Graduation requirements in Texas and extended school year in Virginia

A couple of interesting things happened this week in education news. First, in Texas, the State Board of Education (SBOE) had discussions relating to the implementation of House Bill 5 (HB5), the omnibus education bill that was unanimously passed back in the spring. Second, and completely unrelated, a school district in Virginia (where a good friend of mine lives) started gathering public input on possibly starting a year-round school calendar.  Since I can’t seem to control myself, I thought I would address both.

Most of the press that HB5 received back in the spring had to do with the drastic reduction in the number of standardized tests that Texas public high school students would be subjected to. It eliminated ten of the 15 tests that students would have had to pass in order to graduate. The ones that still remain are English I, English II, Algebra I, Biology and US History. Thanks to the work of many advocates such as Texans Advocating for Meaningful State Assessment (TAMSA) and truly grass-roots efforts, the bill was finally signed by Governor Perry over the outcry of many corporate interests (such as Pearson).

But the bill addressed much more than just standardized tests. It drastically changed the graduation options for students starting with the class of 2014-2015. Until now, students had exactly three options for a degree plan:  Distinguished, Recommended and Minimum.  Students graduating on the Minimum plan, by state law, were not eligible to attend a four year university directly out of high school. This plan was primarily for over-age students or special education students that received a heavily modified curriculum. The vast majority of students graduated on the Recommended plan, which had the standard four years of each core subject (English, Math, Science and Social Studies) and various electives. The Distinguished plan was very similar to the Recommended plan with the added requirement that students had to have at least four ‘advanced’ courses, such as AP, Dual Credit or International Baccalaureate classes. Many students, parents and educators were not satisfied with the lack of options but it was what it was.

With HB5, all three of these plans were scrapped. Moving forward, there will be a Foundation plan (which will be similar to the Minimum plan…very few students should take this option) and a choice of five different endorsements. These endorsements include STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), Business and Industry, Arts and Humanities, Public Services and Multidisciplinary. Within these endorsements the student can get the ‘standard’ endorsement or choose to pursue the ‘distinguished’ endorsement, which will require ‘advanced’ courses in each of the core areas as well as in their chosen field of study.

The math requirement, specifically, is what made the headlines last week. As HB5 is written, only students pursuing the STEM endorsement would be required to take Algebra 2. Students in other paths would still need four years of math, but they would have options that would be more in line with their chosen career path (business math, statistics, personal finance, etc). Any student pursuing the distinguished level for any endorsement would still need to take Algebra 2.

Since I am a high school math teacher, I had several people ask me what I thought of this. I’m pretty sure they were expecting some kind of fire and brimstone diatribe along the lines of “WHAT?!?! Every single kid won’t be forced to take Algebra 2 anymore? What kind of ridiculous black magic is going on up in Austin? Surely they can’t be serious?!?!” To the contrary, my reaction was the exact opposite. Finally kids taking Algebra 2 will actually want to take Algebra 2. For all of those kids that will be pursuing a trade after high school (which is an important part of society, let’s not forget), or will learn how to take over the family business, or will focus on their attention toward a foreign language or music, they will be able to take classes that will properly engage them while still taking math classes that will help them be productive members of the community. If those students want to set themselves apart from their peers by taking Algebra 2 (or other advanced math courses), they may certainly still do that. I think giving kids (and, of course, their parents) the freedom of that choice is a huge step in the right direction.

It should be noted that the SBOE was apparently considering requiring ALL students to take Algebra 2, regardless of what endorsement they chose. This would have flown in the face of the legislative intent of HB5 and basically returned us to the minimum, recommended and distinguished plans. Thankfully they did decide to stay with the intent of HB5. A final vote is coming in January.

One criticism of this change to 11 different graduation plans is the following: it will put a huge burden on smaller schools and districts to offer all the necessary classes (and therefore teachers and resources). If policy makers are truly committed to giving students this kind of choice, then it should be a moot point. Budgeting decisions should start by looking at the efficiency of both state and district level governance. If we put the money where it is needed…in the classrooms, instead of into bureaucracy…I’ll go on a limb and say that most schools would be able to offer the necessary classes.

Extended School Year

A college friend of mine that lives in Rockingham County, Virginia posted a link this week asking for feedback on the possibility of having a year-round school calendar. As expected, there was some spirited discussion.

As I see it, here are the pros and cons of an extended school year

Pros

  • Flexible schedule options, allowing kids/parents to choose a track that would give them extended breaks at different times of the year, not just during the summer. For example, perhaps a couple weeks around harvest time for those involved in farming or a couple weeks around the playoff season for athletes.
  • With the state mandate still being 180 instructional days, this would allow schools to offer more elective choices (Art, music, theater, physical education, recess, etc.).
  • The ‘summer lag’ that students and teachers alike struggle with at the beginning of the school year would be drastically reduced since there would be no break longer than 2-3 weeks at a time.
  • The actual start time of a school day could be modified. Scientific research has shown that a teenage brain just doesn’t wake up until 10am or so. Would this allow high schools to start at that time? This could actually reduce the number of busses needed for transportation as the start times for different levels could be staggered to allow for a single bus. Sort of out of the box, but something to consider

     Cons

  • Those flexible schedule options would be a logistical nightmare. Would schools need several full sets of faculty to accommodate the different tracks that students would be on? Teachers certainly need some breaks as well. 
  • Schools would probably rather use that extra time to do more drill-and-kill for test prep purposes instead of re-investing in electives
  • Summer camps and family vacations might look considerably different

 As an educator, I would be willing to try an extended school year. It would be a bumpy road to get all the kinks ironed out, but the flexibility is something that intrigues me.

I just realized how much I put in this one post. I knew it would end up being long, but didn’t think it would be nearly 1300 words. If you’ve actually made it through the whole thing, thanks. As always, any comments are welcome.

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One comment

  1. O.K. I’m gonna be real honest here. Hammy, as much as I loved your classes and having my noodle regularly cooked, I will admit that as a graphic designer I never use all the complex math I learned in algebra and Pre-ap calculus. So hearing this makes me happy for the students who will get to focus on their passions under this new degree plan. You have no idea how many odd looks I get in my major for having such a heavy science background when most of the students come from more arty backgrounds. Although, I do enjoy thinking differently when it helps me come up with something no one else thought of.

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