If Students Fail, Fire The Teacher

Steven Aird, who taught biology, was denied tenure and dismissed by Norfolk State University in Virginia for failing too many students. Though Aird isn’t talking publicly about the case, Inside Higher Ed reports that university documents he released make clear that his pattern of giving low and failing marks was the sole reason he was fired. In classes for which he was criticized by the dean for his grading, Aird gave Ds and Fs to about 90 percent of his students. Other professors say that The dean, Sandra LeLoatch, expects teachers to pass 70 percent of their students. Aird’s attendance records seem to show that many of this students weren’t very interested in studying – the average student went to class only 66 percent of the time. He said 20 percent of his students truly can’t do the work, with another 20 percent ready to learn from the start. The middle 60 percent often fail, he said, because the university accepts substandard work and poor attendance. He said: “I think most of the students have the intellectual capacity to succeed, but they have been so poorly trained, and given all the wrong messages by the university.”

George Leef at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy argues that blaming Aird for not inflating the marks of poor students is the easy way out for a university. He points to two strong arguments that many colleges are filling up with disengaged students, who work very little but expect good grades. One is the book Generation X Goes to College, by Peter Sacks (Read more here). The other is “The Disengaged Student and the Decline of Academic Standards,” an article in Academic Questions by Professor Paul Trout of Montana State University.

Another argument rumbling through the discussion is that the expectation that everyone should go to college is dragging down standards and sending many totally unqualified students to the campuses, where great shock awaits them. The June issue of The Atlantic features an anguished article by an unidentified adjunct teacher (“Professor X”) , who teaches introductory courses in writing and literature to students at two unnamed institutions, one a small private college, the other a community college. The article, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” says sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble inititative with almost universal support. Professor X writes: “Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it – try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. … [But I ] am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.”


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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One thought on “If Students Fail, Fire The Teacher”

  1. An instructor incapable of teaching 90% of his class enough to give them passing marks that they deserve is probably a substandard instructor.

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