Boosting high school requirements for math, science a good investment

August 24, 2007

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: Suzanne Taylor, vice president of policy development and research, Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, opinion piece in Business Journal of Phoenix] — The Arizona State Board of Education on Aug. 10 took an important step toward improving the college and work force readiness of Arizona’s high school graduates: It gave preliminary approval to increase high school graduation requirements to four years of math and three years of science. For Arizona employers to compete in today’s dynamic global economy, access to workers proficient in math and science is essential. Greater proficiency is necessary for occupations such as engineering and research that require college degrees.

It is equally important for technical occupations that require vocational training. Unfortunately, employers in a variety of sectors, from manufacturing to health care to high tech, all report difficulty finding workers with the necessary skill sets.

Fundamental economic changes mean most jobs available to today’s students will require a solid grounding in math and science. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 15 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations projected through 2010 require substantial mathematics or science preparation. It follows that raising educational requirements is the right step toward increasing the work force readiness and competitiveness of every K-12 student in Arizona.

Opponents to the proposed requirements argue that not every student needs to become an engineer. That’s true. However, every student needs a certain degree of analytical skill to function in the workplace they will encounter after graduation. Math and science course work arms students with critical problem-solving skills that will prepare them for success regardless of what occupation they choose.

Other opponents express concern that the new requirements may increase an already high dropout rate. A national survey of public school students found they most often considered dropping out because “school was boring” or “I wasn’t learning anything.” Several school districts, including those in San Jose, Calif., and Chicago, that have increased graduation requirements actually have experienced improvements in graduation rates.

International rankings show American students are losing their edge in math and science compared with students in other parts of the world. Results from the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, which focused on the performance of American 15-year-olds in mathematics literacy and problem solving compared with their peers in 38 other countries, illustrate this trend. The report showed U.S. performance in math and science was lower than the average performance for most developed nations.

Closer to home, the 2005 National Assessment of Education Progress ranked Arizona 35th in the nation. To implement the new graduation requirements effectively, Arizona will need to seek innovative solutions to expand its pool of qualified math and science teachers. This may include offering merit-based pay to make the field more attractive, providing incentives for Arizona college students to major in math and science education, and redoub­ling efforts to attract out-of-state math and science teachers to Arizona.

As the fastest-growing state in the nation, Arizona must continue to attract new and expanding businesses that offer well-paid jobs. To do so, it is critical that the work force possess the necessary skills. Increasing math and science graduation requirements is a vital step toward making Arizona a more competitive location for business. Over the next several months, the State Board of Education will seek public input on the proposed requirements. We have an opportunity to set the bar higher for Arizona’s high school graduates and make this state a more attractive location for businesses looking to create new jobs for these graduates.