Needed: Smarter Students, Not Inflated Grades

struggling schoolgirlRecently, Vice-President Biden came to Ohio in support of President Obama’s efforts to make college tuition more affordable. Mr. Biden’s visit was reported in the January 13, 2012 issue of The Columbus Dispatch, in an article written by Joe Vardon, and headlined “Biden hits hot-button subject: college costs”.

Having been an academic most of my life, I have had several experiences that bear upon Mr.Biden’s “button”.

Let me begin with a twist on an old saying, “no one ever won a horse race without a good horse.” A small twist on that saying applies to global economic races: no one ever wins economic races without a well-educated workforce. And with this country’s students ranking only 16th among industrialized nations, it’s clear that we as a country have to work on more hot-button issues than just Mr. Biden’s “cost”.

To become competitive, we need smarter students. Neither more affordable diplomas nor inflated grades, inflated student egos, or inflated parental expectations will do. Furthermore, we can’t measure progress merely by counting how many “hoops” (whether substantive or procedural) we can help our students learn how to jump through. What counts in higher education is student’s learning how to jump through ever higher hoops.

And not just the hoops that we tell them to jump through, either. We need to help them learn how to question the “givens” that we ourselves and our leaders have learned how to take for granted, whether awaredly [sic] or tacitly. That takes courage and persistence, as well as living with little money and less security, the common measures of success in this world as people who have most of the power have made it.

I know personally of what I speak. In 1971, I earned a Bachelor’s in engineering from Case Western Reserve University, with a 3.19 accumulative Grade Point Average (GPA). I wondered whether my GPA meant I had done well, average, or poorly in my studies. Back in the mid-1980s, I had opportunity to find out. I asked an esteemed senior professor of engineering—he was named in “Who’s Who?” in his engineering field, and he taugtht for 30 years at a large Mid-Western, public university not located in the Eastern Time Zone. He told me, “In 1956 when I first taught here, the average GPA was 2.50. By 1971, the average GPA had risen to 2.85. And by [the mid-80’s], it had risen to 3.50…”, to which he quickly added, ” and today’s students aren’t nearly as good.”

To my great relief, he said, “You did well.” But he left me worrying about grade inflation, even back then. And that was 25+ years ago!

In the mid-1990s, after earning the PhD from Cornell University, I was teaching graduate-level public administration courses at a public university located in the Mid-West. I began the first session of every class by announcing that I was a hard grader and that students should be happy to earn a B-plus from me. I recounted earning an “A” from a Cornell professor who told me that it was the first full-A he had given in four years! Inevitably, fewer students would attend a second session.

robert letcherOther examples… I gave a rare “F” on a mid-term paper, and the student drove home to bring her Mother to argue her case for her (600 miles roundtrip!). At first, the Mother solidly supported her daughter; but, one of my questions won her over. She turned to her Daughter and asked, incredulously: “You wrote that?!” Another student, whom I later discovered had plagiarized a large portion of her final paper, took exception to my grade for her mid-term paper, saying: “I’ve got a 3.75 GPA… What’s this B-minus doing on my paper?” I told her that I couldn’t be responsible for other professor’s grades.

For these and other reasons, if we want to be more competitive in the globalized economy, we need to push Mr. Biden to push the “smarter students” hot-button, too. We no longer have the wherewithal to dictate to the rest of the world that in this high-stakes game of “[Economic] King of the Hill” which “Hill” we must compete on.

Robert Letcher

Published by the LA Progressive on January 21, 2012
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About Robert Letcher

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D. is a political economist who describes himself as "an academic without portfolio, writer, political activist, and Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn".