05/10/2013 01:46 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

When Are We Ever Gonna Have to Use Algebra II? Sooner Than You Think

Is Algebra II irrelevant for most students? The answer is yes, if we are to believe a new report from the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE), which finds that few community college courses require much more than a solid grounding in middle school math. So, should states strip Algebra II out of their high school graduation requirements? Not so fast.

There are a host of reasons why states shouldn't hurry to dethrone Algebra II or other advanced math courses.

• More jobs require Algebra II than NCEE suggests. Citing a Georgetown University study, the NCEE report's authors state that only "five percent of the working population" needs "the sequence of mathematics courses [including Algebra II] that are required of students who will go on to take calculus." Two problems here: first, Georgetown's five percent figure encompasses only those jobs that meet Georgetown's definition of "STEM jobs," which doesn't include any jobs in math-dependent fields like finance, social science, management, or health care. In fact, the study cites a shortage of skilled STEM workers because so many of them are diverted into those fields. Second, NCEE implies that Algebra II is nothing more than a stepping stone to calculus. In fact, 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.

• We don't know if the seven community colleges in the NCEE report are typical of all community colleges. Do they offer a wide range of programs? Do their classes actually teach the skills businesses demand? Are their graduates successful in jobs that pay well? The report doesn't say.

• Just because some community colleges' standards are low doesn't mean that we should lower high school standards, too. The NCEE report's authors concede that the community colleges they studied had low expectations for mathematics. Should their standards therefore dictate what we expect of high school students? The authors are right to be concerned that many high school graduates cannot clear even a low bar. This is the challenge of U.S. school reform in a nutshell. Yet surely the answer is not to lower the bar now so that we can raise it again later. Instead, we have to step up our support for students earlier in K-12.

• Without a state requirement for Algebra II, low-income or minority students may be steered into less challenging courses. There is ample evidence 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, this gap is unlikely to shrink, burying our hopes of diversifying the STEM workforce.

• Without strong high school course requirements, 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? If they don't take Algebra II in high school, students will be out of the running for a host of careers, from engineering to health care. We run the risk of enabling middle school students to set out on a very early path that narrows their future. A broad foundation in math opens doors later on, especially as old jobs disappear and entirely new industries that we have yet to even imagine come on the scene.

Job relevance should not be the only measure of what a high school class is worth. There are many, many things I learned in high school--from Shakespeare to cell biology--that I don't use in my job. That doesn't mean that the skills, the way of thinking, taught in those courses are not worth learning. That certainly doesn't mean that we should simply chuck them out of the classroom. If we do, the resulting curriculum would be shorter than McGuffey's Reader. Let's not forget that 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.

None of this is to say that the traditional high school curriculum should be graven in stone. Students need a better grasp of statistics and data analysis. Schools need to emphasize the real-world applications of fields like Algebra. Too many high school students are taking classes with grand titles that actually teach lower-level content. And, yes, traditional boundaries between courses may break down as we better understand the kinds of math we need in work and life.

Yet we cannot allow a shallow view of work readiness to constrain our vision of what education should be. If states retreat from challenging coursework, poor and minority students may pay the biggest price.

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