Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca and the State Education Board, in response to the poor performance of Vermont high school students on standardized math tests, are about to lay a requirement that all Vermont students take and pass Algebra, Algebra II, and Geometry in order to graduate. Our advice? Proceed cautiously lest they unintentionally water down high school math curricula more than they have.

The knee jerk reaction of education policy controllers to poor performance of school students is to lay stiffer requirements on them to graduate. That satisfies the adults' need to congratulate themselves on doing something about a chronic problem that nothing, yet, has solved. Invariably, though, it leads to lowering standards in the actual classroom.

Rather than stiffen the performance and accomplishment of students, the courses will be watered down so that everyone can pass. That way no one will be stopped from graduating by the inclusion of subjects that haven't, don't, and never will make sense to them. We've seen it happen over and over in the past.

Over the years, the content of Algebra I already has been split into Algebra I and II -- two years to do what kids used to have to do in only one. Remember when Algebra II used to end with beginning chapters of Trigonometry? No more; trig is a whole new and equally vitiated course sometime near the end of a student's high school years. Or, how about English instruction? Nobody teaches grammar and sentence structure anymore, because, say the majority of English teachers, the kids don't need it. In truth, many of their teachers don't know grammar, and that's why they don't teach it.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. These periodic rushes to stiffen the requirements for all students to graduate are Einsteinian insanity. The tension between weakening or stiffening course and graduation requirements in order to better educate kids has, and will always favor a bastard cross between the two by way of stiffer requirements begetting weaker courses, until a heretofore suppressed in the name of egalitarianism, reality becomes a defining part of the mindset of the bureaucrats. That reality is that when someone's cup runneth over, you can't put anything more into it. If you try, the liquid will just make a mess on the floor.

Some people's cups never runneth over. Some people's cups runneth over before they ever get to symbolic math. No amount of bureaucratic tinkering is going to change the fact that a 98-lb. weakling is never going to press 200 lbs. And no amount of pretense that everybody can learn everything is going to change the fact that some people can learn, and some people can't, and never the twain shall meet.


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