Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Advanced Diploma Sucked Canal Water

(Borrowing a phrase from my junior high band director.)

I just ran across an article about new federal aid for college students who take a "rigorous" program of study in high school. It's a big deal because the federal government usually doesn't set curriculum for the schools. In the current list of requirements (different ones may come out in a different year), the following caught my eye; students will need to

"Have an advanced or honors high school diploma, as offered in at least 19 states."

My high school (in Texas) had an "Advanced" diploma option, which was a steaming pile of horse shit, pardon my French. I had planned to get the advanced option, but I took a lot of courses in high school. I took four years of Spanish (the new requirements for this financial aid require two years of a foreign language), I was in band for four years (I was in Orchestra too, but just practiced with them during home room so I didn't have to take it as a course), and was zipping through all the math courses on the way to Calculus. I even took an elective honors history topics course one semester dealing with issues in American national security. (The best high school history course I took, by the way. We did a lot of research and a lot of discussion and debate.)

In any case, when it came time to sign up for classes for my senior year, I was stymied. I had several required courses that I needed to take which took up slots. (These were courses that everyone had to take before graduating. There were no honors courses which substituted, and having spent the previous year taking nothing but honors courses, I was sort of appalled by what I saw in these classes. One of the most amazing experiences was taking "Health" the year immediately following acing the AP biology exam with 5/5.) I obviously wasn't giving up band (it was my major hobby, it covered my PE requirement, and I was already considering continuing with the oboe). I didn't want to give up on Spanish after three years (and in my last year I got a chance to spend a week in Spain, which was awesome). English of course was required anyway. But the advanced diploma had an additional requirement I hadn't met: I had to take a "the computer is your friend" basic computer programming class. It covered programming in BASIC on an Apple IIe, I think, which I could already do in any case. But if I didn't take that course, I had room to take calculus.

So I took calculus instead of programming in BASIC and graduated with a regular diploma rather than an advanced diploma, which really didn't matter, because no one has ever asked what kind of high school diploma I got. No one even asked for college admissions, and at this point most people are more interested in what I did for my PhD anyway.

But are we now at a point where someone else trying to decide between an advanced mathematics course and a rinky-dink introduction to programming risks losing college financing if they make the "wrong" decision? I really hate the cut and dried lists of rules that we have to substitute for good judgment most of the time.


OK, to be totally fair, the calculus course was pretty much a waste of time. Thankfully, I started teaching myself calculus the summer before I started the class. This is good, because our teacher was pretty much an idiot. I working on my own through the year and ended up way ahead of the class by the end. I remember asking my calculus teacher one day about the convergence of a series because my answer didn't agree with the answer in the back of the book. He just didn't say anything. It was years later that I realized he didn't know what I was talking about. On the other hand, I found the experience was very useful when I taught Advanced Calculus a few summers ago. I had gave my students several homework and test problems in the following form: "My high school calculus teacher taught us that (blank). Prove rigorously that he was wrong."

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