Saturday, May 2, 2009

Show Up, and Get a B - Another way k-12 does not prepare for the real world

I have recently come across an interesting article documenting a sad trend in college students increasing sense of entitlement. According to the article, professors and administrators are noticing an increasing sense amongst students that they are entitled to certain grades, and an increasing aversion to earning, rather than getting, grades.

The article makes some interesting points but I think it misdiagnoses the problem at lesat a little bit. As a k-12 educator, I think that this sense of entitlement in college students comes from the disjunct between the k-12 schools indirect teaching of entitlement and the college's continued emphasis on earning, rather than being entitled to, academic success. Like it or not, k-12 schools ARE leaving kids unprepared for college by getting them used to the idea that all children will be successful and that effort, rather than product, will be rewarded. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't work that way, leaving those students unprepared for the large paradigm shif that will doubtless come their way.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

Why do the students think this way? As a teacher, I have seen many teachers TELL students that the default grade IS an A, and that one works to maintain, rather than earn, the high marks. I just dealt with a student yesterday who relayed that her teacher told her exactly this (and I have seen countless other teachers do this).

Of course, mathematically, this is quite untrue. The default grade at the beginning of each quarter is a 0%. If the first assignment is worth 100 points, and the student does half of the assignment, the grade becomes a 50% F. If they do the entire assignment, of course, their grade is a 100% A. From there, the grade can change based on the number of points per assignment and the relative weighting of the assignments, but in no way is the default grade ACTUALLY an A (despite what we tell students).

And there is another way in which the "default A" is unworkable. As Charles Murray points out in his book Real Education, "C" measn "average" in education parlance, or at least, it used to! It is a statistical truism that half of kids will be at or below average and half of kids will be at or above average. If our grade books were redesigned to allign with how they should look, student grades would create a bell curve where "C" would be the tip. "A" means "excellent" in education parlance, and as such, we are giving out too many "A's" if we are giving them to stduents who are not excellent in their subject. (My estimate would be about 10-15% should be getting "A's").

I think that it stems from their K-12 experiences,” Professor Brower said. “They have become ultra-efficient in test preparation. And this hyper-efficiency has led them to look for a magic formula to get high scores.”

The first half is right; the second is not. In the county in which I teach, for instance, 60% of the overall grade for a class is made up of classwork, and 25% is made up of tests and quizzes. On top of this, classwork is most often graded for completion, rather than accuracy. (Tests are generally the only thing grade for accuracy.) This literally means that a student can do all classwork without understanding the content, bomb every test and quiz, and still walk away with a "D." If she does all homework in addition to classwork, she would recieve a "C," and if she does all classwork and homework while scoring 50% "F's" on all tests and quizzes (still not understanding much of the material), she would recieve a 85% "B". I see it happen all the time where a student has a "C" in a class but does not know anything but the rudimentary skills for the class. This trend is at its worst when that student gets passed to Spanish II (or Algebra II) without mastering the requisite amount of info from the previous class.

My point: this teaches students that effort is to be rewarded above product. While this sounds like a good idea, the article points out that it is not. In essence, we are sending kids from an institution which, for 12 years, has taught them that effort rather than product is what counts and throwing them into a 4 year institution that operates in precisely the opposite way! In a college spanish class, it is rare that homeworks are graded for anything but accuracy (if they are graded at all), and tests constitute the majoity of the grade. Contrast that with the high school spanish class where student classwork and homework is graded on completion and together constitutes 75% of a stduent's grade.

There is another huge problem with what k-12 institutions' inadvertent inflating of grades and putting primacy on effort rather than product: it leads to students who become easily discouraged when they get bad grades.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

What's the point? First, the point is to learn, rather than to earn a grade. (We are not good at teaching this in k-12 either.) Second, it is unrealistic (unless surrounded by k-12 walls) to expect that hard work garauntees a product worthy of a high grade. The real world does not work that way. If two people work just as hard at work and one turns in a better finished product than the other, then the better product will yield higher rewards. In college, one can put in all the work one wants, but if one doesn't understand the subject well enough to pass the test, then one does not deserve to pass the course as if one did understand the subject.

But k-12 works differently. In our zeal towards egalitarianism and a very chimeric belief that all children should have success, we have created a aystem so singley focused on this goal that it is artificially padded. In our desire to see all students experience success, we have made a system that places little emphasis on mastery (an elitist concept, that!) and put it on hard work (which all students are at least capable of). And even then, we treat students who do not work hard as "students with special needs" and offer even more "supports" that do little more than ensure that less effort is required of them (lest they earn an F at something!).

For those who think I am exaggerating this last piece, a previous post the story of a student I work with who simply does not show up to class and does little work. The school, however, has made deal after deal with him that he can pass the year if he does x and y. When he doesn't follow through, they re-instate the deal. When I asked why - why not let him experience the consequences of his actions - the most common response is, "Well, if we do that, he might not graduate, and that would be a shame." In other situations, I have been explicitly told to grade students for effort rather than product, or to use a more relaxed standard when grading certain students.

In the bizarre world of k-12 ed, this makes a certain bit of sense to most teachers. Fairness, we are repeatedly told, means giving everyone a tase of success. But as I hope to have pointed out, this egalitarian model does not fit with what kids will experience after high school either in college or the world of work. I shudder to think at how poorly we are preparing students for the merit-based world they will face after high school, where one is not entitled to grades, praise, or raises, no matter how hard one works, and where what matters is product rather than effort.

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