliver that virginiagal2 alludes to.

    down a notch – the college is mediocre with few really taking the more rigorous subjects and back in HS – we have 20-30% who will ultimately end up in the lowest paid service jobs – and receiving entitlements.

    I’m not a person who thinks we are doomed. I think we should at least be able to compete with Europe and Asia on job – even if they might be lower paid as a result of globalization.

    Virginiagal2 – you are making me work harder to support my argument. congrats! I still think my basic premise here is fairly easy to substantiate.

    so I’ll finish with this one:

    google: ” Beyond the Rhetoric
    Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy”

    ” Every year in the United States, nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits. This gap between college eligibility and college readiness has attracted much attention in the last decade, yet it persists unabated. While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses. Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college-preparatory curriculum, and high school exit examination scores did not ensure college readiness.”

  6. larryg Avatar

    here is one of the links that I had previously allude to in content but did not provide the link:

    ” Advanced Placement classes failing students”


    you can find both pro and con article on this subject but what troubles me even more is that many students who take the AP in high school lack the education to pass it. Only the top students seem to do well on the AP and in turn are truly ready for college-level material, i.e. College Readiness.

    and I did want to mention that I myself got to College -only to find that I had to take remedial English and Math before they would let me take more courses and I did have my challenges. Some of my issues came from (beyond laziness) a child in a military family that would transfer every 2-3 years and every school had it’s own curricula – there were no standard ones and worse they usually did not assess incoming students to see if there was a gap between the students knowledge and the current school curriculum track.

    the best kids live go to one school – and have college-educated parents with good core competencies in language and math. The worst kids – have parents with minimal high school educations, chaotic family situations and move around.

    our schools have the things available for students with advantages to excel but typically don’t do very good with kids from disadvantageous circumstances …

    … and my view here is that the fundamental justification – of taxing everyone for public education – is – an educated, competitive workforce that gets a job, pays taxes and does not need entitlements – not just schools for the easiest-to-teach, top echelon kids.

    otherwise – we’d be better off not having public schools and let the parents pay because if our schools are going to have 25% fail … and end up on entitlements… and not even get our share of global jobs – we – are doomed.

    this is about the economic well-being of the country.

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      Hi Larry –

      The US includes many more of its students in college than most other countries. Other countries include just the very academically strong students. Of course that is going to take the average down. And that phenomenon is also very well known.

      We do have many of the best colleges in the world. Because we also provide college for more average students, the colleges for those students are not likely to be the best in the world. None of this is surprising or problematic in and of itself.

      A different question – what the best track is for students who are not in the top tier academically – has a variety of implications – from raising our average college rating by removing lower performing students, to limiting the potential of late bloomers or first generation college students, to possible disparate impacts, to reductions in student debt by bypassing college for students who might not finish school. It’s not “our colleges aren’t great” – it’s that we have great colleges and we have colleges for kids that, in other countries, would not go to college.

      You can’t educate a wider and deeper range of kids without lowering your average. The one goes with the other.

      H1B is complex. There are places where we have shortages. There are places where we have extraordinary performers that companies want to hire and bring in new talent. In my personal opinion, those people should get green cards, not H1B. We already have multiple programs to bring in exceptional talent and to let graduate students stay. Green cards give the employee control – they are not tied to a specific employer – and bypasses the abuses inherent in workers whose visa is held by their employer.

      When a “shortage” exists year over year, for decades, it isn’t a shortage, it’s a structural problem. For at least half to 60% of H1B, the jobs are going to outsourcing companies, not to people with specific, hard to find skills.

      When the majority of visa holders are average talent doing ordinary jobs already or previously held by US citizens, that is not indicative of a skills gap driving that part of H1B. That is a gap between the market rate for those jobs and what employers want to pay if they can import less expensive talent. H1B is used for jobs that can’t be outsourced.

      I have seen the articles about the military exam and manufacturing jobs. The manufacturing article discusses the difficulty of getting people interested in working in manufacturing, and other issues. For manufacturing jobs with decent wages that provide training on their specific processes, assuming they are located near a population center, the response tends to be very high. I will comment that the wages they tend to pay are often unimpressive for the level of skill they seem to expect.

      Stigmas with working manufacturing jobs, low wages, and a lack of abundant supply of pre-trained people who have studied things that normally don’t result in better job prospects, are not signs of a failed educational system.

