We're not getting on this bandwagon

Monday, November 21, 2005

The governor and the Iowa Association of School Boards are pushing hard to make the recommended high school core courses for college-bound students mandatory for graduation from all high schools throughout the state.

There appears to be little public opposition to the initiative and we can expect the proposal to be upgraded from a strong recommendation to a state law in the near future.

Everyone agrees with the goal of making students better educated. Not everyone agrees that being better educated means all students be well-prepared to enter a four-year college or university.

If asked, "Wouldn't it be nice if all graduating high school students had undergone a rigorous course of academic study consisting of three to four years each of English, math, science and social studies?", our answer would be yes, that would indeed be nice and it would even be nicer if all those students were fluent in three or four languages, could perform with a symphony orchestra, could create masterpieces of art, could prepare a gourmet meal, could build functional and beautiful furniture and could tear apart any type of engine and put it back together again.

However, when creating public policy, we need to go beyond the "wouldn't it be nice?" question and consider the consequences of setting unrealistic graduation goals. The most obvious consequence is an increase in the frustration level for students, with a corresponding increase in the number of dropouts.

It would also divert study time and teaching time away from vocational programs which provide preparation for skills that are increasingly in demand in the work force.

While the need to compete in the global market is frequently cited as reason for more rigorous academic requirements, the educational system of most of the countries that we seem to envy encourages specialization based on aptitude, rather than uniformity.

Academic study is still needed for students with specific career goals not requiring four years of college. Many vocational careers require strong math skills and most require some level of reading proficiency. However, not all career paths are best pursued through a course of study preparing a student to enter a four-year college or university.

The state's goal of a uniform product of the K-12 educational system does not best serve either a diverse student population or a diverse job market.