Warning–Honest Grading Can be Hazardous to Your Job

The old adage that honesty is the best policy doesn’t always hold true. A college biology professor recently found that out very painfully.

Steven Aird taught biology at Norfok State University in Virginia, a historically black school. He was recently dismissed from his teaching position because he gave his students the grades they had actually earned, rather than inflating them to keep them happy. When the students aren’t happy, alas, the administration isn’t happy. Forced to choose between a professor’s grading standards and students who might take their tuition money elsewhere, Norfolk State chose the students. (More details on the story are available here.)

In an era when many institutions of higher education are desperate for as many students as possible to help pay the bills, conflicts of this sort are bound to occur. The battle between academic standards and student retention usually ends up in crushing defeat for the former.

Norfolk State’s stance is predictable. It says that Aird had failed to embrace the university’s mission of educating students who aren’t well prepared for college-level work. What that really means is that if a professor assigns students low grades, it is proof of his lack of teaching competence. It isn’t that the students didn’t try hard enough. That would be to “blame the victim” – one of the worst of all sins in the egalitarian realm of higher education. No, it’s the professor’s fault.

If Aird had simply inflated his grades so that the students who had earned Ds and Fs instead received Bs and Cs (but even giving a C can now lead to trouble), the fact that many of his students had failed to learn much about biology would have been swept under the rug. He would have kept his job and students who didn’t’ deserve the grades they got would be content. They wouldn’t know much biology, but who cares? It’s not as though knowing about biology will make any difference in their lives. That university diploma? It’s just a piece of paper telling future employers that they got enough credits to graduate from college – not proof that they learned anything.

From the university’s perspective, true education is just as irrelevant. Lip service must always be paid to learning, of course, but the sad truth is that most colleges no more care whether their students actually learn anything than businesses selling miracle cures for baldness or obesity care whether their customers get the promised results. Once they have the money, that’s it.

Because the United States has so completely oversold higher education (as I argue here), a large percentage of the students who now enroll just want the degree. They want it with as much fun on the side and as little effort as possible. Professor Paul Trout of Montana State University refers to them as “disengaged” students. As he describes them:

    They do not read the assigned books, they avoid participating in class discussions, they expect high grades for mediocre work, they ask for fewer assignments, they resent attendance requirements, they complain about course workloads, they do not like “tough” or demanding professors, they do not adequately prepare for class and tests, they are impatient with deliberative analysis, they regard intellectual pursuits as boring, they resent the intrusion of course requirements on their time, they are apathetic or defeatist in the face of challenge, and they are largely indifferent to anything resembling an intellectual life.

(Professor Trout’s article, “The Disengaged Student and the Decline of Academic Standards,” published in the journal Academic Questions is available here.) Disengaged students can come from any background. Some come from wealthy families and some from poor ones. What they have in common is K-12 education that failed to ignite the kindling of intellectual fire. Education isn’t something they want, but merely something they have to put up with. They’re used to schooling that is not demanding, readily excuses failure, and is mainly concerned with building self-esteem. As a result of their soft and easy K-12 years, they have expectations that college will be more of the same.

To a great extent, it is. Most professors know how to play the game. They understand that giving students low grades, even if entirely deserved, is an invitation to trouble. Therefore, they water down their courses (not too much reading that students don’t like doing and certainly nothing difficult) and adjust their grading scales to ensure that there aren’t any of those complaint provoking Ds and Fs.

Ah, but what happens when the students run into someone like Steven Aird?

Will they realize that his course is different and calls for much greater effort than they’re used to? Will they adjust accordingly? A few students might, but most will simply complain. That’s one thing our political system teaches people young and old – when things aren’t to your liking, you should demand that the world adjust to you! When you don’t get your way, insist that others change their ways. (Often that works, but when it doesn’t, the results can be very ugly.)

In higher education, there are various ways of registering your complaints, but the most famous is the end-of-course faculty evaluation. On those evaluations, students get to vent their anger and frustration at professors so insensitive as to give difficult, time-consuming assignments and who lower their self-esteem with bad grades. That’s usually how professors who haven’t embraced the mission – that is, graduating as many students as possible – are identified. Students whine about them on evaluations.

Often, such professors amend their ways before disaster strikes. In his book Generation X Goes to College, Peter Sacks (a pseudonym) relates his experiences as a new journalism instructor at an unnamed college. After Sacks taught the course as he thought it should be taught for a semester, his students blasted him on their course evaluations. Among other things, they didn’t like the fact that he had the nerve to criticize their writing. Throughout their K-12 years, they’d been told that they were good writers – who was he to say otherwise?!

School administrators called Sacks in to discuss his terrible evaluations and told him that unless they improved, the next semester would be his last. To save his job, he embarked on his “sandbox experiment.” He taught less material, included much more “fun” stuff, and lowered his grading standards. It worked. His second semester students gave his course glowing evaluations. He saved his job by coddling the students and adjusting to their desires.

Sacks sums up this way: “(B)y and large, students view themselves primarily as consumers who intend to study just a handful of hours a week for all their classes, and who expect, at a minimum, solid Bs for their efforts….In short, they view themselves as consumers who pay their teachers to provide ‘knowledge,’ regardless of how superficial that knowledge might be. After all, how hard should a consumer have to work to buy something?”

It’s hard to say what is more distressing about stories such as these – that so many “students” would rather complain than put forth the extra effort needed to succeed in an academically rigorous course, or that college administrators would rather jettison a demanding professor than risk having some disaffected students leave.