      The article about lack of preparedness pretty clearly indicates it’s about students who are not strong college candidates. In the US, we let those kids go to college and give them every chance to succeed in college. In Europe, not so much.

      I read the same AP article you’re referencing. It does not indicate AP is a scam. It indicates AP is a good thing, if you are prepared for it. If you are a marginal student, you might be better off focusing on the basics first. That’s common sense. That doesn’t at all support your argument that AP is a scam.

      I do not believe we have a smaller percentage of the overall population of very bright kids who score high. I do believe we have a larger pool of college students, so the very bright kids are a smaller percentage of the college pool – not the overall population, which I believe is roughly the same for all countries. Those are two different percentages and you appear to be conflating them.

      Darrell appears to me to be arguing that, if we have US workers that can fill existing jobs, that we not artificially reduce the wages of those jobs by bringing in foreign workers to replace them. If that is his argument, I would tend to agree with him. The purpose of our immigration system is not to reduce US wages.

      As far as I can tell, he is not referencing overseas outsourcing or protecting jobs.

      I do believe we are graduating an employable workforce and I believe much of the publicity about educational deficits is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate this fact, to make outsourcing and artificial wage deflation seem more palatable.

      Re your comment about remedial courses – again, we are enrolling students that, in other countries, would not go to college – students whose parents are poor, illiterate, students who are not proficient in English, students who do not have good study skills. We give more people more chances to succeed. Statistics showing that are not signs of failure, they are expected.

      The majority of new jobs being created are low paid service jobs – from memory, about 8 of the top 10 (in actual numbers of jobs) of new jobs being created. The actual number – not percentage growth, which can be from a very small baseline, but total number – of jobs requiring the highest skills is actually fairly modest, and IMHO we have more talent than we are able currently to use.

      No matter what we do educationally, a significant percentage of the workforce is going to hold those low skill jobs, unless and until those jobs are replaced by automation or robotics.

      1. Larry, feel free to post the links in your comments. Any comment with two or more (maybe it’s three or more) links have to be moderated, which means I have to see it and approve it. I may not always see it on a timely basis, but rarely will more than a few hours go by.

        1. larryg Avatar

          thanks Jim.. I’m learning how to construct the GOOGLE searches so I don’t have to worry about how many links I provide.

          you do get to them but sometimes not in a discussion… and they just get held.

      2. larryg Avatar

        virginiagal2 – you ask some tough questions that will take some time and verbiage to respond to and I will.. but need time to read and respond.

        but right off – the PISA for K-12 is supposed to be representative full demographic samples not top end European/Asian vs our full demographic.

        read up on PISA…

        also – we have not gotten worse. – we’ve stayed the same while other countries have evolved to tougher standards.

        also – what to do about less than top tier – we need to do what Germany does with it’s two track. the second track is technical , not college but the curricular is still robust and drives towards technical non-college work – like being able to understand and operate higher tech equipment.

        give me time to more thoroughly read through you comment..

  7. I taught high school biology for 30.5 years in 2 states. I taught Anatomy labs for nursing students in a degree program for 21 years. The anatomy students were working adults who furnished their own motivation. The students and I both worked during the day. The nursing students had paid for the privilege or if they had Pell grants risked losing the aid due to poor performance. I was challenged to perform well myself when I walked into a room of 20 people who were not there to play. My high school Anatomy class had the same sort of motivation. My esteemed colleague, Steven S., said “smart ” kids were harder to teach because if you didn’t do a good job they make things difficult. Much can be accomplished if you don’t have to produce or coerce motivation . ( The floggings will continue until morale improves) .

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: ” My esteemed colleague, Steven S., said “smart ” kids were harder to teach because if you didn’t do a good job they make things difficult. Much can be accomplished if you don’t have to produce or coerce motivation . ( The floggings will continue until morale improves) .”

      they are harder to teach but let me ask – in the information age – for a kid that is academically capable and self-actuated what is the purpose of a teacher?

      serious question.

      I know for the lower end folks – they need someone to take them through the material…

      My view is that if a kid is capable and motivated.. he/she should be ready, willing and able to go forward with just access to knowledge.

      the lower end kids, especially in middle and high school are basically academically crippled from not succeeding in k-5… they’re essentially academic zombies who need a much different approach than bright and academically capable kids need.

      and it’s perverse – the best teachers most want to teach the academically capable and motivated kids and they usually get assigned to the schools that have those kids.

      Don’t get me wrong. the hardest job in the world – is trying to be a good teacher… no question ..

