New graduation requirements offer challenges, opportunities


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on November 12, 2013 at 7:56 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 12 at 9:47 PM

AUSTIN -- At Lanier High School students in Michael Schaffer's career and technical education class get a hands-on lesson in constructing a house.

"Everyone's stoked!" said Schaffer. "They're completely in love with my program, everything I'm doing with them. And it gets them away from their typical classroom."

The class of more than a dozen students watched with faces full of interest and excitement as Schaffer explained the mathematical concepts and degree of precision needed to frame a section of wall. Joining the students Tuesday morning, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) praised the school that's consistently innovating education.  

"I think it's pretty awesome," Howard told KVUE. "I've been talking to these students, and they're showing me how they're putting this house together."

They're also putting together credits toward graduation, and an industry certification that could open doors to a career. Earlier this year the 83rd Texas Legislature passed House Bill 5, which overhauled testing and graduation requirements. It also increased the focus on career and college readiness.

While flourishing career and technical education programs have earned well-deserved praise from lawmakers and educators across the state, many hope to make sure all Texas students graduate college ready as well. Under House Bill 5 most students must choose one of five "endorsement" tracks: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Business and Industry, Public Services, Arts and Humanities or Multidisplinary.

Among the debates over House Bill 5 has been whether students will be required or encouraged to take Algebra II, a course required for admission to many Texas colleges and universities. Business leaders, public education advocates, community activists and educators met with the state's top education officials Tuesday to discuss concerns regarding rigor.

"Jobs today are different than they used to be," Don Kendrick, chairman of the Austin Chamber Education and Talent Task Force, told KVUE. "You have to have some form of post-secondary training in order to get most of these jobs, the 41,000 jobs that are available right now in Central Texas in health care and high tech and other industries."

"We need to make sure that the endorsements do not become dead ends for students," said Laurie Posner, senior education associate with the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA). "Second we need to make sure that we don't water down mathematics and science requirements. And third we need to learn from the history of tracking in this country."

"We will need transparent information and clear triggers so the people of Texas can take action if data show disproportionate routing of poor and minority students into non-rigorous endorsements and courses," said Posner.

University of Texas physics professor and UTeach Director Michael Marder offered advice for any high school student with hopes of going to UT.

"If you want to do that, take Algebra II, take Chemistry and take Physics," he said.

"I think there is a consensus among all the commissioners that the one thing we're all committed to is rigor," said Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes.

"We need to make sure we maintain rigor. In some cases we have to increase the rigor in 'K' through 12. Higher education has a responsibility because we train the teachers that go into our classrooms," said Paredes. "There is evidence that House Bill 5 will create some challenges for us: More advising, more counseling, more participation and more cooperation from the three sectors represented by the commissioners, and we're committed to doing that."

"We have a great dynamic group of industries that are expanding, that are integrating technology, that are really out there competing," offered Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Andres Alcantar.

"What this means is that as these industries and the companies within these industries transform themselves, we must be committed to making sure that our students are ready to assume these changes along with the marketplace. That they have the capacity to continue to adapt to acquire the additional skills and knowledge that are going to be necessary to fill these jobs, and I think that's going to come down to all these different bodies working together."

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams declined to take a position on Algebra II, but noted that the State Board of Education (SBOE) would be taking up the issue along with other graduation requirements when it meets next week. SBOE Chair Barbara Cargill suggested students should be required to receive at least three years of "rigorous math" or "math that brings about critical thinking."

"Is the name of that math going to necessarily be Algebra II?" asked Cargill. "Currently we have two Applied Algebra II courses being developed in Texas. TEA is developing one, and it will be more workforce-oriented for students who might want to go directly into the workforce. And that Applied Algebra II -- and applied meaning 'hands on' -- it will still have the critical thinking that our students need at that level, but it will be taught in a more applied word."

Cargill said another related course was being crafted with help from the Charles A. Dana Center at University of Texas, which focuses on improving K-12 math and science education.

"That will be yet another option for our students," said Cargill. "There are some states that have several Applied Algebra II options. We are also looking at maybe a TEKS-based statistics course providing that rigor and the critical thinking that our students need."

"I don't want to get so much stuck on Algebra II as I would like to bring the conversation around to what other courses can we provide, because as a state we haven't really required other courses other than Algebra II at that level," said Cargill. "We're trying to respond to that and come up with some more options for kids and then keep that flexibility in mind too."

"We know that students who take rigorous courses are the ones who are best prepared to do college-level work," Paredes said in response to whether admission standards may ultimately change. "I think that institutions are still reviewing what their admission standards will be. Algebra II is typically required at the vast majority of institutions, of universities, for admission. There's no indication from what we've seen so far that that will change."

"We'll have to make sure that people that set admission standards at universities understand House Bill 5, to make sure that whatever admission standards they establish are compatible," said Paredes.

The new law offers challenges and opportunities for districts statewide.

"We want people to have opportunities," said Howard. "They need to be able to have relevance when they're in school, but they don't want to be trapped into only one outcome. So the whole point is to have rigor throughout so you have multiple opportunities."

Meanwhile some skills, like those taught in Schaffer's class, are always handy.

"It's something they're going to use whether they go into construction or not," said Schaffer. "So if they're into going and doing their handyman stuff around the house, they can learn different skills for that."

Along with the guidance of college counselors and dedicated teachers, students at Lanier are building a solid foundation no matter which path they ultimately decide.