Four Years of High School Math and Science Should be a National Policy
A former chemistry and physics teachers makes the case that more rigorous math and science training at the secondary school level would benefit individuals and society.
by Stewart E Brekke, MS in Ed, MA
January 1, 2009
Most high school students should take four years of mathematics and science. This policy should be a national policy in the sense that although in the United States educational policy is initiated and implemented by state and local governments, there should be a tacit agreement by educators and parents that four years of mathematics and science is the best course for all youngsters in secondary school. By this I mean I wish for regulations that mandate four years of advanced science and mathematics for all secondary students who have average or above ability. Not only would this requirement benefit the student, but I believe it would benefit the nation and society as a whole.
What four years of mathematics and science does for the student is first, it gives him a rational view of the world. Many of the things that happen in the world, not only in the physical and mathematical world but also in the social and humanistic world, are the result of some rational process, one of which may be cause and effect.
By taking physical sciences such as physics and chemistry – if taught properly -- and advanced mathematics, a student’s rational processes are enhanced and his/her understanding of the physical world is increased. Also, in an increasingly technological world, highly dependent upon advances in the physical sciences, it is extremely important that any individual knows how things work and the theory behind them, so that he/she can deal with this aspect of the world effectively. Only through four years of science, including chemistry and physics, can the high school student gain an initial insight into this aspect of his/her environment.
Higher-level math and science beyond algebra 1 and biology is a critical building block for success in school, work and life. Higher-level math and science such as mathematically based physics and chemistry are associated with success in college and employment. Taking advanced mathematics and science in high school provides a student with procedural fluency skills in carrying out procedures flexibly, accurately, efficiently, and appropriately. And advanced mathematics and science give the student the capacity for logical thought, reflection, explanation, and justification.
For people to be happy, they must have health, material goods, and that which embraces the soul. Taking four years of science and mathematics not only begins to give high school students experiences that embrace the soul by giving them insight into their world and rationality, it also provides the basis by which a student can be what he can be. We do not want to develop two classes of people, some to toil and earn and some to seize and enjoy. Without a strong dose of the fundamentals of math and science, a high school student in America will be unable to go into certain careers such as in medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry or computer science.
By the time students reach college, it is very unlikely that they will choose these career paths, or if they do, the initial phase will be difficult since material and processes for the courses will be unfamiliar. At this stage in our country we are developing two classes of people, the haves and the have-nots. Careers in medicine, health fields, engineering, chemistry, and physics are the higher paying careers. In contrast, lower paying jobs requiring little or no amount of technical expertise are the only thing available to the untrained individual. Therefore, a student not taking four years of advanced mathematics and science is often excluded from reaching his or her potential. Furthermore, external benefits such as a warm home in winter, a bicycle for one’s children, or a ticket to a Beethoven concert are all the result of financial resources derived from a good paying job, jobs often found in the technical or health fields. One cannot enjoy the good life without a good financial base that can come as result of such an education.
As most educators are aware, high school is just a starting point for a student to enter a field. Usually, the student must get some kind of specialized training beyond high school, be it in technical school, such as auto mechanics or computer school, or in a college or university. To obtain part of the good life, one must have a university education, some would argue. At many universities the first year is like a bloodbath with about one-half of the students flunking out, thus excluding them from that education.
In one study, it was found that students taking geometry in high school are more likely to go on to college and succeed. Those who had less than two years of high school mathematics and laboratory science were less likely to go on. For Hispanic and Black students, the taking of at least two years of high school mathematics, algebra, and especially geometry, were even more strongly correlated with attending college and graduating. Higher requirements such as adding advanced algebra, physics and chemistry will certainly increase the probability of a student going on to college and succeeding. If the ACT is a true predictor of success in college, then the four-year math and science requirement will help to get higher scores on the test. The ACT assumes at least three years of high school mathematics specifically algebra, geometry and advanced algebra-trigonometry. The more math, the higher the score, and the higher the score, the greater the probability of succeeding in college or university.
The four-year requirement for mathematics and science also has a national interest component. Government should have an interest in what students learn. There should be training in that which will better society. The United States is at risk because competitors are overtaking our lead in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation. In order to combat this eroding of the nation’s supremacy in the world, it is recommended that all students in the United States take a minimum of three years, preferably four, of high school mathematics and science. The country needs engineers, chemists, computer specialists, and technicians to make business run more efficiently through highly trained decision makers, people who can interpret statistics, make industrial plans, design machinery, and provide technological innovation through invention.
While the four year science and mathematics requirement will not guarantee more of these trained individuals, it will improve the probability that more scientists and engineers will result since more students will be aware that these career paths exist and the necessary high school science and mathematics preparation will give them hope of succeeding. The problem is not just superiority alone, but rather that our prosperity and standard of living is at stake. Governments prosper with education for all since education generates wealth through productivity and invention.
The problem today is that a mediocre education will not do. With the scarcity of jobs and the loss of the manufacturing base, a person needs an education that will provide him or her with a decent income. Two-thirds of the states require one year of mathematics and one year of science for a student to graduate high school. Certainly, with education reform the requirements are generally higher today, but they are not high enough.
The ancient Greek mind was deeply rooted in the sense of the community. Every person was considered to be a part of the state and the care of each individual was not separate from the care of the whole, and it was believed that education should be the same for all. Society as a whole benefits from upgrading the present one and two year science and mathematics requirements to a four year science and mathematics requirement in the high schools. A separation of society into two classes, one that toils and one that enjoys, will lead to a destruction of society -- a concept that is patently unfair to begin with. We have already a growing two-tiered society with a dwindling middle class.
Students must have the opportunity to obtain material goods through education and training in science, engineering, and mathematics as well as health fields such as medicine or allied health such as nursing. The jobs in these fields pay well and tend to be jobs of long duration and are relatively immune from the vagaries of economic recessions. Further, there is a continuing demand in these areas. Training and education in these areas therefore provides a basis for elimination of the two-tiered society. Therefore, the four-year mathematics and science requirement in high school would help eliminate indirectly the societal faction. Further, inner city children who rarely take four years of science and math would gain equality with suburban children at least in some of the basics and would put them in a better position to obtain the higher paying jobs in engineering, health and science, thereby eliminating racial and minority divisions due to income in our society.
Four years of mathematics and science would give all students a common education, eliminating for some students at least, cultural divisions. This would result in a more cohesive society. Chemistry and physics as well as advanced mathematics such as Trigonometry and Advanced Algebra require more mental effort and create more high mindedness which may lead to less violence among individuals.
Four year mathematics and science requirements also promote innovation and invention. More education will produce more invention and the wealth of the state would improve through better and new machinery, tools, and devices. Not only will more scientific and mathematics education produce more and better industrial devices, but also devices and drugs that improve the quality of health care. Invention of better devices to improve living such as more fuel efficient cars, solar heating devices and so on will come from more people being in science and engineering fields. Therefore, increasing the science and mathematics requirements in high school will increase ultimately the numbers of individuals producing new devices that benefit society and the entire global populations and their cultures.
In conclusion, a national policy requiring four years of science such as chemistry, physics, and biology, four years of mathematics such as algebra, geometry, advanced algebra, trigonometry, and a fourth year such as college algebra will benefit the student so that he or she can be what he can be. It will also benefit the country so that the standard of living can be enjoyed by future generations, and benefit society through more common experiences in high school, leading to less polarization among the various classes in America. It will also provide the seeds of new inventions that will benefit society through improved health care and devices that make life for individuals easier.