Tag Archives: grade inflation

Why Tenure Makes Teaching Better

It’s impossible not to notice a contradiction on the pages of Minding the Campus. My friend Bill Voegeli seems to be saying that tenure makes teaching in our colleges and universities worse (“Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University,” June 22). The shameful goings on at Northwestern over Kipnis show that tenure doesn’t really protect the intellectual freedom of professors from the tyrannical political correctness emanating from administrators. And so tenure has been exposed as nothing but a job protection racket.

Bill has been writing in support of Governor Scott Walker’s scheme to end tenure in the Wisconsin state system. That would give administrators better control over the self-indulgent behavior of the tenured, allowing them, for example, to force lazy teachers to teach more and surrender the “release time” they received for their trivial articles and books that no one reads and no one in the free market actually would pay for. Let’s make professors work 40-hour weeks! And let’s fire them if they’re not serious and effective in their primary responsibility of teaching. The closer our campuses come to the “right-to-fire” situation we find in our more entrepreneurial states, the better.

Offend No Student

The invariably astute George Leef shows us (“Student Ratings Bait Profs into Lowering Standards,” June 24), although that surely wasn’t his main intention, that tenure makes teaching better. He makes the point that untenured faculty–that includes those on a tenure tack, temporaries, and adjuncts–have little choice but to be pretty obsessive when it comes to getting good student evaluations. Given our administrators’ misguided (but deeply rooted) tendency to identify “the good” with “the measurable,” a good set of evaluations has become one on which virtually every student gives the instructor the highest possible scores. So “being good” means to have produced no evidence that any student was offended or disturbed or unduly burdened by the instructor.

This situation seduces faculty into being more entertaining, more affirming, and less challenging than concerned about student learning or even student habituation (say, for the 21st century global competitive marketplace). It seems cruel (and contrary to everything we learn from the science of economics) to blame faculty for the way they’re being incentivized. Faculty would rather not suck up to the students, but what real choice do they have if they want to remain on the faculty?

Student evaluations can’t be made much better by experts trying to refine them with subtle questions that allegedly actually measure student effort and student learning. The more questions there are–and the more complicated they are–the less likely it is that students will actually read them. And as Leef rather wittily reminds us, the real goal of the faculty member is that students not read them at all, but automatically assign the highest score all the way down the line. That’s why (and I’ve noticed this first-hand) there’s an emerging science of getting students in a euphoric mood on evaluation day, to get them to surrender their critical faculties on a doughnut high or through a feel-good exercise in collective self-affirmation. After all, even if a student realizes that he or she has learned much, had a transformative emotional/intellectual experience, and feels the love and respect from a particular instructor, it’s very unlikely, if he or she deploys his or her critical faculties, that the result would be top marks all the way down the line.  The untenured faculty member wants the student to be feeling (feeling good, of course), not thinking, when evaluating.

Students Free to Choose

The incentive here, as Leef says, is to get the student to fill out the evaluation quickly and happily and without taking time to write comments. The numbers do the talking, the thought is, and the comments are bound to be ambiguous and subjective. Now, at my college, there’s a kind of doubling down on this incentivizing by an administrative concern. Our students are free to fill out the evaluations online whenever they please in a two-week period.  Left to their own devices, even with numerous emails of encouragement, a clear majority of them choose not to bother. For myself, I think they should be free to choose, and there might be some honor in refusing to evaluate someone anonymously.

It seems the administration is too consumer sensitive to develop some mechanism to compel compliance. So the burden falls on faculty (with, in principle, our accreditation on the line!) to get students to fill them out. And the one and only time I was judged by some administrator to be deficient on my evaluations is when my turnout was pretty low, and it was suggested to me that there was the rumor out there that I tell students the evaluation process is stupid. (I actually do say, when teaching the Republic, that Socrates says that a weakness of democracy is that it’s so relativistic that students even get to evaluate teachers. But I now add that we live in a democracy so you can’t blame Berry College, do your duty as a democratic citizen and fill the bleepin’ thing out.)

The trouble with low turnout for untenured faculty, of course, is that either it can become a reason to discount their high scores or leave their scores too much to chance by allowing the negative feedback of one disgruntled customer to count too much.  It also can curtail their academic freedom, at least a little, by keeping them from turning student evaluations into a teachable moment about a great text. One method faculty use to increase turnout is to have all the students pull out their smart phones (or tablets and laptops, but at Berry most students don’t bring computers to classrooms–yet another reason why your kids should come here) and fill out the evaluations in class. Well, talk about a comment-suppressing method! Nobody likes to type on those touchy keyboards.

