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August 23, 2011

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.

But there’s grade inflation, and then there’s grade inflation. AEI has just released a study of grade inflation in Education classes—and the results are both disturbing and unsurprising. Disturbing because study author Cory Koedel found that the average grade in Education classes far exceeds the average in virtually any other major, to such an extent that “Education departments award exceptionally favorable grades to virtually all their students in all their classes.” The University of Missouri provided the most embarrassing results; at the state university’s flagship campus, one of every five Education classes ended with each student receiving an A.

The logical inference of such figures, Koedel correctly implies, is that Education professors have failed to perform the gate-keeping role of ensuring that badly under-qualified students aren’t simply passed along so they can then become public school teachers.  Koedel’s discoveries are unsurprising, however, in that they reflect the leveling approach that is at the heart of contemporary schools of Education.  Competition is bad; cooperation is good.  Individual achievement must be discouraged; collegial collaboration is the ideal.  “High-stakes” tests and exams requiring critical thinking have less relevance than group work or classroom chats.  Such an environment all but ensures that professors will not attempt, much less succeed, in distinguishing much between students’ abilities.  Everyone can be above average.

To address the problem, Koedel recommends that administrators assume a more aggressive role.  I’m dubious.  Ed-school administrators come from Ed-school faculty, and are far more likely to defend rather than challenge the status quo.  Administrators or trustees who challenge Ed-school faculty, meanwhile, run the risk of confronting charges of racism, on the grounds that the “21st-century” Education curricula is the only way to deal with “diverse” student populations.

The better approach, it seems to me, is to champion alternative paths to teacher accreditation.  If it’s impossible to reform Ed schools, then at least students who want to teach in public schools should have a way to bypass Education classrooms—even if, as Koedel’s data suggests, the result will be that they’ll graduate with slightly lower GPA’s.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.