Tag Archives: excellence

Mizzou Wipes Out Respect and Excellence

The University of Missouri has eliminated Respect and Excellence.  I have to write this in a hurry because it won’t be long before others will seize on this gift.  Respect and Excellence are the names for two residence halls at the University.  They are being closed because the University suddenly finds that its enrollments are plummeting.  Two other dorms were closed already in light of the crisis.

Let’s bask in the irony for a moment or two longer.  The University of Missouri arrived at this juncture by cravenly submitting to the demands of activists and the threats of football players who decided to abet the activists.  On November 9, System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned rather than face down those threats.

Respect—respect for the abiding values of higher education, respect for civic disagreement, respect for intellectual freedom—went on an unpaid leave of absence from the University of Missouri that day.  As for Excellence, it wasn’t all that clear that the University of Missouri was a congenial place for Excellence before November 9.  But on receiving the news that Demands were moving in, Excellence cancelled her lease and moved out.

Rumors are that she transferred to the Oklahoma Wesleyan University or possibly Ohio State.

Mizzou map


The Neglect of the High Achievers

The Thomas Fordham Institute released the results of a study this week entitled “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.” This is among the first studies to examine the performance of America’s highest achieving children over time and at the individual student level. Produced in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association, this study’s results indicate that many high achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over their school years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below average cohorts.

This study raises a troubling but predictable question: Is the U.S. preoccupation with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”?

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Is There a College My Son or Daughter Can Trust?

A few days ago, I received two similar letters from parents asking a very common question, if the quality of college education is declining as rapidly as many people say, where do you think my daughter or son should go to school? I sent a note putting this question to Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept and an outstanding blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This was his reply (published here with permission):       
Dear John,
I get the question from time to time.  My multi-part answer:
1.  Most colleges and universities have a lot of intellectual rot, but usually some good professors and programs.  If you figure out who the professors and what the programs are, and if you have the discipline to stick with them once you are there, you can get a good education at most of the highly ranked research universities and liberal arts colleges.  (This is by no means easy, but it is possible,)
2.  Within that top tier, however, there are definite exceptions: places where it isn’t possible to get a good college education or so difficult it isn’t worth the effort.  Brown and Wesleyan would top my list of DNA (Do Not Apply).
3.  Depending on your ability, your politics, your intellectual seriousness, and the subjects you are interested in, you may have some very good options.  If you are interested in science and the sheer brainpower, try to get into Caltech.  If you love the Great Books, St. John’s in Annapolis or Sante Fe may be right (but don’t mistake St. John’s as “conservative.”)  If you aren’t put off by the idea of physical remoteness and you are ready for a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, Hillsdale could be a good choice.  If you want to study business, try Babson.
4.  Generally, if you are interested in the sciences or engineering, your range of good choices is much broader–at least to the extent that you are willing to write off the liberal arts.  A lot of research universities have rigorous science programs but very weak and very politicized humanities courses.  You won’t learn how to write very well and you will probably emerge with contempt for the humanities, since virtually all you will encounter will be from people who substitute shabby propaganda for thoughtful inquiry.
5.  If financing a college education is going to be a challenge, give serious consideration to attending a two-year community college and then transferring in to the college you want to graduate from.  There are a lot of junk courses in community colleges too.  You have to be careful and deliberate, but the average community college curriculum isn’t that different from a four-year college, except that it has fewer specialized courses that reflect the vanity of the professors.
6.  If you are 17 or 18, it isn’t a bad idea to defer college altogether.  If you go to college now, you will be prone to many kinds of mistakes that you would know how to avoid in a few years.  Lots of college courses are designed as snares for the 18-year-old mind.  They are meant to make you feel smarter and more sophisticated than you are.  That may feel good at the time, but you’ll eventually wise up and realize that you have wasted a lot of time and money.
7. Never go to a college that has weak writing requirements–except perhaps if hard science is all you want to do.  Writing papers for your courses is a chore but it is the single most important part of your education.  Spot-check by asking current students at the college how many papers they wrote in the last semester, and how long they were.  If you get an answer less than five papers, or a total less than 30 pages, you should keep looking.

Applying ”Freakonomics” to Final Exams

One of my colleagues here at the University of Texas–Austin, the economist Daniel Hamermesh, recently complained in his New York Times “Freakonomics” blog about the common practice in many departments of assigning no final exams. I wish he had applied his own craft to this situation. The lack of final exams is merely one symptom of a general collapse of expectations. The average number of hours spent studying has fallen to twelve hours a week, according to a recent book. Why are college teachers expecting so little effort from their students? They are responding (in an economically rational way) to the incentives created by the modern research university. Teaching is a distraction from highly rewarded activities (research and administration). Insofar as teaching is rewarded at all, the measure of ‘good’ teaching consists solely of student evaluations, which (to put it mildly) are not improved by increasing students’ workload (including the assignment of final exams).
Some teachers continue to care about teaching and put high expectations on their students, from a sense of professional duty and the intrinsic enjoyment of being catalysts for learning. However, the system does its best to de-select such dinosaurs, favoring instead those who can bring in funds and raise institutional prestige through publication. Until we change the incentive structure, final exams (and other accoutrements of serious learning) will continue to be an endangered species.

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).

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A Report From Nowhere

A group called Strong American Schools has just issued a report with the provocative title Diploma to Nowhere. The report is a lavishly produced cry of alarm: our high schools are failing. Millions of graduates are tricked into thinking their high school diplomas mean they are “ready for college academics.” But they aren’t. As a result, 1.3 million students end up in college remedial programs that cost between $2.31 to $2.89 billion per year.

That’s alarming all right, but who is “Strong American Schools”? The organization’s website declares that it is “a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, [and] a nonpartisan campaign supported by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation promoting sound education policies for all Americans.” But the history of the organization and why it was founded are more elusive. The Gates Foundation issued a press release on April 2007 that throws a little more light on the genesis of Strong American Schools. The organization was apparently founded at that point with $60 million and the goal of injecting a particular version of school reform into the 2008 Presidential election. Strong American Schools’ original project was “ED in ’08” described as “a sweeping public awareness and action campaign that will mobilize the public and presidential candidates around solutions for the country’s education crisis.”

Of course a lot depends on what you think the crisis is. Is it our dependence on a teaching corps that in most states has been through the highly ideological training of schools of education and who bring their confused pedagogy to class? Is it our consumerist culture awash in short-term gratifications against which the schools can barely compete? Is it what Charles Murray calls “educational romanticism” that insists that every child can be “above average” and go to college if provided with the right kind of teaching? Is it perhaps an educational system that is dominated by teachers unions more concerned with their prerogatives than with educating students? Could it be the deterioration of academic standards which the No Child Left Behind initiative singled out as the key factor?

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