A More Reliable Guide

I never do that. But when I did remind those in my con law class to man up (in the nonsexist sense) and do their evaluative duty, one woman five minutes later thanked me for the reminder and told me she had just filled out the evaluations for all five of her classes.  I’m guessing there were a bunch of fives (the highest score) and no comments, as she is a classy and charitable person.

The truth is that the comments, although far from foolproof, are a much more reliable guide to the quality of instruction. From my view, a really impressive set of evaluations has comments about what was actually learned, complaints (mostly ironic or appreciative) about the amount of work required, some feeling of love, in many cases, for the books read, and a good deal of affirmation of how smart, hard-working, informed, and fair the instructor is.

Comments that are somewhat hostile about the irksome requirements or strange perspectives of the class should also be regarded as positive.  And much better than a vaguely positive vibe from everyone is lots of evidence that some students really loved the class for the right reasons, but not all of them and maybe far from all of them. So there is, in truth, only a loose correlation between genuinely excellent evaluations and really high numbers. One reason is that there’s no denying that some faculty become adept at generating the numbers by prioritizing them over the learning.

The untenured faculty member, especially at a fairly large institution, can’t count on anyone reading the comments with the appropriate discernment and rightly fears being unpopular or even controversial for any reason. So he or she operates with the cynicism that accompanies the observation that virtue is not rewarded.

Virtuous Un-cynical Teachers

That means tenured faculty members typically have more incentive to be good–that is, authentically virtuous and un-cynical–teachers. They have less reason to be concerned about blips in evaluation numbers and often become confident that their reputation as teachers, developed over the years, trumps the quantitative data. It’s true that tenure protects some cynical teachers too, but it does less than the absence of tenure to facilitate excessively consumer-sensitive behavior.

Now there are some who say that if we got rid of tenure, we could break what many experts perceive as the corrupt bargain between students and faculty that leads to both grade inflation and very high scores on the evaluation. I’ll give you high marks for no good reason if you do the same for me. The main priority could be firing instructors who don’t grade with the measurable intention of whipping inflation now. But, to instructively over-generalize, we can see that the main priority of most of our institutions is enrollment and retention, and the main fact, especially among residential colleges, is the almost cutthroat competition for the increasingly scarce resource of the student.

When Princeton, for example, decided to get a little tougher (to improve its reputation) in its grading (getting the average GPA below 3.5!), it quickly decided that that point of distinction was an unacceptable competitive hindrance in the marketplace for the best and the brightest. So at most places most of the time, there’s not nearly enough reason for untenured faculty to risk low or even mediocre evaluations by getting tougher. That’s the type of experiment that might more reasonably be performed after tenure.

Let me conclude by mentioning the most inconvenient truth for those who oppose tenure.  At most of our colleges and universities (most private residential colleges and regional state universities), the teaching load is pretty demanding and salaries aren’t so great. Anyone who dedicates his or her life to teaching in such a place is a sucker–a sucker we should believe in.

It’s said that a downside of tenure is that it keeps faculty from being entrepreneurial by making them feel too secure.  The value of a good teacher in the marketplace goes down over time, and that’s one reason for the (probably somewhat avoidable) salary compression. Everyone really in the know knows that excellent teaching is nearly impossible to measure–or at least that the people doing the measuring don’t know what they’re doing. Not only that, teaching excellence is, in part, contextual–a teacher can flourish one place but not another for a variety of reasons. So when an experienced teacher looks for another job, he or she finds out that all the devoted and effective teaching he or she has done doesn’t count for much.

What does count in the marketplace (far more than it should at the undergraduate level) is publication.  The kind of excellence displayed in publication is easy to see and for many even easy to quantify. So the entrepreneurial professor at a small college has the incentive to get the teaching on the kind of auto-pilot that reliably generates the scores on the evaluation and spend most quality time on publishing. Tenure provides the kind of security (if often not the kind of money) that discourages that kind of behavior.

Contrary to Voegeli’s suggestion, a really good way to have a topflight undergraduate teaching institution is to make sure that most faculty have tenure, so that most faculty are devoted to spending most of their time helping students get what they most need. Tenure certainly discourages a career deformed by the behavior of mechanically generating marginal articles just to produce a more marketable resume, a behavior Voegeli rightly outed as often a trivial pursuit not worthy of support by either the taxpayers or the student’s tuition dollars.

 

I think it’s easy to see that the best teaching is going on at small colleges where most faculty are tenured and almost all are tenure track. Send your kids to one of them! The faculty members at my college are remarkably un-cynical about the secure career the institution offers good teachers, whatever they might think about other administrative initiatives. But nationwide, the number of credit hours generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty shrinks as the number generated by adjuncts and temporary faculty explodes. I hope nobody really believes that it’s good for genuinely higher education that our “instructional workforce” takes on many of the qualities of a proletariat. It’s not even good for cost control, but that’s an issue for another day.

