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Commentary: Drift into mediocrity

By Phan Anderson

There is a worrisome trend emerging in our education system. Steps are being taken to downgrade academic standards and de-emphasize advanced classes, placing a lower priority on student achievement than on group-based “equity.”

This trend to emphasize equity at the expense of academics is not an isolated problem and appears to be gathering steam.

In Washington state, the legislature weakened the official definition of “Basic Education” by shifting away from core studies to “producing global citizens in a global society with an appreciation for diverse cultures.”  In 2021, SB 5044 was passed as “an act relating to equity, cultural competency, and dismantling institutional racism in the public school system.”  In response to these legislative mandates the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is expected to announce a move towards new, lower education standards.

Last year, the Oregon State Legislature enacted SB 744, effectively eliminating performance standards in core studies for high school students.

Students may no longer be “required to show proficiency in Essential Learning Skills [Reading, Writing, Math] as a condition of receiving a high school diploma.”

In San Francisco, Lowell High switched to lottery-based admissions after operating for decades on a merit-based system.

As a result, we are already seeing faltering educational outcomes —  the first class so admitted saw a three-fold increase in the number of students receiving at least one D or F grade, from 7.9% in the prior year to 24.4%.

In San Diego, the principal at Patrick Henry High quietly reduced honors classes. She explained doing so to avoid “stratifying” classes, to eliminate the stigma of non-advanced courses, and to address racial inequities.

The backlash among both parents and students over the decision was sharp enough to cause the principal to partially reverse course.

Recently, the California Department of Education has been working on a new mathematics framework for K-12, expected to be finalized in July.

This new framework focuses on the “imperative for K–12 mathematics instruction to foster more equitable outcomes in mathematics and science.”

This relaxation of state standards will undoubtedly lead to a decline in academic achievement.

According to University of Wisconsin’s Scott J. Peters, a widely published Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, school leaders across the country are reducing opportunities for high-achieving students, because doing so is expected to reduce the gap between them and low-performing students.

Closing this gap is supposed to advance “equity,” but it is likely to reduce future opportunities, especially for gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Stanford University Professor Brian Conrad, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Mathematics Department, has expressed alarm over the new California Mathematics Framework.

Solid math skills are needed for quantitative and STEM degrees such as economics, data science and computer science, which the new framework does not provide.

“Reducing access to advanced mathematics and elevating trendy but shallow courses over foundational skills would cause lasting damage to STEM education in the country and exacerbate inequality by diminishing access to the skills needed for social mobility,” according to Conrad.

The U.S. faces increasing global competition, as other countries are educating their children with stronger critical thinking skills and more rigorous STEM education.

Lowering standards will reduce the number of opportunities available to all of our students — we will fail to nurture the leaders of our next generation, and will make it more difficult for the rest to integrate productively into the global economy.

There is nothing equitable or desirable about such a perverse outcome.

The better approach is to provide appropriate support to each student, so that all are afforded the opportunity to optimize his or her individual potential, regardless of demographics or class rank.

Narrowing the achievement gap by lowering standards is not the way to go.

Parents and others concerned about the education of our rising generation must be warned:  trendy political theories are already degrading the educational experience of our children.

It’s time to stop this drift into mediocrity.

Phan Anderson is a parent in the San Dieguito Union High School District.