Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?

AlfieNew York Times op-ed:  Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?, by Alfie Kohn (author, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning):

Excellence is not a zero sum game.

For a generation now, school reform has meant top-down mandates for what students must be taught, enforced by high-stakes standardized tests and justified by macho rhetoric — “rigor,” “raising the bar,” “tougher standards.”

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose that next year virtually every student passed the tests. What would the reaction be from politicians, businesspeople, the media? Would these people shake their heads in admiration and say, “Damn, those teachers must be good!”?

Of course not. Such remarkable success would be cited as evidence that the tests were too easy. ...

The inescapable, and deeply disturbing, implication is that “high standards” really means “standards that all students will never be able to meet.” If everyone did meet them, the standards would just be ratcheted up again — as high as necessary to ensure that some students failed.

The standards-and-accountability movement is not about leaving no child behind. To the contrary, it is an elaborate sorting device, intended to separate wheat from chaff. The fact that students of color, students from low-income families and students whose first language isn’t English are disproportionately defined as chaff makes the whole enterprise even more insidious. ...

Consider widespread complaints about a supposed epidemic of “grade inflation” in higher education, a claim often accompanied by indignant expostulations about young people’s sense of entitlement. The reality is that even if more students today really are getting A’s — arguably a dubious claim if we look at transcript data rather than self-reports, by the way — that doesn’t prove these grades are inflated.

But here’s the key point: Many critics don’t even bother to assert that grades have risen over time or are undeserved. They simply point to how many students (in a given class or school) get A’s right now, as if a sufficiently high number was objectionable on its face. ...

The goal, in other words, isn’t to do well but to defeat other people who are also trying to do well. Grades in this view should be used to announce who’s beating whom. And if the students in question have already been sorted by the admissions process, well, they ought to be sorted again. A school’s ultimate mission, apparently, is not to help everyone learn but to rig the game so that there will always be losers. ...

Framing excellence in these competitive terms doesn’t lead to improvements in performance. Indeed, a consistent body of social science research shows that competition tends to hold us back from doing our best. It creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely, encourages gaming of the system and leads all concerned to focus not on meaningful improvement but on trying to outdo (and perhaps undermine) everyone else.

Most of all, it encourages the false belief that excellence is a zero-sum game. It would be both more sensible and more democratic to rescue the essence of the concept: Everyone may not succeed, but at least in theory all of us could.

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There are places where everyone gets A's as a matter of course; unfortunately they tend to be our most selective colleges so their rampant grade inflation just gets dismissed as meritocracy. Check grade inflation dot com for a wealth of information along these lines, perhaps the most eye-opening of which is the graph of grade inflation over time at virtually every well-known college & university. Leading the pack? Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Duke, all of whom have raised their average GPA by over an entire point (out of four points) since the early 60s. H&Y in particular sport average GPAs in the neighborhood of 3.7 these days. And in case anyone thinks this is actually meritocracy or hard work in action, all manner of senior and/or erstwhile H&Y profs have written at length on the institutional pressure to give everyone at least an A minus. That this is to ensure every last graduate is eligible for consulting, finance, or elite grad/professional schools can be safely inferred, I think.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jun 25, 2019 1:12:18 PM

Because then it's not an A

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Jun 26, 2019 4:12:22 AM

Is that like a TGI Friday’s?

Posted by: Pookey | Jun 26, 2019 5:32:53 AM

What a hero.

Posted by: Skipp | Jun 26, 2019 7:44:35 AM

The biggest problem I've observed is the forced application of statistical grade distributions on classes too small to be representative of any distribution. The second biggest issue is that many classes now try to incorporate group projects, and it can be very difficult to fairly allocate an evaluation or grade across a small group that produces a single product.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Jun 26, 2019 9:15:12 AM

Dealing with students, post-graduate, it is sad to see the decline in their overall education and decline - most especially - in writing skills. I believe every person should start the beginning of a course with an "A" and then let their performance maintain it. However, we are so busy teaching to tests that learning and critical thinking skills have been lost in the effort. No doubt, there must always be a measure because life itself is a test. What standards the student and life participant sets is no doubt the personal measure. Society will judge the rest.

Posted by: Tom N. | Jun 26, 2019 10:48:04 AM

This is a poorly researched article with citation bias that overlooks the biggest disgrace in USA education over the past 50 years --- grade inflation in K-12 and higher education where the median grade went from C+ to A-

The author looks at the hypothetical case where the proportion of A grades does not increase when courses get easier. He completely overlooks the reality that the proportion of A grades actually increased to nearly 50% after teaching evaluations commenced to affect tenure and pay raises of teachers ---
Alfie Kohn completely ignores evidence that student put less effort into courses taken on a pass/fail basis relative to when they take courses for letter grades.
Academic Achievement Declines under Pass-Fail Grading ---
The author overlooks the case where over 60 students at Harvard were expelled for cheating in a political science course where all students were assured of an A grade if they turned in their homework (irrespective of the quality of their answers). The students collaborated on cheating because without an incentive to get a higher grade they did not want to waste their time on homework ---
"Cheating Scandal at Harvard," Inside Higher Ed, August 31, 2012 ---
Harvard University is investigating about 125 students -- nearly 2 percent of all undergraduates -- who are suspected of cheating on a take-home final during the spring semester, The Boston Globe reported Thursday. The students will appear before the college’s disciplinary board over the coming weeks, seem to have copied each other’s work, the dean of undergraduate education said. Those found guilty could face up to a one-year suspension. The dean would not comment on whether students who had already graduated would have their degrees revoked but he did tell the Globe, “this is something we take really, really seriously.” Harvard administrators said they are considering new ways to educate students about cheating and academic ethics. While the university has no honor code, the Globe noted, its official handbook says students should “assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is prohibited unless explicitly permitted by the instructor.”
"The Typo That Unfurled Harvard’s Cheating Scandal," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 12, 2012 ---

Posted by: Bob Jensen | Jun 30, 2019 11:07:09 AM