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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Shared Delusions Blog

As of July 4, 2010, I will be posting at my new blog,

The phenomenon of grade inflation is but one example of mass delusion in society, and I intend to address the full range of societal delusion in the new blog. Please drop by from time to time to see if anything strikes your fancy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More Idiocracy

Almost every day, I am reminded of the declining standards in American education. Into my office come job candidates, many of whom have no idea that their basic scholastic skills and general fund of knowledge do not measure up to their lofty GPAs. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting the prototypical case. She was a 28 year-old woman who was sent by our local sheriff’s office to be psychologically evaluated for the position of ‘Child Investigative Specialist’. These are the people that investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect. Having very large caseloads and a critical mission, they need to be very conscientious, organized, and thorough in order to follow-up with every case that needs immediate attention. A careless slip-up could results in preventable abuse, neglect, or worse! One of the qualifications for the position is a bachelor’s degree.

The 28 year-old candidate arrived punctually for her appointment, was beautifully coiffed, attired, and bejeweled, was very poised, and was a good communicator. She spent several hours completing a background information form, a writing sample, a reading comprehension test, a brief test of general intelligence, and a few bubble-in personality tests. She then met with me for a one-hour interview. The most noteworthy information from all of her paperwork was the fact that she obtained her Bachelor of Arts in sociology in 2 years from a local, small, private, not-for-profit university, graduating with a 4.0 cumulative GPA. I had never before seen this level of achievement, and my first impulse was to assume that she is both very hard working and very smart. I also wondered how anybody could complete 120 college credits, about 40 courses, in 2 years. In her interview:

I asked: To complete your degree in 2 years, did you transfer any credits from other colleges or universities, get AP (Advanced Placement) or CLEP (College Level Examination Program) credits, or get credits for life experiences?

She replied: No, I just took a heavy course load every semester for 4 semesters.

Me: Did you need to get special permission from the university to take 30 credits, or about 10 courses, per semester?

She: No, I just registered for the courses. There was no problem.

Me: You wrote that you had a 4.0 cum. Did you actually get an ‘A’ in every course?

She: Yes, I did.

After she left my office, I checked with the registrar of her university, and it was confirmed that she attended for 2 years and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating with high honors. They would not divulge her GPA.

Now, this story wouldn’t be so fascinating unless you know some of the information gleaned from her test results. First, her reading comprehension tested at the average for American 10th graders. Next, her writing sample indicated that she possessed weak writing skills, especially with respect to spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I would compare her writing skills to the average 9th grader. Finally, her general intelligence tested at the 44 %-ile, which is average. She definitely was not intellectually gifted, as one might suspect, based on her college achievements.

I’m wondering how a student of average abilities (to be generous), could earn straight ‘A’s in 10 courses for 4 consecutive semesters. There’s much to be said for hard work, but I don’t think that could possibly be the whole story. The university she attended is accredited by the major one for our region, SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools). I’m wondering if SACS is aware that this university permits students to register for 10 courses per semester. I’m also wondering if many students at that university take such heavy course loads and if many of them graduate with 4.0 cumulative GPAs. Having delved into the grade inflation phenomenon in some depth, I suspect that this university is a serial offender. They might have taken grade inflation to a whole new level, completely destroying any meaning that grades ever had.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Idiocracy and Jaywalking at Work

In my day job, I do psychological assessments of employment candidates for corporations and public safety agencies. I test and interview a variety of candidates for jobs ranging from president and chief financial officer to salesman and firefighter/paramedic. By far, I have seen more candidates for police officer positions than for any other. I’ve actually assessed over 9,000 candidates for employment as police officers over the last 30 years. As the years have passed, changes in candidates have become obvious. For example, more of them have trouble with basic arithmetic, writing skills, and focused work habits. I imagine that these changes are related to changes in society’s norms, candidate demographics, and changes in candidates' educational experiences.

Police officer candidates are typically quite young, with most being 19 to 25 years of age. Yet, we expect these young people to have the common sense, judgment, initiative, and restraint to appropriately use their authority to detain, use force, and arrest. Because of the unusual amount of power afforded police officers, psychologists are given a lot more latitude to question candidates about personal matters than what may normally be asked in most job interviews. So, I do ask about marital status, children, health, finances, substance abuse, personal attitudes and opinions, etc.

Just recently, I had a police officer candidate in my office who was unforgettable. She was a 23 year-old woman who had already completed a 40-page long application and had passed through a police department’s group interview (called an “oral board”), thorough background investigation, and polygraph test. She was a graduate of both a local inner city public high school and the for-profit, on-line Kaplan University. Early in her interview:

I asked: Do you have any scars that are bigger than an inch?

