All the Children Are Not Above Average

In Lake Wobegon all the children are above average. Outside of Lake Wobegon, however, it isn’t so. Therein lies the problem.

Of course Garrison Keillor is being funny. In the nature of things, all the children cannot be above average. A recent university graduate told me that, in his university, it was held that B is an average grade. Really? If signs have any sort of genuine relation to the things they signify and if B = average then A would be above average and then we need a new sign for outstanding (I nominate Z). Here’s what the grade scale denotes:

A= Excellent/Outstanding
B = Above Average
C = Average
D = Below Average
F = Failing

I had this discussion with one of my classes recently. Typically in my courses about 10% of the students earn an A and about 10% of the students fail and the rest of the grades are scattered across the middle. This is not a prescription (i.e.., it’s not that it has to be this way) but just a description. This is the way it usually turns out. I didn’t notice this trend until about 5-7 years ago. There are usually more B students than C, which suggests that I’m probably not grading as rigorously as I should. Nevertheless, students seem genuinely surprised by the notion that C = average and that a B, an above average grade, is a good grade. More than a few of my students report that they’ve always been “A” students and that they have never received a B. They regard a B as a virtual failure.

My experience resonates with the anecdotal experience of other teachers but the question of the existence and nature of grade inflation is hotly debated in contemporary academia. Charles F. Eiszler summarizes the state of the literature from the mid-1970s through the late 1990s. In some analyses the controversy seems to be a thinly veiled cultural and political fight. Authors who might be considered cultural or economic conservatives (e.g., Richard Vedder) warn of declining academic standards and some authors who identify themselves as social-economic liberals (e.g., Alfie Kohn) contend that grade inflation is a dangerous myth. Indeed, Alfie Kohn argues that it is grade inflation that is the problem but grades themselves! Though it is difficult to document in a way that satisfies everyone many teachers will tell you that, on the basis of their experience, there is grade inflation.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say that there should be such things as grades, that some students actually do perform better than others (i.e., they do the reading, they attend class, take good notes, prepare well for exams, and write good term papers). Let’s say that there have been a number of changes in secondary and post-secondary education in North America which have resulted in lowered academic standards and higher grades more easily obtained. This hypothesis resonates more closely with my experience as a student and as a teacher than most of the alternative explanations I’ve seen. If the lowered standards/rising grades hypothesis is true, why might it be so?

1. Economics. According to one inflation calculator the $1,000 in college tuition paid in 1984 should have cost a little over $2,0000 in 2009. Tuition was about $33.00 per credit hour when I began university in 1984. Today, on that same campus tuition is $187.00 per credit hour. Adjusted for inflation it should have doubled, but as you can see it has increased more than 500% Why? The market will bear it. Parents know or believe that a college education is essential for their child’s future. They’re willing to invest great sums of money (tens of thousand annually) to ensure that their children get their adult lives off to a good start. There are other explanations for rising tuition, of course, but this one is important for understanding the dynamic of rising grades. If parents and students are the goose laying the golden financial egg they are a market, clients, and customers. In the decades since I was an undergraduate my university physical plant has expanded considerably. Relative to other professionals, prior to the 1980s (research) university faculty salaries were low. By the late 1980s, however, faculty salaries were rising. If happy customers are essential to support the new and improved status quo, then schools have a built-in incentive for inflating grades and keeping students happy.

2. The self-esteem revolution. Jean Twenge, Thomas de Zengotita and others have chronicled the self-esteem revolution. Having been raised in the lower midwest I wasn’t expected to have any self-esteem but all that changed in the 1970s. Students are routinely praised for participating. Who hasn’t seen the ubiquitous “my child attends such and such a school” or the participation ribbon or the T-ball trophy. This semester I asked my students how many of them had trophies at home. Most all of them raised their hands. I was involved in organized athletics from grade school to high school. Granted I played on some pretty bad basketball teams (and a couple of good ones) but I don’t have single trophy and that wasn’t unusual for people in my generation. For students born after 1980 failure has been eliminated. They are the T-Ball generation, a game in which a child hits the ball off of an elevated tee and then runs to first base, or perhaps any base. According to the T-Ball Association, the most favored way of scoring a game allows all the children on a side to bat rather than the old “three outs” to a side method of scoring. I rest my case.

3. Computer-Aided Subjectivism. Students born after 1985 have grown up in a world more or less dominated by the internet and the computer. The computer has exacerbated the Narcissism of the late modern world. It provides an endless array of options. 20 people can view the same site 20 different ways using 20 different “skins” or who knows how many other controls to personalize how the same site appears to them. Students from this generation assume that it is completely normal and natural to be able to select what news they want to see, how they want to see, and when they want to see it. They are masters of the electronic universe and their universe is more electronic than any generation’s prior. These students have not only been told repeatedly (see Twenge) that they are the brightest and the best but they’ve but taught that they are the ultimate arbiters of what they should learn. It is no coincidence that these are also the students who have been raised in the era of the student course evaluation which asks them to rate, e.g., the assigned readings for the course. Granted that there sometimes exceptions, but ordinarily students take a beginning course in order to relieve their ignorance. How then are beginning qualified to judge the assigned readings? Some studies suggest that course evaluations, which are now a part of the hiring, retention, and accreditation process, actually provide incentives for teachers to make courses less difficult so as to generate higher “ratings” from the students. In that case the blind are leading the sighted.

This is not a plea to go back to an imagined golden age but we do need to wake up to the influence of broad cultural trends (that probably have their roots in the educational reforms of Dewey and others) that affect expectations, that help to shape and re-define what learning is and who gets to evaluate it. Not every student can be an “A” student. We should resist the trend to define failure out of existence. I’ve been a failure as a student. I’ve been a mediocre student and I’ve been a successful student. Failure was useful. It taught me what not to do. Mediocrity was a joint effort but having profs with high, unbending standards was a great experience. From those profs I learned what I could do, if I would. Had those few teachers, who held out for excellence, given in to the pressure to lower standards, I would have been the poorer for it.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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