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Lowest common denominator - Emporia Gazette: Opinion

Lowest common denominator

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Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013 10:49 am

Faculty at Kansas regents universities and community colleges have met annually to coordinate courses and maintain rigor and quality. But last October, Kansas professors were ordered to provide total course transfer.

And this September 27, Kansas professors will again meet to water down more college coursework. An elementary microbiology course taken for an associate degree program for nursing home attendants may be forced to be accepted as “equivalent” to the solid microbiology course in a pre-medical program.

Responsibility for the integrity and rigor of university curriculum is supposed to rest with faculty.

But these “core competency” meetings have now become the mechanism to coerce universities into accepting anemic courses. At Kansas State University last year, faculty were directly instructed to reduce the competencies required in each class to the bare minimum. This brings the syllabus for our courses down to the lowest common denominator.

In biology we were directed to distill down the minimal competencies for microbiology, including labs. We wanted to specify that the laboratory work had to be genuine labwork that developed hands-on skills, not virtual simulations. But we were told: “just list the competencies.” So we approved national competencies already developed by the American Society of Microbiology. Fortunately, these national competencies specify directly supervised, that is face-to-face, laboratory work. This also corresponds with the growing number of university programs that refuse transfer credit for online labs nationwide, from the University of California-Berkeley and UC-San Diego and many more, all due to accumulating experiences with online students who never develop lab skills.

Unfortunately, biology faculty soon received an e-mail from the regent’s committee insisting we remove the American Society of Microbiology wording on genuine supervised labwork. But Kansas biology representatives voted overwhelmingly to keep our labs real. Nevertheless, we return to Kansas State still under pressure to reconsider the requirements—water them down, or else!

Minimal competencies that have already been forced on faculty have already resulted in some courses, such as college algebra, becoming equivalent to high school intermediate algebra.

But a quality course depends on more than minimal outcomes. Solid courses require highly-qualified faculty who interact with students. Education is not just about memorizing answers, but about learning to ask advanced questions. It is about becoming excited about your field. It is about role models. And developing a sense of accomplishment. Well-educated faculty are very important.

But the Board of Regents reduced the minimal credentials for teaching college courses, from a masters degree with 18 graduate hours in the subject taught, to just a bachelors degree with 24 undergraduate credit hours. That is substantially less than what is required to be a high school teacher.

Yes, you can teach an academic college course at Kansas tech schools and community colleges with less education than is required to teach the same topic in high school!

And it gets worse. Some Kansas technical colleges now offer 3-credit academic courses in just two weekends. This absurd practice is closer to diploma mills where you simply buy your diploma.

Last year, 500 faculty met at a cost of $200 each. Kansas paid $100,000 to water down the curriculum. This September 27, Kansas faculty again descend on Kansas State under pressure to continue reducing the minimum competencies of Kansas college courses. This erodes the value of a Kansas degree, even for those students who take a rigorous program.

A decade ago, the Kansas Legislature moved community colleges and tech schools from the State Department of Education to the Board of Regents so there would be oversight of these issues. If the Board of Regents is unwilling to coordinate these programs and oversee academic quality, then it may be time to return them to the State Board of Education.

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