She replied: What do you mean by ‘an inch’?

Me: Are you asking what the word ‘inch’ means?

She: Yes, what’s ‘inch’?

Me: An inch is a unit of measurement. Do you know how big that is?

She: Is it like this? (She gestured by holding her hands about 10 to 12 inches apart.)

Me: No, it’s like this. (I gestured by holding my thumb and forefinger one inch apart.)

She: Yes, I have a surgery scar bigger than that.

Now, in all my years of interviewing people, I’ve never met one who admitted that he/she didn’t know what the word ‘inch’ means. How does an English speaking person of normal intelligence (her tests placed her in the normal range, although a little below average), grow up in our country, graduate from high school, graduate from college with a 4-year degree, and not know what an inch is? Of course, if you’ve been reading this blog, then you know as well as I how this happens, but this example is one of the most extreme and dispiriting I have seen. Although she was evaluated as psychologically unsuitable for work as a police officer, it’s interesting that a person with such limited knowledge, which became very apparent in many other ways as I spoke with her, was considered a viable candidate for a job that starts at about $50K per year, has great benefits, and involves very serious responsibilities.

More observations next time.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Decline of the American Empire

Empires rise and fall. The ancient ones maintained their power for many centuries while the more recent empires, now called "superpowers", have reigned for briefer periods. Empires have declined due to gradual cultural, political, and economic transformations. In most cases, the people became complacent with their power, became lazy, and seem to forget the societal values that brought them to power. When these things occur, once-powerful empires become ripe for conquest.

The USA has been a major world power since our victory in the Spanish-American War around 1900, and now there are signs of decline. Recent events (over the last half century) have knocked us down several pegs and our status has become more precarious. Our investment of lives, money, and world image in Viet Nam was a major example. Of course, we lost both at home (cultural and political dissent) and on the battlefield. Another major example was the 9/11/01 attacks by terrorists. We all learned quickly about the power of terror, about Islam and its extreme elements, about airport security, and about how vulnerable we are to those who possess far less military force, especially if they are willing to sacrifice their lives to get to paradise. Even though President Bush vowed that we would not allow 9/11 to change our way of life, it has. Our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been yet another sentinel of American decline. We haven’t captured or killed Osama, we haven’t stopped the threat of terrorist attacks on our homeland, and we seemed to have kicked the hornets’ nest, making Muslim extremists even angrier about our attitude and way of life.

The latest threats to our status as a superpower are economic ruin and cyber attack. China, with its population of 1.3 billion, has become a major player in changing the balance of economic power at a time when we have weakened ourselves by the greed of Wall Street and naïve home buyers, continuing dependence on fossil fuels, escalating health care costs, and the failure to make major adjustments to protect our planet. We now hear that countries such as North Korea and China, and some terrorist groups, have been developing the technology to damage our power grid, our banking system, and our military security through cyber attack. In view of the American mentality to meet force with greater force, we would not even know who attacked us, thereby making it impossible to counterattack.

Here is my list of the top 6 signs that America is on the decline as a world power:

1. Anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism and an overall decline in respect for knowledge. After all, as Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Knowledge is power”. The “dumbing-down” of our schools and universities is a major indicator. The election of an anti-intellectual such as George W. Bush and his re-election after we observed how limited he was, demonstrated that large segments of our population don’t mind being led by an ignorant, inarticulate, uninqiring person. The considerable support received by a severely unqualified Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate is yet another recent example. The fact that I have to be careful about writing this paragraph because many would consider this to be politically incorrect, is a trend that has severely limited the public exchange of ideas and debate.

2. Declining standards in schools and universities. The need for basic scholastic skills testing in most states because our schools aren’t getting the job done and they need to be monitored. Grade inflation and the growth of for-profit universities are especially noteworthy because they show that the tail is wagging the dog. As long as students are viewed as customers, they will have an inordinate impact on what is taught and how it is taught. The shortage of people entering the “STEM” courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) means that we are losing our competitiveness in the world economy. It is unsettling that we increasingly need to import our best STEM students and workers from other countries, primarily Asian, making our strength and security more precarious.

3. The decline in critical thinking skills as indicated by the epistemological equivalence of faith and science for large numbers people who pit “Evolution” against “Creationism”. As a corollary, the inclusion of “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design” in science textbooks casts doubt on education administrators’ and citizens’ critical thinking skills.