  8. Here’s a couple things that I thought about throughout my teaching career.
    In the early 70’s my education professor, who had actually taught kids said, “1/3 of your students won’t learn regardless of what you do, 1/3 will learn in spite of you , and you will make the difference for the other 1/3. ” In my first year of teaching middle school, a veteran teacher saw me looking frustrated in the hallway. She said, “Mr. A. , everybody goes to school, the President and the murderers”

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: ” “1/3 of your students won’t learn regardless of what you do, 1/3 will learn in spite of you , and you will make the difference for the other 1/3. ” In my first year of teaching middle school, a veteran teacher saw me looking frustrated in the hallway. She said, “Mr. A. , everybody goes to school, the President and the murderers””

      I think I like Mr. Lwood a lot! I think about kids in the 1st and 2nd grade – and I know that you can reach them at that grade although even then if they have crappy parents, it’s a job…

      but if kids don’t make it in k-3, then they lose hope when they realize they are hopelessly behind and by middle and high school – 1/3 or more are effectively lost unless they can get into a vocational program of some kind.

      some kids bloom way late and come back in Community college or other vocational schools.

      but yes – ever single murderer was once an innocent child..

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    Can I summarize this blog and all the comments?

    Reading, writing and arithmetic
    Taught to the tune of a hickory stick

    OK – the hickory stick is a metaphor these days for strict parental supervision. However, I remain stunned to hear that being good in writing and math is new theory.

    I remain equally stunned to hear that parents matter. Personally, I’d start putting parents in jail over the weekend when their children fail to attend school. And attending teacher conferences would be a pre-requisite for getting government benefits, including the benefit of taking tax deductions against personal income for wealthier parents.

    Who would watch the kids while the parents were locked up? The state. The kids would be in juvenile detention those same weekends.

    Hickory stick indeed.

  10. billsblots Avatar

    It is unfair to the children to be forced to learn Algebra and acquire reading comprehension as an innate skill.
    Since 1st grade they’ve been told that it is okay to answer 2+2=5 because the NEA instructs teachers that this just means the child is exploring, rather than an indication of sanctioned laziness, lack of trying and parental involvement.
    Teachers cannot be expected to develop reading comprehension in their elementary students because in many classrooms 40% or more of the class is excused, revolving-door absent throughout the day to attend federally mandated English as Second Language (ESL) training. My daughter was a fourth grade teacher who’s best student experienced narcoleptic sleep episodes throughout the day. She said, “I used to try to keep her awake, until I realized she wasn’t missing anything. I was prevented from teaching new material while the ESL kids were out of the classroom, which was most of the day.”
    The NEA and the $80 Billion DoE effectively killed in two school years the once high motivation of a young teacher with a 4.0 GPA Masters degree from VCU. She now works as a certified insurance adjuster.
    Just sign up for food stamps and welfare, the Obama Administration is proud of the constantly increasing numbers of enrollees.

    1. larryg Avatar

      we can blame the NEA and Obama but it won’t fix the problem.

      the problem is we throw the newest, least capable teachers at the hardest-to-teach demographics because the better teachers want to teach the easier to teach kids.

      and yes – we ruin new teachers this way.

      but remember – this country started out as ignorant unschooled farmers who decided we need public education for their kids – when they were not needed at harvest.

      that essential truth – still holds … we still have ignorant uneducated parents.. but unlike the farmers.. they have become an under class that does not value education and that makes teaching as a profession – hell on earth for many of them.

      we need to incentivize the harder teaching positions – to pay more to attract the higher skilled… because the work is much harder.. no question about it.

      we are creating a permanent underclass that will become reliant on entitlements and/or end up in the criminal justice system.

      if we think that is our destiny – so be it. I don’t.

  11. larryg Avatar

    Europe and Asia are having the same problems we are – with automation and with more service jobs…. AND globalization


    I’d like to continue the conversation as the current participants have serious and relevant thoughts.. worth exploring…

    I do not believe our schools are as good as European, Asian or Australian schools.. in part because we pretty much abandon those kids who are not on a college track and focus our resources on kids who are on college track but even that track is dumbed down on academic rigor.

    my favorite example is those “word” problems at the back of the Math books that almost all teachers and students avoid like the plague.

    but those are the kinds of real world problems that companies actually pay good money to people to deal with.

    they are good jobs.. that exist that do not get filled as easily.

