Education reform lacks direction
The reports of the Committee on the First-Year Program and the Science-Engineering Working Group, both released this week, promise to generate the most heated controversy over educational reform since its inception four years ago. Each report presents significant problems that must be resolved before a faculty vote is called. Furthermore, the proposals offer conflicting messages on the goals of educational reform.
The reasons given by the CFYP for abolishing second-term freshman pass/no-credit are not convincing. The committee relies too much on broad generalizations about student behavior in its attempt to justify eliminating second-term pass/no-credit grading; it offers little empirical evidence.
In addition, some of the reasons the CFYP gives for the elimination seem strained. For example, two reasons the CFYP gives for pass/no-credit elimination are: (1) "some students" express frustration with pass/no-credit in the second semester and (2) the recording of hidden grades causes confusion regarding who actually gets to see the grades. Clearly, neither reason carries much weight in a proposal of this magnitude. Moreover, the CFYP glosses over those freshmen who need two terms of pass/no-credit to properly adjust to MIT. CFYP argues that these students are probably few in number and suggests that the new system would be better for these students in any case. The report, however, gives no clear reason why this would be the case.
SEWG proposes the addition of one subject to the science core, while reducing the number of Science Distribution classes by one. Regardless of whether or not SEWG recommends that one science distribution subject remain outside of the departmental requirements, undergraduates will have to face the specter of even less freedom in course selection.
In a larger sense, it is unclear whether the committees that fashioned the two proposals shared the same vision for the goals of educational reform. While the CFYP's proposals are motivated largely by a desire to spread the core requirements beyond the freshman year, the SEWG proposal of a year-long chemistry/materials/biology course would seem to discourage that. Is there a clear goal in sight for those who advocated sweeping changes four years ago?
Such an act of restriction is a clear contradiction to the expressed efforts of CFYP to make the curriculum more flexible. In light of such incoherent policy making, one must question the true intent of the educational reformists.
In any case, the SEWG proposal, by replacing a SD subject with a term of the chemistry/materials/biology core subject, places an additional constraint on students' choices in that students may decide which specific SD subject to take while the core subject is specified for them.
choices by requiring trades one term of elective science distribution for one term of the chemistry/materials/biology core subject.
new SD requirement were to forbid using both subjects to satisfy departmental requirements, than the required number of subjects for students in these departments would increase by one.
The report states that if only two science distribution subjects were required, "to maintain some diversity, at least one of the science distibution subjects should continue to be outside of a department, and that it is preferable (though [SEWG] would at this point not insist) that no more than one science distribution subject out of the two be a departmental requirement." Were the SEWG to insist that only one science distribution subject could satisfy a departmental requirement, for many students, the number of required science classes would actually increase.
In the Department of Physics, for instance, students are currently able to satisfy two of the three distribution requirements by completing departmental requirements (8.03 and 18.03). The third distribution subject must be taken outside the department. The net effect is a one-subject science distribution requirement.
Under the new proposal, Course 8 students, along with everyone else, would "preferably" take one distribution subject outside of the department, but would also have a term added to the core science subjects with the year-long integrated biology-chemistry-materials sequence. Obviously, the reduction in the science distribution requirement from three to two subjects would have no effect for most students if one of the two subjects would have to be taken outside the department,
Aside from statistic regarding academic "overloading" during the second term of the freshman year, the CFYP report fails to justify the committee's claim that second term pass/no-credit is unnecessary. The problems brought up by the CFYP regarding the current first-year program are based for the most part upon unsubstantiated generalizations about student behavior.In fact, the report never clearly identifies tangible problems which justify the elimination of second term pass/no credit.
The SEWG report's proposed changes to the Science Distribution requirement are ambiguous. The recommended year-long chemistry/materials/biology core sequence would add a required term to students' program. As a consequence, the report recommends the SD requirement be reduced to two subjects, only one of which could be in a student's department. The proposal does not forbid the other subject from being a departmental requirement, although it advises against it. Thus the SD requirement would effectively be made void for students in departments that include two SD subjects within their requirements. On the other hand, if these students were forbidden from using departmental requirements to satisfy both SD subjects, then their required number of subjects would increase by one with the addition of the year-long course. In any case, since SD subjects are like restricted electives, the SEWG proposal reduces students' choices for their programs slightly by trading one SD for the second term of chemistry/materials/biology.