Some time ago, long enough that the link has been lost, a high school friend in South Dakota sent me an interesting link to a guest editorial in a Watertown, South Dakota paper. The author, Fred Deutsch, a school board member from Watertown, discusses South Dakota’s new graduation requirements.

According to new legislation, beginning with 2010’s incoming freshmen, each student will be required to complete at least three units of math: Algebra I and II and Geometry. The board may waive these course requirements in lieu of other courses of equal or greater rigor, if I understand correctly. The idea is “a single curriculum designed to prepare South Dakota students for college… The current changes adopted by the state board eliminates [sic] the ‘basic’ route to graduation as well as increases the academic rigor of the new route.”

I applaud – in principle – as I applaud anything that contributes to the continuous improvement of our nation’s public schools. But I have serious reservations, philosophically and practically, about school “reform” as it too often plays today. Deutsch expresses reservations that largely parallel my own: “I have mixed emotions about the changes. Improving rigor is good. Requiring all students to stay in school to age 18 is good. Putting the two together probably isn’t.” my friend, who sent me the link, puts it less kindly: “These newly-mandated requirements make my ass tired, just reading about them. All of a sudden, all these ignorant mutts (like me) are going to be able to handle 2 yrs of algebra, physics, chemistry, etc? What planet are these assholes on?”

I think I am more optimistic – in principle, anyway. What matters are the practicalities of the proposition, *how* things are done. “The devil is in the details … where the rubber meets the road.” I am pessimistic on the other hand, because the “reform” preached by Politicians, Pundits, Polemicists, and Professors Who Should Know Better is too often of the “one size fits all” variety. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and more recently Race to the Top are prime examples. But kids, and for that matter schools, are not all the same. None of this is as simple as we are led to believe.

Let’s look at the math requirement, for example. Is the idea to teach more math to more students? Or is to teach it more rigorously? Most would agree, correctly or not, that if more students are taking more math, it must be somehow dumbed down. Conversely, more rigor implies that less-able students are culled along the way. Mr. Deutsch seems to suggest that we can’t have it both ways. And we probably can’t, at least the way math has been traditionally taught. I don’t see a lot of difference from when I was in high school, more than 50 years ago. Over the years, I have put this question to numerous math teachers, and usually they just shrug, and say “Well, not everyone has the mental horsepower to do math.” Indeed, it seems that there are two kinds of students: those who “get” math, and those who don’t. And each year, the number of those who “get” the next, more advanced course grows smaller.

Must it necessarily be this way? Are there other approaches to math curriculum? That is the essential question, the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, Reformers seem not much interested in such trivial details as elephants.

I must say at this point that, like my friend, I was less than a stellar math student, but not for lack of trying. Over 50 years later, the thought of being marched into the blazing guns of Algebra 2, having barely passed Algebra 1, makes me queasy in the pit of my stomach. I relate my brief career in math and further thoughts on the teaching of math in an essay from several years ago. See “Math” in From the Files.

Like so many “reforms,” it is a noble idea; it sounds good; no reasonable person could possibly disagree. Ah, but those troublesome details. How will this be *done*? Did the Legislators think the whole thought?