    I also think that many jobs from auto mechanic to HVAC to medical technology – require more than those jobs used to require.

    the folks that do those jobs need more than a minimal basic high school education….. the guy/gal that is going to troubleshoot the engine light on your car is not going to succeed with a backyard mechanic education.

    the person who works on your heat pump – has to understand computers.. and computer controlled equipment.. they have to know when it’s a bad sensor or a bad CPU card…

    these are not jobs that someone who barely made it through high school can do.

    Who here knows what a “flat rate” is ? If you don’t know google it and you’ll find out that your GOOD auto mechanic – one who knows how to use technology – makes a pretty good living. but the guy who cannot read a technical manner or figure out how to operate a diagnostic unit is not going to do that job – he’s going to do a “service”job.

    Our education system – should be – to provide an employable workforce – not a college track and a – “you go figure out what non-college job you want to do” track.

  12. During my teaching career I often asked myself, ” Why do I still have a job when the printing press was invented 500 years ago? ” I should be obsolete since a well-written , beautifully illustrated textbook should replace me. My explanation to myself was that education is “organic”. I think it goes back to sitting around the campfire with the tribal elders. Transmission of knowledge is enhanced when you have human interaction. Someone once said ” Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be”. “Education is what you remember after you forget all you learned”. I told a student teacher once that knowledge is a mountain up which you have climbed. Your job is to help the student make the climb, show how to make the climb, where the handholds are, and what trails to travel. I also could give feedback and modify instruction quickly. It’s tough to program a computer to do that.

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: ” My explanation to myself was that education is “organic”. I think it goes back to sitting around the campfire with the tribal elders. Transmission of knowledge is enhanced when you have human interaction. Someone once said ” Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be”. ”

      I’m not of the “school” – never have been that teachers are “extras” but I think it does require all of us to think about what a teacher really does that can’t be done by a book or machine.

      ” “Education is what you remember after you forget all you learned”. I told a student teacher once that knowledge is a mountain up which you have climbed. Your job is to help the student make the climb, show how to make the climb, where the handholds are, and what trails to travel. I also could give feedback and modify instruction quickly. It’s tough to program a computer to do that.”

      I remember my teachers and I feel I’m a better person because of it because I feel (and I know from personal experience) that teachers are also people – who care deeply about other people – especially younger people but again – what is that thing that makes a teacher something beyond a book – that say a guy like Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Edison – read and understood and benefited from without having to sit in a class and listen to another human deliver the same material verbally?

      In 3rd grade – the role of the teacher is so obvious that you never question it.

      In the 8th grade? or 12th grade?

      in college? especially sitting in an auditorium with 200 other 101 students busily scribbling in their notes or recording with their cell phones.. verses their roommates skipping the auditorium and exploring you-tube lectures?

      I don’t know.. I have opinions and I do blather about it but I also think the world has changed and education has to also.. but I also think we’ve gravitated towards the easier-to-teach and self-motivated and away from the harder-to-teach and lesser motivated – and that’s why I ask sometimes what’s the role of a teacher.

  13. I remember the Dark Ages of the early 70s when I used microfiche and the Readers Guide to Periodic Literature for research. Years later I did professional development option of an annotated bibliography at the same university. I went to a computer, typed in my topic and got a printout of where my sources were in the stacks. I have seen a cartoon of a guy in a cap and gown with a sign that said, “Thanks, Wikipedia”

  14. Delivering stuff verbally can be done by anybody. I heard about a professor who had a student recording his lecture on a tape recorder. Next class all the students were absent but a tape recorder on every desk. Another class the students came to get their machines and found a tape recorder playing on the lectern. I considered my job to put “handles” on the data that students could grasp. I had a professor who delivered his notes in a low monotone. However when he described getting up at 4 in the morning in freezing weather to observe mating rituals in Kansas ruffed grouse he was fascinating.

  15. While I agree with the sentiment, I am slightly incredulous that this might be a case where correlation does not imply causation.

    “Students who scored ‘advanced proficient’ on their Algebra II Standards of Learning and end-of-course writing SOLs were far more likely than their peers to enroll and graduate from college within four years.” It would seem non-trivial that these are the two subjects being tested on the SAT, still the primary standardized test for college admission. If the students are “advanced proficient” at the state level they are likely “advanced proficient” at the national level.

