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Should All Students Take Algebra 2? Who Should Decide?

In writing about the common-core standards, we've often touched on the argument about how much math students need. In this Commentary on our website, two gentlemen assert that the common core is unreasonably demanding because most people—91 percent, according to one study they cite— don't need that level of math sophistication. What's more, they say, demanding that level of math from all students essentially displaces from the curriculum courses of study that could prove valuable, such as career-tech ed.

I've heard versions of this argument before, and there's something that always hangs me up about it. It's not the question of how much math most young adults will need in their jobs, or even the curriculum-displacement issue. It's the issue of when this "how much" question gets decided for kids.

Let me try to explain by asking something of anyone who has raised kids, or who has taught them at the middle school or early high school levels: How well can 13- or 14-year-olds decide for themselves how much math they will need? Because if all kids aren't going to take the same highly rigorous math curriculum, then someone will need to decide who takes what. And that's where I start getting concerned.

Obviously, adults are going to have to be involved in helping kids decide what to take, or in deciding for them, because very few young teenagers have a clear enough idea of their pathway at that age to select math courses wisely. This is pretty much the system we have now. Kids with engaged, educated parents benefit from this advice, with or without the input of teachers and school counselors. Kids who don't have the good fortune to have engaged, educated parents are at the mercy of their teachers' and counselors' expectations—and the quality of their particular schools' courses and teachers—when course-signup time rolls around. Which is to say that course selection morphs into a class and culture issue. Not exclusively, but in patterns that are too pronounced to ignore.

Unless we have a smart plan to address these kinds of disparities, simply allowing students to take a less-rigorous curriculum—not just in math, but in any core subject—risks perpetuating the problems we have now. Just as those who advocate raising the bar for all kids need a plan for getting even the most disadvantaged kids over that bar, those who advocate allowing students to take a less-rigorous curriculum if they choose must have a plan that ensures they will still have a multitude of good career or college choices open to them when they are finally mature enough to make those choices.

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