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Martha Dominguez Understands the New America and the Need for Academic Rigor -- Will the Rest of Us?

02/28/2014 03:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014

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by William McKenzie

Martha Dominguez is my new hero. Really. And Texas ought to be listening to the El Paso educator. So should the rest of the country, for that matter.

Dominguez was the lone member of the Texas State Board of Education to recently vote to uphold expectations for Texas high school students. The panel was presented with a proposal to drop the current requirement that all Texas high school students take Algebra II. The other 14 elected members approved dropping it. Not Dominguez. She cast the only no vote.

In voicing her dissent, the Democrat gave a warning shot. In the name of greater flexibility, she said, the state is lowering expectations for Texas students, the majority of whom are Hispanic.

The watering-down started last year when the Texas Legislature decided to no longer require Algebra II for graduation. The panel Dominguez serves on had a chance to keep requiring it for all students who want a special citation on their diploma that signifies their math achievement. The board did not agree to that. Instead, it decided to require Algebra II only for those students specializing in science, technology, engineering and math.

The panel also agreed to include math courses in the Texas curriculum that would allow for options like locally-developed apprenticeships. I am not against on-the-job training, but what guarantee is there that an apprenticeship will include serious work?

I caught up with Dominguez to hear why she was the only one to vote no on the Algebra II decision. She told me over the phone that she wanted the state to require the course for students' own good.

"We must have high expectations," she explained. "Our responsibility as adults is to prepare students for what they can be, even if they don't know what that is. Our responsibility is to make sure they have a choice once they graduate."

Her worry is that students may not get the preparation they need for college. Yes, college. There is a growing pushback against the emphasis on it, but a university diploma is clearly the gateway to better paying jobs.

A recent Pew Charitable Trusts report highlights this fact. Using government data, it shows that a college degree is the best means to avoid joblessness. In fact, workers without at least some college were the most likely to lose their job during a recession. And when wages went down for most Americans, the wages of those without a post-secondary degree went down more than for those with a college education.

This college issue is a particularly important one for Hispanic students. Will they be able to break the current employment trends without at least some education after high school?

The Dallas Morning News reports that only one in five Latinos is a manager or a professional. What's more, they hold only seven percent of middle management jobs in U.S. public companies.

Issues other than education could contribute to that troubling data. Companies may lack an aggressive streak when it comes to promoting Latinos.

Still, a college degree is one sure way to get a shot at making it. That's why the decision that Dominguez protested is so troubling. College becomes more remote for Hispanic students if they lack strong math skills. Universities look at Algebra II as a key indicator for whether a student is ready for higher education. Algebra II, for example, is needed for admission at some leading universities.

This is not a theoretical concern in Texas and California, the nation's two largest states. Just over half the students in Texas public schools are Hispanic. At least half of the California student body is Latino.

Yet in California, Hispanics trail the population of the state as a whole when it comes to earning a college degree. A study two years ago by Washington-based Excelencia in Education found that only 16 percent of California Latinos held a degree. The figure for the state as a whole was 39 percent. Worse, the report noted, the percentage of Hispanics earning college degrees was declining by some measures.

I am presenting a blizzard of statistics, so here is the big point amidst all these details: Academic rigor can help kids, not harm them.

We are in a period where that idea is under assault. Witness the pushback in Texas against challenging math courses and in states like New York against the Common Core standards.

Fortunately, Martha Dominguez understands the need for rigor and how that especially benefits the America of the next quarter century. Minority students, especially Latinos, will greatly influence our economic future.

Will they be ready? For that matter, will all students?
They sure won't be prepared if we roll back expectations.

William McKenzie is editorial director of the George W. Bush Institute