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This is a story about unintended consequences. How the best of intentions don't always provide the intended results.

For years educators have fretted about America's declining academic performance in science and technology. The result has been a new emphasis on training young people in these more rigorous fields.

Curricula in high school now stresses the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math. The goal is a graduate better prepared to participate in these competitive and much sough-after labor markets.

But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that more rigorous academics have had another result. They have driven some students to drop out.

Playing catch-up

“There’s been a movement to make education in the United States compare more favorably to education in the rest of the world, and part of that has involved increasing math and science graduation requirements,” said first author Andrew D. Plunk, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine.

The study suggests this may be more of an indictment of today's students than the new, more rigorous standards. Or maybe an indictment of previous standards that were too lenient, not preparing students for the reality of global competition.

“There was an expectation that this was going to be good for students, but the evidence from our analyses suggests that many students ended up dropping out when school was made harder for them,” Plunk said.

The research team reported their findings in the journal Educational Researcher. They studied census data going back to 1990 to reach the conclusion that higher standards are dooming some students.


The census data shows the U.S. dropout rate rose to a high of 11.4 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses, compared with 8.6 percent for students who needed fewer math and science courses to graduate.

“As graduation requirements were strengthened, high school dropout rates increased across the whole population,” Plunk said. “But African-Americans and Hispanics were especially affected. I think our findings highlight the need to anticipate there may be unintended consequences, especially when there are broad mandates that, in effect, make high school coursework harder.”

Co-author William F. Tate, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences says it is clear that when school systems added math and science courses to requirements for high school graduation they did little to prepare students for the new requirements.

“Many students were ill-prepared for the tougher standards,” said Tate. “Going forward, state policymakers must understand that students can’t take more math and science courses if they quit school.”

Common Core backlash

The study comes amid a growing revolt by parents over the Common Core academic standards adopted in most states over the last two years. Core is an educational initiative specifying what students in kindergarten through high school should learn, not just about math and science but English as well.

It was launched with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in an effort to standardize learning in the U.S., eliminating disparities in standards between states. It caused controversy almost from the start.

As The New York Times recently noted, Common Core has critics all along the political spectrum. The right was the first to attack the standards as an intrusion by Washington into local education. But left of center groups have also voiced their opposition.

The New York teachers union has withdrawn its support for Common Core and Carol Burris, a highly respected Long Island principal, has called Common Core “a disaster.”

Is it a case of students being unable to meet a higher standard of learning? One prominent parent, comedian Louis C. K., has been very public in his criticism of Common Core – not because it's harder but because he says a lot of what it teaches doesn't make sense.

On the David Letterman Show, C.K said Common Core tests are written by unknown people.

“They've decided there is a new way kids need to think and we're going to improve their thinking by having them pass these tests,” he said. “Then I look at the problems, and it's like Bill has 3 goldfish, he buys 2 more, how many dogs live in London?”

In a subsequent Tweet, C.K wrote “My kids used to love math, now it makes them cry.”

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