“The Experiences of One New York City High School Cohort” exemplifies the importance and challenge of educational research. It is important to know that high school graduation rates in New York City are improving and that college-going and college-persistence are similarly headed in the right direction. It is also good to know that positive new policies, such as sensible rules to decrease the number and length of suspensions, were adopted even before this study was complete.
The challenge, though, is that thorough, scholarly research takes time that high school students, who are rapidly approaching college and career, just don’t have. The next mayor and chancellor must both implement changes that, while not yet proven by gold-standard research, are clearly aligned to post-secondary opportunities.
Let’s focus on a biggie. Do all students need to pass Algebra II? This is especially relevant for the many students identified in the study who are following a high school pathway that does not lead to readiness for college or career.
For New York students who started ninth grade this fall, the Regents and Advanced Regents diploma each require six credits of math for high school graduation, including two credits of Advanced Math, either in geometry or Algebra II. Yet a recent analysis determined that graduation requirements most likely to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards must include math in each year of high school and convey substantial content typically taught in Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II classes. City authorities say they will likely raise the graduate requirements to eight math credits. They need to make that change immediately to help students succeed on the forthcoming Common Core assessments, which are planned for the 2014-2015 school year.
Students often make premature and uninformed decisions about their future. How many 13- or 14-year-olds know what they want to be when they grow up—or what it would take to get there? If they don’t take Algebra II in high school, students will be out of the running for a host of careers, ranging from engineering to health care, finance and management. Leaders in Career and Technical Education recommend that students in each of their 81 career clusters take Algebra II and one additional advanced math course. Without strong high school course requirements, New York City runs the risk of enabling middle school students to set out on a path to nowhere.
But job relevance should not be the only measure of what a high school class is worth. Classes like Algebra II can benefit even those who won’t ever use them at work, because they teach logical thinking, complex problem solving, and other critical habits of mind.
There is also ample evidence nationwide that well-heeled white or Asian students are encouraged to take rigorous courses while low-income and minority students are not. Without challenging graduation requirements including Algebra II, this gap is likely to grow, burying our hopes of diversifying the STEM workforce.
Last but not least, there is a clear benefit of graduating students who have mastered mathematics—the language of science, technology, and engineering. It is a benefit to the person with STEM skills who out-earns her colleagues without those skills. STEM Jobs requiring an Associates’ or less in the New York metro area pay on average $65,297 whereas non-STEM jobs pay $37,614. The differential for jobs requiring a Bachelor’s degree or more is similar: STEM jobs pay $104,372 while non-STEM jobs pay $82,137. Higher wages also provide a better tax base for the city and state and contribute to overall economic development.
The total number of job openings projected in New York State between 2010 and 2020 is 3,346,000. Of that total, 9% require less than a high school diploma and only 23% require a high school diploma. No doubt, the new mayor and chancellor will see New York City’s future in the faces of high school graduates well prepared for their future in a digital economy.
Linda P. Rosen is the CEO of Change the Equation (CTEq). Dr. Rosen has worked on scaling up research-based best practices in STEM learning, working at the state, local and federal level to implement these practices to ensure long-term sustainability and success.