The Vanishing Home Economics Class and What Will Be Lost
We take a look at the state of modern home economics education—and the essential lessons students stand to miss out on if it ever goes away.
Cooking, like any skill, needs to be taught and practiced. Consider how you absorbed the vital food-prep and housekeeping knowledge that enables you to follow recipes and make nutritious meals from scratch. We’re talking the basics of the basics: knowing how to boil water (so you can hard-boil eggs), use knives (to dice veggies for an omelet), and wield your nutritional know-how to stock up on fresh produce instead of frozen meals. You probably know how to avoid cross-contamination, prevent food-borne illness, and put out stove fires, too.
Many of us picked up these practical techniques at school in home economics class—known as Family and Consumer Sciences since the field’s rebranding in 1994—or at home with relatives who regularly cook.
Growing up with Taiwanese parents who rarely ate out, I learned basic cooking skills by spending lots of time in the kitchen. Looking over Dad’s shoulder, I learned how to chop garlic and onions, peel ginger with a spoon, and devein and mince shrimp for dumplings. My father taught me to wash rice until the water runs clear, cut scallions into palatable bits, and revive coils of dried rice noodles in boiling water.
But it wasn’t until my home economics class in middle school that I learned how to exchange casual dollops of soy sauce, sesame oil and dry sherry for portioned amounts with measuring cups and spoons. The rules for heating different meats and baked treats were arcane secrets locked in my dad’s head. It wasn’t until home ec that I learned how to use an oven.
Homes without Home Economics
Students who attend schools that don’t offer (or prioritize) FCS education are at risk of missing out on vital life lessons, especially when their families don’t cook. And odds are they don’t. Modern families tend to opt for the ease of takeout instead of home-cooking. In 1970, Americans spent about 26 percent of their overall food budget on food away from home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. That figure increased to 43 percent by 2012. In 2014, Americans spent a whopping 50 percent of their grocery budget on food away from home, surpassing sales of food at home for the first time.
There’s a strong preference for easy, processed options. U.S. households spend half their total food budget on items purchased from fast-food and sit-down restaurants—categorized as the “most convenient foods”—according to the USDA.
Households spend less than a quarter of their food budget on healthier, more wholesome foods—the “least convenient” foods in the study—which you have to prep and cook. That includes “basic” ingredients (milk, beans, poultry, vegetables and fruits) and “complex” ingredients (bread, pasta, canned vegetables and sauce).
Americans are also spending less time in the kitchen. Research examining data from 2003 to 2011 showed women and men spend 48 and 18 minutes, respectively, preparing meals. The report cites a comparative figure: Married women in the 1920s spent an average of 122 minutes cooking and an additional 68 minutes clearing and cleaning. Times are changing.
The State of Family and Consumer Studies Today
The latest national survey of FCS programs in the U.S., published in 2013 by the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences (AAFCS), says more than 3.4 million students were enrolled in FCS education in secondary schools taught by about 28,000 teachers during the 2010-’12 school years.
By comparison, in the national survey published in 2006, the AAFCS found that about 5.5 million students were enrolled in FCS programs, taught by 37,500 teachers, in the 2002 to 2003 academic year. Student enrollment dropped by 38 percent in 10 years.
The bright side of the report is that FCS programs are still offered in all 50 states. This spring, AAFCS will begin replicating the survey for publication in 2018.
Reasons for the Drop on Enrollment
The hard push for state- and district-mandated testing has helped diminish the opportunity for students to take electives, according to Carol R. Werhan, AAFCS director-at-large and the main author of the National Survey of FCS programs. “Family consumer sciences is generally considered an elective. There has been a reduction in all elective-type courses, which include art and music,” Werhan says.
The lack of qualified FCS teachers has also impacted the number of classes available. Half the states reported a current or future shortage of qualified FCS teachers in the national survey. The number of FCS teachers has dropped 26 percent in a decade, and districts have canceled FCS programs because of a lack of instructors. “I’ve had principals say this to me, ‘I can’t leave a room empty until somebody graduates with the degree so I’m going to switch it to something else that I can get a teacher for,'” Werhan says.