    Additionally I will say from my personal experience having graduated from a Virginia High School in the last 10 years that the more gifted students are pushed towards the Advanced Diploma by support staff. Thus it’s not surprising that students who earned Advanced Diplomas went on to be more successful, since they had more potential for success to begin with.

  16. Posted on behalf of Tom Ballou Jr.:

    James, I think we have to be careful with this data. IT is almost certainly true about the 65% of jobs needing some post-secondary education; however, that DOES NOT mean that they all need to go to UVa to get physics degrees. About half of the 65% actually need to go to a technical school to gain a technical skill. For that group APPLIED math courses, which could include trigonometry and solid geometry (one of my favorites!) as well as just plain good math applied to material science and pipefitting, are as or more important that Algebra II. I would also argue that this group doesn’t need to be able to write the great American novel or even short story; they need to be able to understand technical writing and journals. I like reading Hawking, but that won’t get them a job. I think analytical geometry is fun, but that won’t get them a job as a pipefitter, welder or even a computer tech.

    Four year degrees are very nice and certainly the recent studies about wealth and income disparity point to the value, but along the continuum, there are lots of good paying jobs that require something else, something that is more within the reach and interest of a lot of kids who need to be able to earn a living.

    We need both, coach!

    1. larryg Avatar

      Mr. Ballou is 100% dead on in my view.

      He has said much more succinctly what I’ve been trying to articulate.

      in BOTH – AP/college-bound AND non-college tracks in High School – we have been evading and avoiding the KIND of core academic math and algebra that is fundamentally needed by all graduates looking for something more than a service job.

      kids are less and less taught – HOW TO REASON using the kind that you would for solving mathematical problems – which typically involve a series of steps – to get to a solution. Take the two trains speeding towards each other. You have to be able to think about how to go about solving the problem – what steps are needed and how to execute the steps.

      both college-bound and technical-bound need to have some level of competence in these kinds of problem solving for 21 century jobs.

      otherwise you end up in a service occupation or manual labor and – you’re then competing against immigrants and others – who possess ONLY those abilities and are willing to accept however less it takes – to actually get the work.

      This area of competency should be the purpose of our K-12 and post-secondary schools these days and it’s the issue where we get out-ranked on
      international academic comparisons.. and out-competed on global jobs.

      thank you Mr. Ballou.

  17. In one of my education courses I encountered this statement , ” America needs good philosophers and good plumbers. Otherwise, neither our theories nor our pipes will hold water”.

    1. larryg Avatar

      there’s more on this is today’s WAPO:

      ” It’s harder to be a poor student in the U.S. than in Russia”


      It isn’t easy to be a disadvantaged high school student anywhere, but the U.S. education system appears to be particularly unkind to its less privileged youth.

      Poor students have a tougher time overcoming their socioeconomic odds in the U.S. than in Canada, France, Russia, and 33 other countries, according to a new global report by the OECD. Only about 20 percent of disadvantaged students in the U.S.—those in the bottom 25th percentile of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status— show academic performance that’s in the top 25th percentile internationally.

      It’s hardly the first measure by which the U.S. education system has gravely disappointed. Last year, a similar report concluded that American adults performed worse in math, reading and technology-driven problem-solving than nearly every other country in the group of developed nations. And recent testing results have shown little to no improvement.

      But the lackluster performance among America’s underprivileged youth should be particularly troublesome. Not only is it an injustice to the growing number of low-income students entering the country’s education system, it’s also a disservice to the economic well-being of the U.S. at large. Inequity in education is both socially and financially irresponsible. Even a marginal improvement in the mathematics performance of 15-year-olds, the OECD report finds, would lead to more than $200 trillion in added economic output over the course of their working lives.”


  18. larryg Avatar

    The Algebra and related STEM is not what most jobs entail – directly – but it is the ability to analyze and solve problems of the caliber of Algebra/STEM that many 21st century jobs require.

    there are not that many pure STEM jobs available in the 21st century -but there are quite a few more jobs that are available for people who are CAPABLE of STEM-level work.

    that’s part of the logic behind AP… that if a student can take AP courses and pass the AP exams – they are demonstrating an ability to take on harder level material but the 21st jobs almost all require more and higher level education than 20th century jobs and our education system – according to international testing standards – has pretty much stayed the same while European and Asian schools have evolved.

    but while we concentrate on college – the non-college job world also requires higher level skills. A car or a heat pump are, nowdays, sophisticated computers and require those that work on them to be able to read and understand technical manuals and if anyone thinks I’m exaggerating , think about in your own case when the engine light comes out or the wi fi router goes belly up.