4. The bankruptcy of newspapers and decline in ratings of TV newscasts. It seems that fewer people have interest in national and world events, thereby making them less informed as activists and voters in a participative democracy. The internet, in which anybody, including me, can write whatever they wish, has some advantages. However, the internet does not appear to replace well-trained, ethical journalists who understand their role as a check and balance on the power of corporations and government.

5. The obesity and diabetes epidemic involving sedentary people and bad diet. The excessive use of cosmetic surgery, useless supplements, medications, and other medical interventions in a superficial attempt to counteract poor lifestyle choices and unwillingness to exercise a modicum of self-discipline. I don’t know for sure, but I worry that this weakens our society.

6. The decline in the traditional nuclear family. High divorce rates, high cohabitation rates, and rapidly increasing single parenthood rates all contribute to children being raised by one parent. Such parents are often poor, uneducated and ill-prepared to guide their children’s moral development, keep their children healthy and safe, maximize their children’s educational and vocational potentials, and help their children make the most effective life choices.

Register your vote regarding America’s decline in the world community in the poll, located above and to the right.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Obviously a "D" in English

The formula in years gone by
was hard study and brains equals “A”.
Entitled students plus rated teachers
is the equation for inflated grades today.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fair or Unfair?

Thinking back on it, most of my teachers seemed to make a sincere effort to apply the same standards to every student in the class, and that satisfied me. What bothered me was when a teacher seemed to be impulsive or biased or inconsistent, leaving me and most classmates wondering exactly how our grades were determined and if, indeed, a student or two were teacher’s pets. As a teacher, I am always amazed when a student accuses me of unfair grading because I really do try to keep it fair. Here are a few situations I’ve either experienced or heard about, and I’m wondering what you think is fair.

1. Two students in the same undergrad class wrote the assigned research paper. Student X met every requirement spelled out in the assignment, made no substantive errors, but demonstrated only a superficial understanding of the topic. Student Y also did everything required, but cited many more good references and displayed an in-depth understanding of the topic. The professor reasoned that since both X and Y did everything required of them, they both got the same grade, an “A”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

2. A Mexican-American student at the local community college took an essay exam in his history class. Upon reading the student’s essay answers, the professor found that his vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure were so weak that it was impossible to evaluate the substance of the answers. He was about to assign a grade of “D” but, instead, asked to meet with the student to discuss the matter. The student explained that he was born in Mexico, lived there until the age of 10 when his family came to America, and then grew up in a home and neighborhood where Spanish was the primary language. In addition, he is the only one in his family to ever graduate from high school or attend college. After learning about the student’s background, the professor suggested that the student take a remedial class to improve his writing. He also decided to change the student’s grade to “B” so as not to harm his chances of bettering himself. FAIR or UNFAIR?

3. A first-year medical student arrived 30 minutes late to the first two meetings of the required seminar: “clinical interviewing”. The professor spoke privately with her, telling her that it is unacceptable and unprofessional to miss time and disrupt the seminar with her late arrival. She explained that she is a single mother and has many more responsibilities than her classmates, and she asked for the professor’s understanding and patience. The professor told her that if she is not ready to give her full attention to her medical studies, she should postpone the course until she is ready. Despite the warning, the student continued to be late for subsequent classes and the professor reduced her grade from the “B” she earned on exams and graded activities to a “C”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (a) An undergraduate student missed an “A” in a history course by a few points. After receiving her grade report for the semester, she explained to the professor that she had big problems with her boyfriend during the semester which distracted her from her best effort and that she really needed an “A” to get into graduate school. She asked for an extra credit assignment to raise her grade from “B” to “A”. The professor agreed to give her a chance, changed her grade to “Incomplete,” and assigned a 10-page research paper with a 30-day due date. The grade for the paper would then be averaged equally with all her other exam and paper grades in the course. It was determined that if she earned an “A” on the extra paper, then her course grade would be changed from “B” to “A”. Is this arrangement FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (b) Continuing with situation 4 (a), the student turned in the research paper within the time limit, but it was obvious that she invested very little effort, perhaps assuming a tacit agreement that any paper would be given an “A”. The professor graded the paper an “F”. FAIR or UNFAIR?

4. (c) Continuing with situation 4 (b), per the agreement with the student,
the professor, computed the student’s new grade with the extra credit research paper included, and lowered the student’s grade from the original “B” to “C”.

4. (d) After discussion with the professor who refused to change the grade
back to the original “B”, the student took the matter to the university’s grade appeal process. The provost heard both sides of the case and told the professor to give the student another chance to write a similar research paper, grade the paper, substitute whatever grade is earned for the “F”, and then recalculate the student’s final course grade. FAIR or UNFAIR?

