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Georgia wrong to value STEM courses more than civics, politics

One education bill that sailed through this General Assembly session is House bill 801, which boosts the GPA of college students taking demanding math and science courses.

Sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, HB 801 gives college students the same half-point boost to their grade point averages for STEM that they earned for taking advanced classes in high school. The bill adds an additional 0.5 point to a B, C or D in STEM courses at any of the state's public campuses. The bill empowers the Board of Regents to decide which STEM courses earn the boost.

Jones says the bill will encourage students to enroll in challenging math, science, technology and engineering classes that could otherwise jeopardize their HOPE Scholarships. To retain HOPE, college students need to maintain a 3.0 GPA. A study released in the fall found the fear of losing the generous merit-based scholarship has reduced the number of Georgia students willing to pursue science and math degrees.

Not everyone agrees with the rationale behind the legislation, including retired college lecturer Steve Anthony. From 1977 to 1995, Anthony worked for the Georgia House, most of the time as chief aide to legendary Speaker Thomas Murphy. In 1999, Anthony started teaching at Georgia State University where he developed the Georgia Politics course. He also authored a book on Murphy, "Witness To History," and the primer "Georgia Government."

By Steve Anthony

The recent attempt to prioritize which college subjects are more important than others, House Bill 801, once again raises the old debate about the purpose of higher education.

Is it to educate or is it a contest?

There are so many things wrong with saying certain course are more important than others. First, it really does not matter who “chooses” the critical courses, as HB 801 allows. Everyone has biases and agendas and who on high is to say what is most deserving. The Board of Regents is no panacea. Second, I am sick of the emphasis on STEM.

I admittedly have ranted -- I think with great justification -- about this American obsession with staying even or ahead of the Asians on STEM courses to the exclusion of courses that are uniquely important in our country.

The biggest education problem in this country is the lack of emphasis on civics, government and political history. Those areas need to be equally emphasized. Sure, do STEM but not to the exclusion of citizenship.

Third, and, most importantly, if you think this is just a personal bias, I taught American Government, the basic course required by law of all public university students to graduate in Georgia. I cannot tell you how many foreign students, mostly Asian and Indian, would come to me and cry about how hard this course was. The tests were not fair; they could not wrap their heads around concepts and terms. They said many questions had similar possible answers, and they could not decide.

Among the comments I heard: “I make all As and here I am getting a B or C...I spend more time on this course than all others combined…I am smart and have a 4.0 GPA  and struggle with this…I am a junior and this is the hardest course I have ever taken."

When I asked these unhappy students their major, it was always STEM. I asked them a series of questions to get them to see American Government was a different animal than those STEM courses, requiring discretion and thinking on their own.

It is the old “right brain, left brain” argument, which is very real. I tried to get them to understand how to approach that type of learning. Does that make social science majors smarter than STEM majors? The narrow evidence I give would say "yes," but even I would not say that. But neither would I say STEM majors are smarter and therefore deserve more HOPE credit than other majors.

And lastly there is this.

The reasoning behind this bill is students aren't taking STEM subjects because the material is too challenging. And the generally accepted explanation is they lack adequate training in high school. That may well be true, but we ought to attack the problem where it lies -- in high school, not college.

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of students who will benefit from a GPA STEM advantage are not Georgia students. They are foreign and will leave our colleges and go back home when they graduate. Is that what we want? Our Georgia students are just as competent and deserving of a Georgia taxpayer-funded education, if not more so.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.