In Education Classes, A Is for Average

Grade inflation has been a prime topic of debate at least since Harvey Mansfield’s Chronicle  essay a decade ago.  Despite my general admiration for Mansfield’s critique of academic matters, I’ve never considered the issue among the more serious problems confronting the academy, partly because it seemed to me that grade inflation has resulted not just from lowered standards or more entitled student bodies but also from positive changes.

To a much greater degree than in the past (and largely for legal reasons), university administrations now require professors to be more specific and less subjective in laying out grade criteria–meaning that professors have much less flexibility in assigning grades, at least in classes that don’t grade on a curve.  And students, increasingly recognizing the significance of good grades to their subsequent career choices or grad school paths, have become more willing to do the extra work that might distinguish between a B-plus and an A-minus.

Continue reading In Education Classes, A Is for Average

Grade Inflation All the Way Up

Among the many troubling findings cited by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift is this remarkable note on grade inflation:
 
—–55 percent of college students have a B+ grade average or higher (3.3 and higher)
—–85 percent of college students have a B- grade average or higher (2.7 and higher)
 
Those numbers demonstrate what most everybody has known for a long, long time.  The old grading system running from A to F is virtually meaningless.  Today, except for the small fraction of low outliers and dropouts, the only meaningful discriminations happen at the high end.  Are you a B+ student or an A- student?  The difference may come down to only two-tenths of a point, but generally that’s the best the scale can do.
 
Everybody knows it, especially when you get outside Organic Chemistry, Advanced Calculus, and other science/med school prerequisites which have a forthright weeding-out purpose.  In a humanities class, a “C” counts as a lost case.  I am just as guilty of the practice as most, but at least my colleagues and I usually admit it.

Continue reading Grade Inflation All the Way Up

Why University Presidents Are Clueless About the Real World

20081113-college-presidents.jpg

New Pew Research Center data show that a large majority of Americans think U.S. colleges and universities offer only fair or poor value for the financial cost -but college presidents strikingly disagree, with a majority of them thinking college offers at least a good value (though college presidents are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the quality of American higher education compared to the world ten years from now). Similarly, a majority of Americans question whether college is truly affordable any more, a view that most college presidents do not share. More generally, people in the academy have views widely divergent from the mainstream of the American population.

Turning to college presidents, I think a lot of this attitudinal divide relates to the non-market environment in which colleges operate. How do you become a successful college president? You raise lots of money, which you then use to bribe the various constituents in the university community to keep them happy. The faculty you bribe with low teaching loads, good fringe benefits, and perhaps a nearby parking place. Your fellow top administrators whose support is vital you bribe with not only good salaries, but also lots of assistants who do much of the heavy lifting associated with the job. You bribe the students by giving them nice recreational and dorm facilities, and reach an implicit bargain with them to not demand much academically (hence grade inflation) and to largely ignore their hedonistic bouts of alcoholic and sexual excesses. You bribe the alumni with decent football and basketball teams and a nice campus facility where they can hang out. You bribe the trustees with whatever idiosyncratic whim they want. In short, you spend money to keep a narrow group of people associated with the Ivory Tower happy.

Contrast that with business leaders. They are motivated by profits, maximizing the gap between revenue and costs. To increase revenues, they must please vast numbers of persons with new or improved products. They also enhance profits by reducing costs, raising productivity so they can do more with less. They reward subordinates who further these goals with bonuses, stock options, etc.

Continue reading Why University Presidents Are Clueless About the Real World

Professors Should Dress Like Professionals

professor-jones1.jpg

Judged by the recent avalanche of autopsy-like books, American higher education appears troubled. Alleged evil-doers abound, but one culprit escapes unnoticed–the horrific sartorial habits of many of today’s professors. Don’t laugh. As Oscar Wilde brilliantly observed, only shallow people do not judge by appearances. Indeed, I would argue that much of what plagues today’s academy can be traced to an almost total collapse of sartorial standards. When I began my professorial career in 1969 the tweed sport coat and tie was more or less standard. Today, with all too few exceptions, “academic casual,” even jeans and tee-shirts is de rigueur. This slide has not been kind to life of the mind.

Many of the academy’s ills are traceable to diminished professorial authority. We often feel like “I don’t get any respect” Rodney Dangerfield: students day dream, ignore assignments, barely show up, cheat, gossip during class, and send text messages among other contemptuous behaviors. And not even entertaining lectures, grade inflation and dumbed-down syllabi seem able to restore the loss of respect.      

