Gendron: Flush ‘watered-down’ courses

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AUGUSTA – Maine’s education boss is declaring war on “general” high school courses that don’t help students prepare for today’s jobs or college.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Tuesday proposed a law that, beginning in 2010, would require Maine high school students to take courses they need to get into the University of Maine or Maine’s Community College systems.

About 75 percent of Maine high school students now take the rigorous courses that will help them succeed in college or work, Gendron said.

The remaining 25 percent take “watered-down” courses, which the commissioner said wasn’t fair to those students.

She said her proposal aimed to improve high school courses to ensure all students get a high-quality education.

That’s not happening now, she said.

Last year, her department looked at 90 high school programs. What it found was “incredible variation.” For example, some students never get the chance to learn algebra. As a result, they lack the education to help them become auto mechanics, Gendron said. “We want to make sure the opportunity is there for every kid.”

She’s right, said Scott Knapp, president of Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

“Eventually, we have to start thinking about that 25 percent going on to college,” he said.

Many already do, and they often need remedial or developmental courses to get them ready for college, Knapp said. “It would work far better if this were done at the high school level.”

He believes anyone can learn algebra, though perhaps not at the same speed. Some need more time. “You don’t have to be a whiz-bang,” he said.

Learning basic algebra should be expected of all students, Knapp said. “Algebra is the tool for doing everything.”

As proposed in Gendron’s bill, LR 958, students would need college-prep-level courses in English, math and art to graduate in 2010. The next year, they also would need college-prep courses in social studies, physical education and health; in 2012, they would need such courses in all subjects, including foreign language.

Many high schools would have to change their graduation requirements, Gendron said. Schools can now require four years of English, three years of math and two or three years of science. But the graduation requirements often don’t specify what kind of math or English courses, she said.

It would be up to school districts to decide how to change graduation requirements so that all students would be ready for college, she said.

The proposal is before the Legislature’s Education Committee. A public hearing is not yet scheduled.

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