“Decreased quality of undergraduates” – how does this even happen?

Weimer writes in her book “Learner Centered Teaching”, that the quality of undergraduates entering higher education has declined. How is this possible? Aren’t we supposed to have better access to knowledge via internet and media? Children as young as 3 years old can work a tablet computer. I highly doubt people are naturally getting more stupid.

I found an older opinion piece by Donald. E. Simanek describing the decline in student quality in the 1990’s. It is the opinion of a faculty member who retired in 1999 from a 16-year-long physics professorship at a university in Pennsylvania. The main causes of lowered student quality as summed by faculty in the text seemed to include three prominent areas of high school education:

1. Too many non-academic activities like sports

Penetration of sports in all levels of education is fairly unique to US. Communities take an interest in sports and the participants are considered special. According to Simanek sports are so special, that athletes get some perks on the academic front. Like days off to play the sport if the game is at a distant location, and special consideration for grades in some cases. This might not be the case in all high schools. But it does send a message of sports importance over academics.

2. Low quality of teachers

The teachers even on high school level are not required to have a masters degree on the subject they teach. This seemed really interesting to me. How are they going to answer student questions in a trustworthy way and with sensitivity to the underlying complications? For example meaning of statistical significance, or underlying forces behind evolution could be difficult to explain by someone who has not delved into the topics deeply. Simanek points out that the pay level is not perceived to be high enough. And the teachers education programs are not deemed rigorous. The teachers are not to blame directly, since the academic institutions are the ones preparing them for their career.

3. Grade inflation

In Simanek’s text grade inflation was tied to the teaching faculty needing great student reviews to gain tenure. To me it seems the problem could be consideration of education as a product students buy to get what they want. And some of them want a great degree with hardly any work. This is understandable. Most people will take the opportunity to work less if the payoff is still good. And if one wants tenure they might feel the need to give the great payoff and be rewarded a good student review in higher education. The whole business of “accountability” and standardized testing in K-12 education possibly follows the same pattern. Teaching for the test is rewarded, so that is what the teachers will do. Especially when bad scores lead to severe consequences for the whole school.

My thoughts on the issues

A disclaimer: I am not an expert on the issues and I did not go to US K-12 school. I just find the issues interesting as they affect me – a part of future faculty and possibly a teacher.

While taking the sports away from high school at this point does not seem viable, maybe the importance of academics could be brought to the fore front. Parents, teachers, and administrators should support the school’s academic endeavors just like they do sports. Excellence in either area can lead to scholarships in universities and can bring joy to every day life. I don’t see the reason why sports are put on the pedestal alone.

The quality of teachers education is also problematic as it has to do with perceptions. If the programs required rigorous academic work and perhaps even research on topic one is to teach at high school level, would the teachers be better? Or just different? What if no-one wants to be a teacher if entering the profession requires sometimes difficult and time consuming education? This concern was brought up by Simanek. If teaching in high school is not perceived as worthwhile and respected career, it is difficult to change what kinds of people who want to become teachers.

Grade inflation makes choosing the best students for any university difficult. Maybe this is why American universities require motivational letters, recommendations, and extracurricular activities from the applicants. They do give a more whole picture of any applicant. But could the high school grades be reinstated as a measure of candidates suitability for university admission? Since teachers are doing their best to make the students pass the tests, could the tests be different? Getting rid of multiple choice and using applied problem sets might help a bit. The changes in SAT could be a start of this rethinking of testing. It would be more work for the people grading them. They could no longer rely on machines to spit out the results.

Admissions machinery of universities in US has to support a system that gives everyone a common education in the form of core courses and majors are finalized later. The educational system of Finland does not expect everyone to get a bachelors degree. The trade school track is popular and respected. The Finnish universities admit students into specific majors, so admission requirements and entrance exams can be geared towards measuring suitability to study the field. While it is possible to change majors, one has to qualify to the new major via entrance exams.

I happen to like the idea of core courses and introduction of multiple academic fields. Would it be considered too confining to require a separate entrance exam to a desired major? It would increase the work load for faculty and possibly add to students stress. Would the payoff be worth it? Controlling the starting level of students entering the more challenging courses in any major could improve the overall results. Or is this already implemented by simply requiring remedial classes for everyone as is done now at most universities. How about the universities that need more students to attend to get the tuition income? As Simanek complained, the admissions and marketing side of education business in smaller schools gets different demands from the students. They might not want to take remedial classes and might just go somewhere else to get what they want.

Is the K-12 education to blame for the perceived downward spiral of undergraduate learning skills? It would seem so from the view point of some faculty members. But in reality it could be just a symptom of a more messy set of problems. Political issues, public perception, and changes in society have certainly played a role in the decline. And students should not be just punished for this development. I’d rather we find ways to fix the situation.

1 thought on ““Decreased quality of undergraduates” – how does this even happen?

  1. Amanda Sain

    I have a lot of family who have worked in K-12 education here in the states, and I think you have touched on a lot of key issues. Another problem is that K-12 teachers are experiencing the same problems as universities. That is students come in under-prepared, and there is not a great system in place to catch them up. Teachers are discouraged from failing students who may not be at grade level, so students who aren’t learning continue to advance until they’ve managed to graduate without the skills necessary to succeed in higher education. It’s a complicated problem, and I’m not sure that there’s an easy fix unfortunately.

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