Why has the rigor in American public education declined in the last 30 years?
There have been a few attempts to increase the rigor of coursework and teacher training.
When the U.S.S.R. launched their Sputnik satellite ahead of us, there was a major infusion of money into retraining science teachers nationwide, recognizing that better-trained teachers would result in better teaching. However, that effort and the subsequent Eisenhower grants for science content preparation were soon diluted to cover all fields. And those veteran teachers have also long since retired.
Any thought of expanding the science curriculum was cut short in the 1980s by the announcement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “less science is more.” This pitiful phrase still cripples any expansion of science coursework in schools today. Blame for this motto of mediocrity lies squarely on the science community and the AAAS.
Kansas formerly required two high school science courses to graduate. However, schools were allowed to count “home ec” and “shop” as science classes! This practice was curtailed under Commissioner Andy Tompkins. However, there was considerable leeway in who could teach science classes. And the “general science” and “physical science” classes in Kansas high schools were anything but rigorous. In 2003, the “Redesign” eliminated many teaching certificates (now called licenses) including those shallow general science and physical science endorsements. This action required more depth-of-learning by students. But physical sciences was restored after pressure from Johnson County.
By 2001, the KBOR implemented a 3-sciences requirement to enter regents schools, and one had to be chemistry or physics. By 2005, the KSBE likewise raised the high school science requirement to three science courses for a high school diploma. Previously perhaps 20 percent had taken chemistry and 10 percent had physics. Now that all freshmen would have taken at least one of these courses, I asked my university colleagues if it had improved their university students’ performance? “No,” was the answer. They indicated that without more qualified teachers, raising the paper requirement did not result in more students receiving a solid genuine chemistry or physics course—a situation that continues today.
And last year, the State Board approved a bi-literacy seal in order to encourage and reward students who took high school foreign languages. That was undermined by Kansas universities that wiped out or drastically cut their foreign language teacher programs. One step forward, two steps backward.
At the higher education level, the rigor of academics is being pushed back by decades if not a century. In chasing tuition and pushing to retain and graduate every student, university data show that some students have difficulty completing college algebra. Therefore the California State University system of 23 institutions has just eliminated that requirement from all but science and math majors. A similar action is being discussed in Kansas by our Board of Regents (KBOR).
Several years ago, KBOR also allowed the minimum credit hours for a bachelor’s degree to drop from 124 to 120, leaving the decision up to faculty as to whether that was appropriate for their field. Some faculty, especially in the sciences, considered 124 necessary and in some cases no longer enough. Now KBOR, frustrated that not enough programs dropped their requirements, is set on having every bachelors degree drop to 120. A faculty could appeal to keep 124, but if any other school allowed 120, that appeal would lose. This is clear evidence of our race-to-the-bottom mentality.
For decades, the KBOR Transfer and Articulation Committee (TAAC) has been pressuring faculty at Kansas regents schools and community colleges to likewise drop course requirements to the lowest common denominator. TAAC will not recognize differences in courses based on 1) prerequisites or 2) mode of delivery. Therefore, when faculty point out that a pre-med microbiology course has 3 pre-requisite courses and real labs, and a community college offers a barely-high-school-level online microbiology for nursing assistants with no pre-requisites, TAAC demands they transfer as equal.
And finally, both the Governor and KSBE support all Kansas high school students earning 15 credit hours of college coursework, when many high school students are not yet college-able. And many of these high school instructors lack the master’s credentials to teach college level courses. This devalues the bachelor’s degree by a semester or a year.
The U.S. has dropped in rank among developed countries not just because other countries have surged ahead, but also because our educational governing bodies have made conscious and intentional decisions to decrease academic rigor for over 30 years. And they continue to do so today.