    I’m constantly amazed at just how little people understand their smartphones – but the reality is – some people actually do – because that’s how they make their living.

    it’s more than learning how to program in a computer language. A truly capable worker would know how to describe an object like an autonomous vehicle in mathematical equations – that then could be converted to computer code.

    these are real jobs that get paid well – for the students that enroll in AP – with a plan to go after the 21st century jobs that – ARE available.

    we’re not creating these kinds of students in most high schools these days.

    they avoid these tougher more robust disciplines often math, – in general and seek out something other than “hard science” curriculum in the belief that if they get a degree.. good things will result.

    Don’t get me wrong – we need the philosophers, and history majors and poli-science and certainly the Business degrees.. but the competition for those jobs is fierce because of the sheer number who take that track verses the available jobs… if you’re going to go that route – you need to shoot for the top 5% of the class, not the middle of the pack.

    On the other side – whether you need your car serviced or your heat pump fixed – you need an educated technician – someone who knows the technology used in modern systems – and my view is that education for these folks is just as important as AP for college – and yet we tend to prioritize the resources towards the college track – and often at the expense to the vocational track.

    again – the purpose of schools – is to utilize – tax dollars – to provide an employable workforce in the 21st century – not just provide special higher level academic services for the higher flyers.

    ever kid that we manage to graduate – with a real degree and skills so they can work – pay taxes and not need entitlements is – in my mind – just as important as every kids that takes AP and gets into college.

    It’s great that your kid did good in AP. but is your kid going to be paying entitlements for all the other kids that did not?

    we need to think about this if we are serious about education beyond the idea that it is a “good” thing.

  19. larryg Avatar

    The other aspect that concerns me is – equity of resources provided.

    we know, for instance, that in many school districts that have multiple schools – an entire school will perform less well than another school.

    why is that? How can an entire school end up with overall lower SOL scores?

    We’ll try to explain it with demographics – poverty, less educated parents, an economically-depressed area – than more often than not – strangely has the school boundary aligned with the depressed region.

    you’d think in these cases that the schools themselves would be staffed with the most experienced and skilled teachers and there would be a strong non-college curriculum track but instead these schools are often staffed with the newest, least experienced teachers and have almost no defined non-college vocational track and usually a large number of those that graduate – end up unemployed – and in need of entitlements, Section 8 housing, welfare, food stamps, MedicAid, etc.

    Even in schools that have a mix – perhaps 40% are economically disadvantaged – the results are the same – there is usually a well-defined AP track and a far less defined non-college technical track.

    You have to ask yourself – which teachers in those school are capable of teaching college-level AP courses. These would be folks, in theory, that have the qualifications to actually teach those subjects at a college.

    If your best, most capable, higher educated teachers are allocated to AP – which teachers are allocated to the non-college track curriculum? It’s often the newer less senior teachers with just a BS not an MS.

    Remember – the underlying premise of collecting taxes from everyone whether they have kids or not, for education – is to produce an employable workforce that does not need entitlements and will end up as taxpayers themselves and not continue the cycle of poverty.

    I don’t blame any educated parent for being as strong an advocate as they can for their own children – but if in doing that – we create schools that allocate resources towards college-bound – and at the expense of the economically disadvantaged – is that really helping your child who will grow up paying taxes for entitlements for others and incarceration – much of it associated with jailing people who deal drugs as a way to make a living.

    I think we’ve gotten ourselves on a wrong track with our schools – and it’s not only hurting the economically disadvantaged – it’s actually hurting our economy and our global competitiveness because we’ve essentially gotten to the point where we believe the only way to success is a college degree – even if it is a LITE degree and even if the 1/3 to 1/2 of the rest of school ends up with graduates that are either unemployable or only capable of service occupations.

    No – we cannot save every kid… it’s impossible you don’t have to convince me but we have way too many people who do not have basic skills needed for decent non-college jobs… for no real good reason other than we’ve prioritized college as a better path than the alternative.

    We should be allocating resources to K-3 for economically disadvantaged kids so that they are academically proficient in the core competencies – reading, writing and math – before those kids get to Middle school where a good number of them are already essentially lost if they don’t get remedial help – and quick. We should be allocating better teachers and more non-college track vocation content to the kids who – are capable – if taught – to graduate – with a job – even if it’s not as an engineer, doctor or lawyer.

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