Troubled districts have also leaned on hiring alternatively licensed teachers. Instead of gaining credentials through a traditional FCS teacher education program, instructors can gain credentials by passing the licensing exam for FCS. “The rigor of some of these exams has been denounced for many years by teacher educators,” Werhan writes in the report.
Is FCS in Danger of Disappearing from Schools?
“I think any good thing is in danger of disappearing if you don’t tend to it,” Werhan says. The AAFCS has started a nationwide recruiting effort called Say Yes to FCS, which strives to get the word out to potential students and educators that the field offers plenty of opportunities. Communities and parents can also get involved in the effort to keep FCS programs going.
“We need community support to keep these kinds of programs in the schools because there is a trend by some that think these things aren’t as important as they used to be,” Werhan says. “They should contact their local school and visit an FCS teacher to see what he or she is doing in the classroom that’s based on research and current trends that people need to know.”
School boards and parent groups have the power to sway agendas and keep FCS programs fully funded.
What We Stand to Lose
That’s a whole lot of data, and you may be wondering why you should care. Here’s the rub: Some schools are sending out generations that lack fundamental life skills. The trend is moving toward greater ignorance of basic kitchen knowledge, interpersonal abilities and financial sense.
Family and Consumer Sciences is a broad field that encompasses human development, personal and family finance, interior design, food science, nutrition and more. For students, FCS courses in middle school tend to be more of a sampling, touching on relationships, anti-bullying tactics, nutrition, healthy snacks and basic childcare (as a babysitter or older sibling), according to Werhan. In high school, FCS courses are more in-depth. “You can think of the middle school as the appetizer and then high school as the smorgasbord of entrees. So you’re in a whole semester typically with one content area,” she says.
One of the biggest things students stand to lose without FCS education is single-living skills, according to Dawn Maceyka, president of the Family and Consumer Sciences Teachers Association of California, which supports FCS teachers across the state. “Our kids only know how to use the microwave or go through the drive-through,” says Maceyka, who has taught in the field for nearly 26 years. “You might be surprised but we take it for granted that our kids know how to wash dishes. We take it for granted that our kids how to use a knife correctly. It’s not taught at home. How to boil water. It’s literally that basic in our first-level course.” Generally, introductory courses are offered in middle schools, where students are as young as 12.
Many not-so-obvious skills are imparted in these courses, including how to wipe down a countertop. “Sometimes they just push a rag around,” Maceyka says. “We teach them to rinse the rag from when it was dirty. Wring it out. Wipe your counter and rinse your rag again. And wipe it one more time.”
In the high school culinary arts course that Maceyka teaches, she covers cooking skills, basic food prep, and related careers. “We infuse a lot of restaurant industry terms because the very first job that a student usually gets is fast food,” she says. She shows the students how to use a sanitation bucket (including how to take the pH of the solution) and cleaning bucket, which is standard practice in the restaurant industry. As an FCS teacher, Maceyka also believes she imparts responsibility, reliability and leadership to her students. At the end of each course, students are able to put together a digital portfolio of work to help land their first job.
“There are several family and consumer sciences courses that I would say are foundational for anyone to be a success at home and at work,” Werhan says.
From the start, home economics has always been about imparting science and information to individuals so they can improve their quality of life. As years go by, more and more students won’t have someone like my dad teaching them how to navigate the kitchen, how to balance a checkbook, or how (and why) to make sure a cooking area is uncontaminated.
If students’ default assumptions about food and nutrition are formed at the fast food counter because they lack an education in nutrition, the shortcomings in their knowledge cascade into a life of second-rate food choices. If they don’t learn the basic principles of personal finance, they stand to learn later on as prey for people who will exploit their ignorance, whether it’s in the form of bad loans or ignorant spending habits. Without a class that’s focused on imparting the research-based techniques and strategies that students will remember and use the rest of their lives, we are setting them up for a lifetime of taking attractive but unhealthy shortcuts because we assume they’ll pick it up somewhere along the way.