Working out the core

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Texas higher education is looking at its first core curriculum reform in more than a decade. A proposal, agreed upon by the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board, is open for public comment until Sept. 26, after which it will be put to the board for approval at their October meeting.

All undergraduates in the state are required to undergo a 42-hour core curriculum. At UT, in addition to math, science, history, government and more, this includes a signature course.

The committee’s proposal does not radically alter the core curriculum formula. However, one particular recommendation attempts to strengthen the core with arbitrary and poorly-defined “core objectives.” There are six objectives, and for each course in the core curriculum, the proposal outlines what objectives need to be fulfilled.

For example, core math courses will now need to enforce the objective of communication skills, while science courses will need to integrate teamwork. American history professors must incorporate the teachings of social and personal responsibility, while their government-faculty counterparts are also required to teach social responsibility — though personal responsibility is optional.

The over-reaching, though largely innocuous, recommendations are driven by the state’s insistence on transferability, which is fueled by the pressures of degree completion and timeliness. The fear is that students transferring from one Texas institution to another have to retake courses, costing taxpayers and tuition-payers more money.

However, the issue of transferability raises bigger questions as it relates to the core curriculum, especially at UT.

For a number of students, the core curriculum is viewed as a roadblock to what they want to do in college. A history of designing core curricula around outcomes of what students should be able to learn rather than what students should be able to do has turned the focus away from intellectual inquiry to varsity high school.

UT’s Task Force on Curricular Reform issued a report in fall 2005 to, among other things, re-examine the core. The task force was chaired by then-law school dean William Powers Jr., whose involvement helped trail-blaze his trek to the Tower.

The task force found that in spring 2005, a surprisingly low percentage of students did their core curriculum requirements at UT in courses such as rhetoric and writing (23 percent), math (40 percent) and English (44 percent).

The report recommended restructuring the core to help students find the right major for them, while also creating a more unifying experience for all UT undergraduates. It points to the decentralized structure that results in students identifying more academically with their college, department or major rather than the University as a whole.

Shortly after taking the presidency in 2006, Powers ushered in the School of Undergraduate Studies to serve as what the report describes as “a guardian of core undergraduate education.” Undergraduate curricular reform became a platform of his presidency, as he appointed deans that buy into that mission — and willfully didn’t reappoint those who do not.

The lack of a common undergraduate experience does have its disadvantages. For one, it dilutes the overall academic brand. As admittedly arbitrary rankings show, college and departmental feats are somewhat overshadowed by a perceived university-wide mediocrity.

The trend also disadvantages students who come from smaller schools or who have to work over the summer, as they are less likely to benefit from placement and transfer credits. Additionally, with many students doing large chunks of their core outside of UT, it takes away the incentive for the University to dedicate resources to improve its core.

However, in an era of increased competitiveness and near-prohibitive education costs, a common undergraduate experience at UT is likely a casualty of the times. The state is pushing Texas high schools to offer more AP, IB and dual-credit courses, while many students are leveraging the low-cost and relative ease of core classes taken elsewhere to focus more on major-specific courses at the University.

Additionally, some of the concerns expressed by the task force’s report are unfounded. For example, the report states that some students may use college credit obtained elsewhere to cut short their degrees by a year or more.

However, UT’s three-year graduation rate actually decreased from 4.3 percent in 2006 to 3.2 percent last year, according to the Office of Information Management and Analysis.

Many students have also used their non-UT credit to pursue multiple majors and degrees. According to a study by the Second Task Force on Enrollment Strategy in 2008, about 700 UT students graduate every spring with a double major or dual degree, with the average amount of non-resident hours being 41.

In reality, the steps in statewide undergraduate curriculum reform are more important symbolically than they are pragmatically. The University will need to figure out how to provide a “first-class” education in an era of regulation.

— Shabab Siddiqui for the editorial board