To appreciate the connection between respect for authority and outward appearances, consider the one setting obsessed with maintaining authority –courts. Judges always dress the part though sartorial details vary. Severe black robes are standard while some wear special hats, even wigs and all sit high above the court proceedings. To drive home respect, judges are addressed with “your honor” or “may it please the court” and lawyers must ask permission to “approach to the court” for private conservation. Discussions are all judge-controlled and disrespect is punishable by contempt of court. All rise when the judge enters and nobody would dare catch up on e-mails during a trial. This is the physical aspect of respect for rule of law. Professors should be so lucky.

Continue reading Professors Should Dress Like Professionals

Princeton’s Victory Over Grade Inflation

princeton_university_fort.jpgGrade inflation is one of those realities of the post-60s academic world that most college teachers bemoan but feel powerless to do anything about. It is virtually impossible for any single faculty member to do much to stem the tide of ever rising grade distributions. If a faculty member refuses to go along with the upward shift in grades and gives his students lower grades than they would have received for comparable work in other courses, students will rightfully complain that to those reading their official transcript it will falsely appear as if they have done lesser work or achieved at a lower level in the hold-out grader’s course than in other courses. Such faculty members will find many fewer students taking their courses — including many conscientious and competitive students whom the teacher does not want to scare away. Worse still, since tenure and promotion decisions are often partially based on student evaluations and student enrollments that frequently reflect past satisfaction with a professor’s grading policy, university teachers today pay a heavy price for bucking the inflationary trend.
Perhaps the best that a lone academic can do is represented by Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield. Mansfield can remember a time when the average GPA at Harvard College was around 2.5 on a 4.0 scale — today it is about 3.5. The transition from C+ to B+ as the average grade has produced the ludicrous result that in some years nine in ten Harvard seniors graduated with official honors. For Mansfield the idea that grades should mean what grading keys still often say they mean — i.e., that an A means “Excellent,” “Truly Outstanding,” a B “Very Good,” “Above Average,” and a C “Average” — carries a good deal of weight. But implementing such a grading policy is impossible in a grading environment in which C grades have practically disappeared from most humanities and social science courses (representing less than 5 percent of the grades in some departments), and more than half of students in many Harvard courses receive A range grades. Mansfield came up with a creative solution that enabled him to avoid what would have been a bitter and ultimately futile struggle against the inflationary flood waters of the times without having to sing praises to the river gods. Mansfield has for many years now given his students two sets of grades, one for the official Harvard transcript, the other representing what the students really deserve on a non-inflated grading scale.
Does It Really Exist?
Some deny that grade inflation exists. According to these people — usually students or their parents — students are simply getting smarter these days, especially at the most prestigious colleges and universities which draw from a huge talent pool. The higher grades obtained at such places reflect genuinely higher achievement, these people say, just as the superior performance in track and field events at the Olympics represent genuine advances over earlier competitors, not changes in the evaluation metric.
But no college teacher with hands-on experience of the rising grades at the better colleges over the past several decades can take such claims seriously. Term papers of a quality that would have received a B or B+ in former times are now routinely given an A-, and with the near elimination of C range grades in many humanities and social science courses (except for failing or near-failing work), the B and B- grades have come to absorb everything that previously would have been awarded a C or even a D. To anyone with knowledge of an earlier period, it is clear that there has been both protracted grade inflation (higher grades overall for work no better than in an earlier period), and grade compression (almost all grades compressed into the A+ to B- range).

Continue reading Princeton’s Victory Over Grade Inflation

New ACTA Report

ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has just published a report on grade inflation. “Measuring Up: The Problem of Grade Inflation and What Trustees Can Do” can be read online at the ACTA site or purchased in hard copy for $5. Click here for more information.

Dumbing Down: Then And Now

The Way We Were
school_sm.jpgThis is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina , Kansas , USA . It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina , KS , and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

8th Grade Final Exam:

Grammar (Time, one hour)

1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of ‘lie’, ‘play’, and ‘run.’
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6. What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7 – 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time, 65 minutes)

1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?
4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find the cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per meter?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)

1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus .
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas .
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.

Orthography (Time, one hour) (Do we even know what this is???)

1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, and syllabication.
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, sub vocal, diphthong, cognate letters, and lingual.
4. Give four substitutes for caret ‘u.’ (HUH?)
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final ‘e.’ Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi-, dis-, mis-, pre-, semi-, post-, non-, inter-, mono-, and sup-.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication

Geography (Time, one hour)

1 What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. H ow do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia , Odessa , Denver , Manitoba , Hecla , Yukon , St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco .
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of: Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

The Way We Are

Case Western Reserve’s Ted Gup, in the April 11, 2008 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about how little his students know:

“Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries – China, Cuba, India, and Japan – not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses – half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975.”

Continue reading Dumbing Down: Then And Now