All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


23 August 2011

A Possible Explanation for Grading in Education Departments

From the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, via Inside Higher Ed, via Instapundit, we are invited to read about "Grade Inflation for Education Maj and Low Standards for Teachers". Professor Cory Koedel (Economics, University of Missouri, PhD from UCSD) is essentially writing commentary on a statistical report from the New Teacher Project.

I looked around the internet briefly, searching for the original data report. I was unable to locate it. So take everything I have to say with a grain of salt. But Koedel's analysis has a hole in it so large that I could pass the complete corpus of Aristotle through it and still have room for a Winnebago.

I wonder why it is that anyone would expect education majors to have the same grades as anyone else. Do you expect the grades in "Advanced Metamorphic Pressure Studies" and "Rocks for Jocks" to be the same? Of course not: some classes are just easier.

Likewise, we might expect some majors to just be easier, or to have different grade profiles. Physics is harder (for most people) than Qual Sociology. Chemistry is harder (again, for most people) than English/Crit Theory. Philosophy is very easy to pass, but extremely hard to do well in. Some subjects have bimodal grading distributions. None of this should necessarily be a cause for alarm, I think. At least I've not been given any real reason to be alarmed by this report.

Koedel seems to be operating from the assumption that all majors should be equally challenging -- or at least in the same ballpark. But that doesn't strike me as an obvious truth. Should every major be as challenging as is necessary to teach its corpus of knowledge?

Now Koedel's premise might be true -- maybe we should make sure every major is equally challenging. But you have to convince me of this. You can't just assert it. Why should they be equally challenging? Is there something about challenge itself that is necessary to learning?

Koedel seems to think that the answer is "yes":
Grade inflation is associated with reduced student effort in college—put simply, students in classes where it is easier to get an A do not work as hard. This is not surprising, and a recent study by Philip Babcock quantifies the effect.8 He shows that in classes where the expected grade rises by one point, students respond by reducing effort, as measured by study time, by at least 20 percent.9 It is straightforward to apply Babcock’s result to the data from the two schools depicted in figures 1 and 2. If the grading standards in each education department were moved to align with the average grading standards at their respective universities, student effort would rise by at least 11–14 percent.

We are thus supposed to think that a rise in effort would be a good thing. As I said, maybe it is. But I'm not necessarily convinced. Koedel admits that...
...(f)or the increased effort to be beneficial, it must be the case that either the content of classes taught in education departments adds direct value in terms of teaching quality, or teachers gain other skills indirectly as a result of a more demanding college experience (for example, skills in time management or improved work ethics).

Let's put aside the big, difficult question: for increased effort to be beneficial to whom, exactly? (My completely unfounded suspicion is that Koedel would reply by saying something like, "beneficial to the involved parties".) What we are given are two options for justifying greater effort: better results in teaching, and better results in something that I'll call "life skills" -- time management, work ethics, learning to follow instructions, etc.

He admits that there's no real evidence for the first option. Nevertheless, he seems to think it's probably true anyway, a position that I actually find somewhat dubious. I'm not convinced of the value of education majors generally. Saying that you could make better teachers by having more of an already ineffectual curriculum of training is like trying to make up a per-unit loss in terms of sales volume, as the old joke goes.

The second option is odd: that effort could have value if it imparts what I'll call here "life skills" (time management, following instructions, etc.). Teaching life skills by themselves is just weird: I could assign my students 300-page, handwritten papers with all sorts of ludicrous formatting requirements (like every fourth word has to be in a different color ink). And I could make them write about the quality of their toe jam. This would "teach" them all sorts of time management skills, as well as valuable skills in following arcane directions. But it's jackassery of the highest order. And the meaningless of it all would probably undermine whatever lesson is being taught, assuming there was a lesson.

Life skills are taught best doing something substantial and relevant; when students do work, the doing of the work might impart life skills, but the work itself should be a substantive end; an education course should teach about education, or its simply a fraud. If you wanted to just learn life skills, you could take a class called "Life Skills 101".

Of course, it's possibly to make an assignment harder than it really needs to be in order to learn/demonstrate mastery of the actual course syllabus. That way, you're getting more effort, and better life skills training, than you would if you just had an assignment that reflected the substantive issues in the course alone. But that seems silly and wasteful.

The second option -- life skills -- doesn't look like it's going to work as a justification.

So really, the first option is the only option: increased effort is only going to be valuable if the material itself generates some sort of benefit. But as I said, I don't see why we should think this, and Koedel gives us absolutely no reason whatsoever to think it's the case.

As I said at the outset, maybe education courses are easier because the subject matter (what is the subject matter of education courses, anyway?) is simpler and actually requires less effort. But Koedel doesn't even entertain this idea. No, for him the easier grading is itself a problem:
It seems difficult to argue with the notion that low grading standards in education departments at universities are bad for students in K–12 schools. But Weiss and Rasmussen documented these low standards over fifty years ago, so this has been an ongoing cultural norm for some time. What is causing the problem, and what can be done to fix it?

It's not difficult to argue with that notion; I'm doing it. I'm arguing (not entirely sincerely, mind you -- I don't have an informed opinion on this precise subject) that the low grading standards are just fine for the subject. Indeed, the fact that this has been a cultural norm for some time suggests (but does not prove) that maybe it's not really a "problem", after all. Maybe learning how to teach someone to read is actually kind of easy compared to, say, learning how to synthesize polymers or learning to parse one's way through a paragraph by Kant.

As I indicated earlier, I'm not really endorsing this view substantively. I'm just flabbergasted that Koedel doesn't even seem to think it's an option, and instead decides that what's really needed is for every major in college to require roughly the same amount of effort.

That's a weird idea, even for an economist.

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