Photo by Sarah Ross photography on Flickr.

The DC State Board of Education this summer released a proposal to update graduation requirements for DC public school students. Many of the proposed changes have merit. Others seem overly prescriptive and raise some questions which the board does not explain in its report.

The proposal is the culmination of a year of intense behind-the-scenes work and public meetings by the Board and staff at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Students will have to take some advanced mathematics, more visual or performing arts, and physical education.

Students will also need to take some college preparatory courses and complete a thesis or culminating project. These proposals have merit, though there are ways they can serve students’ future even better, and they raise some questions about how DC schools will staff programs and prepare students for the requirements at many middle schools.

2 units of required world languages stays the same under the proposal, and the number of required english, math, and science units holds steady at 4 units each. A half unit is a semester, so 4 units is 4 full years of each subject. 4 years of each, according to the Board’s discussion document, is a national best practice and a requirement for most colleges.

Other requirements decline, including social studies and opportunities for electives, which pose some cause for worry that I will discuss in part 2.

Include financial literacy in mathematics

Students can receive credit for advanced mathematics courses they previously took in middle school. The high school math requirements will include one unit “above Algebra II or its equivalent,” basically a calculus, trigonometry, or other challenging mathematics course.

While this higher math requirement will promote critical thinking and analysis for students, it could be more useful to offer many students a personal financial literacy course that can count as a mathematics unit.

Students leaving high school without a “real world” math class to ensure financial literacy does a disservice to all students, whether they go on to college or not. Most students entering college leave high school with little understanding of how student loans work, how expensive college and living expenses are, and how easy it is to get mired in an endless cycle of credit card debt.

Students directly entering the workforce following high school need to know how to put a household budget together, how to save for major purchases, and, again, how easy it is to obtain credit and how difficult high-interest credit is to pay off. For many DCPS students, high school is the last opportunity they have to learn personal finance best practices.

Arts gets a boost, but depends on more teachers and programs at more schools

The board has proposed increasing requirements in several areas, including combining art and music into a single category and increasing requirements from a half unit of each — for a one unit total — to a combined 2 units of “Visual/Performing Arts.”

The only rationale the report gives for this increase is that it “promotes well-rounded students.” There is no analysis about whether DCPS will be able to hire enough qualified high school music and art teachers by next year to augment the roughly 100 art and 100 music teachers currently teaching at DCPS high schools.

As a student of music and arts myself, I agree that increasing music and arts knowledge and appreciation makes for a more well-rounded graduate. However, some DCPS middle schools do not offer their students music courses, such as the 110 students at Shaw Middle School at Garnet Patterson, or the 50 or so middle school students at CHOICE Academy.

DCPS needs to establish effective, permanent art and music programs at all DC middle schools before mandating 2 full units of art and music courses for high school graduation. Recent DC Council legislation introduced by Councilmember Jack Evans is a good start to correcting this problem.

It might also be more effective and demonstrate to students the interplay between divergent subject areas if some course offerings fulfilled multiple graduation requirement units. There is a direct link between music and mathematics, for instance. A robust music theory course, heavy on mathematics, could conceivably fulfill both music and math requirements, assisting the student in understanding the importance of each aspect of the course to the other subject area.

By tying more subjects to each other through “joint” or “dual” courses and demonstrating to students the importance of their interplay and interdependence, DCPS will produce better students that more fully comprehend the real world interaction of divergent subjects and issues.

More physical education promotes health

The board has also proposed increasing “Physical and Health Education” requirements from 1.5 units to 2 units, to support the Healthy Schools Act and promote physical health. Of the 2 units proposed, a half unit would need to be in health education, and the other 1.5 units would be in physical education, which can include PE classes, team sport participation, or Junior ROTC.  Students must also engage in 50 hours of physical activity annually to graduate.

Obesity and preventable diseases continue to plague Washingtonians. Our children have the highest obesity rate in the country at 23%, and a 2010 study found 14,465 DC residents infected with HIV, a full 2.7% of our population and among the highest of any US city. With these stats, it’s difficult to dispute this proposed increase.

Students will take college preparatory courses and complete a major project

The proposal will require each student earn at least 2 of the 24 required units through courses that appear on the approved DCPS ‘College Level or Career Prep’ list. The board hopes this will promote college and career readiness.

For the first time, DCPS students will receive credit for courses taken at regional colleges and universities, a vital step to fully preparing students for college. Guilford County, NC, has produced a successful model for early/middle college preparation that has paid dividends in increasing graduation rates and student achievement.

Allowing our students to earn credit for college courses taken in high school provides students better preparation for college, offers them more elective courses, and continues to challenge those exceptional students who are ready earlier than their peers to participate in a college/university experience.

The same justification — college and career readiness — underlies a new recommendation that students complete a “Thesis/Culminating Project” in the junior or senior year. This would compel students to think critically, broadly, and intensely on a major project. It also provides students an opportunity to experience first-hand what is required in terms of comprehensive research, analysis, and writing in today’s global workforce.

It’s not clear if DC schools will prepare all students during their freshman and sophomore years to complete a research- and writing-intense thesis project their junior or senior year. If the courses offered to freshmen and sophomores do not offer enough direction, instruction, and preparation, a student may not be able to complete the culminating project. It’s also still unclear as to what would qualify as a culminating project and how they would be graded.

That’s not all that’s still unclear from the report. In part 2, I’ll discuss some of the changes which cause concern, and the problems with the information the board has provided parents and the public.

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Tagged: dc, education

Jack Jacobson is an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and community activist in Dupont Circle and a candidate for the Ward 2 seat on the DC State Board of Education this November. He chaired the 17th Street Moratorium Committee in 2009 and serves as Secretary of the Urban Neighborhood Alliance.