For awhile there, Texas was leading the nation in the rigor of its graduation requirements, if not in its terribly underfunded results. We had, for almost all students, a system of requirements that was nicknamed "4x4" - students had to take four years of English, four years of math, four years of science, four years of social studies and other specific courses. Which four courses students took in each discipline was determined by which of the three graduation plans the student chose, but even the minimum plan had to take "4x4" and had to pass math through at least Algebra II.
House Bill 5 was a huge education bill passed this past Session that did the very wonderful thing of scaling back drastically on the standardized testing that is destroying our schools. Unfortunately, it also did the very horrible thing of setting the stage for the utter decimation of our high school graduation requirements. This school year, students starting ninth grade could choose between old plans and the new plans - next year's ninth graders will be on the new plans.
The new plans do away with the 4 x 4 requirements, except in English, allowing for fewer math, science and social studies courses, as well as more flexibility in the courses chosen. The new plan also forces students to choose endorsements to guide their coursework - they must choose either "science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)", "business and
industry", "public services", "arts and humanities", or "multidisciplinary
studies". Only the STEM endorsement requires math through Algebra II, if the SBOE makes their final oversight decision as expected in January.
This highly misguided plot supposedly stems (heh) from the oft passionately pushed hysteria that college is not for everyone and we need more vocational education options for our students. Such a giant load of ignorance. It is certainly true that many young people seem ill-suited for the academic life for a variety of reasons (chief among them the poverty which makes so many American students ill-equipped to succeed in school), and it is tempting to look around at highly paid vocations that do not require college and say - why not train these students for useful careers such as these? The main reason not to fall for this present-oriented thought process is that these students will be working far into the future when we are dead and the world is a very different place requiring an as yet unimaginable skill set. More and more well-paid vocational jobs are being computerized and mechanized daily and will pretty soon be done primarily by robots, not well-paid heads of households. Also, many such jobs - like the ones in refineries - pay well because they are dangerous and many others, such as the fracking jobs, are part of the cycling of boom and bust cycles that do not last. No one is saying that high school graduates should not take these jobs if they wish, for as long as the jobs last, but they should also graduate with options for when those jobs no longer work for them, or when they want something safer, or when their backs give out, or any of the many things that life throws at us over time.
They should have choices.
That said, the choices should be made by high school graduates, about their future post-secondary school endeavors, not by middle school students and ninth graders. Middle school students are insane, as you may know if you have ever been one or lived with one or spent time at a middle school. They are very entertaining and sweet, but they are insane. Insanity is a symptom of pubescence which often lasts through the seventh grade when we are talking about girls and the ninth grade when we are talking about boys. It is not a developmental stage during which major life-affecting choices should be made. It is also not a time when students have developed enough psychologically for most to be ready to be tracked into career categories. Eighth graders are not extremely likely to see the value of choosing a rigorous high school graduation plan and many parents do not have the educational resources to know to force them to do so. This endorsement system is a nightmare that harkens back to the days when poor and minority students were tracked right out of college preparatory courses.
And it is about to happen again. We may, in fact, see many cash-strapped districts deciding that certain neighborhood schools don't even need to offer college preparatory coursework - as early as next school year. Think about it.
Our students will make different choices about what to do with their lives but all of our students need to be well-educated and participatory citizens in our democracy. Functioning democracies require that. To be good citizens, they all need to receive a rigorous, well-rounded education and sharp critical thinking skills, not a narrow track of courses that appeal to their adolescent interests.
Also, every single student who graduates from a Texas high school should have all the knowledge and skills and coursework that they need to attend college if they choose to do so - whether that choice is made directly following high school or many years later. We owe every student an education that will get them there.