All of these situations have actually occurred, although some minor facts were changed to protect the guilty. It’s obvious that people don’t all agree on what is fair and unfair. I’d love to read your comments regarding this issue.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Illegal Immigration, Angry Teachers & Grade Inflation

To the national debate over how to respond to illegal immigration, an angry Southern California ESOL high school teacher responded with the following. She was reacting specifically to student protests against the new Arizona immigration enforcement law. It was e-mailed to school teachers all over the country and my wife, a great elementary school teacher for over 40 years, received it. Most of her colleagues are sympathetic:

“I am in charge of the English-as-a-second-language department at a large southern California high school which is designated a Title 1 school, meaning that its students average lower socioeconomic and income levels.

Most of the schools you are hearing about, South Gate High, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park , etc., where these students are protesting, are also Title 1 schools.

Title 1 schools are on the free breakfast and free lunch program. When I say free breakfast, I'm not talking a glass of milk and roll -- but a full breakfast and cereal bar with fruits and juices that would make a Marriott proud. The waste of this food is monumental, with trays and trays of it being dumped in the trash uneaten.

I estimate that well over 50% of these students are obese or at least moderately overweight. About 75% or more DO have cell phones. The school also provides day care centers for the unwed teenage pregnant girls (some as young as 13) so they can attend class without the inconvenience of having to arrange for babysitters or having family watch their kids.

I was ordered to spend $700,000 on my department or risk losing funding for the upcoming year even though there was little need for anything; my budget was already substantial. I ended up buying new computers for the computer learning center, half of which, one month later, have been carved with graffiti by the appreciative students who obviously feel humbled and grateful to have a free education in America ...

I have had to intervene several times for young and substitute teachers whose classes consist of many illegal immigrant students, here in the country less then 3 months, who raised so much hell with the female teachers, calling them "Putas"(whores) and throwing things, that the teachers were in tears.

Free medical, free education, free food, free day care, etc., etc, etc. Is it any wonder they feel entitled to not only be in this country but to demand rights, privileges, and entitlements?

To those who want to point out how much these illegal immigrants contribute to our society because they LIKE their gardener and housekeeper and they like to pay less for tomatoes: spend some time in the real world of illegal immigration and see the TRUE costs.

Higher insurance, medical facilities closing, higher medical costs, more crime, lower standards of education in our schools, overcrowding, new diseases. For me, I'll pay more for tomatoes.

Americans, we need to wake up.

It does, however, have everything to do with culture: It involves an American third-world culture that does not value education, that accepts children getting pregnant and dropping out of school by 15 and that refuses to assimilate, and an American culture that has become so weak and worried about "political correctness" that we don't have the will to do anything about it.

If this makes your blood boil, as it did mine, forward this to everyone you know.

CHEAP LABOR? Isn't that what the whole immigration issue is about?

Business doesn't want to pay a decent wage. Consumers don't want expensive produce. Government will tell you Americans don't want the jobs.

But the bottom line is cheap labor. The phrase "cheap labor" is a myth, a farce, and a lie. There is no such thing as "cheap labor."

Take, for example, an illegal alien with a wife and five children. He takes a job for $5.00 or 6.00/hour. At that wage, with six dependents, he pays no income tax, yet at the end of the year, if he files an Income Tax Return, he gets an "earned income credit" of up to $3,200 free.

He qualifies for Section 8 housing and subsidized rent. He qualifies for food stamps. He qualifies for free (no deductible, no co-pay) health care. His children get free breakfasts and lunches at school. He requires bilingual teachers and books. He qualifies for relief from high energy bills.

If they are, or become, aged, blind, or disabled, they qualify for SSI. If qualified for SSI they can qualify for Medicaid. All of this is at (our) taxpayer's expense.

He doesn't worry about car insurance, life insurance, or homeowners insurance.

Taxpayers provide Spanish language signs, bulletins, and printed material.

He and his family receive the equivalent of $20.00 to $30.00/hour in benefits.

Working Americans are lucky to have $5.00 or $6..00/hour left after paying their bills and his.

Cheap labor? YEAH RIGHT!


Please pass this on to as many as possible. Immigration legislation is to be considered in 2010. This is important to working Americans, our economy and our American culture and heritage.”

Do you think that schools of the type described by this irate Southern California high school ESOL teacher contribute to the national epidemic of grade inflation and declining educational standards? What would the consequences be if those children who are far behind grade level, and whose families might set a low priority on education relative to other more pressing priorities in their lives, were to fail to be promoted to the next grade? Do you think our financially strapped school districts might be drained beyond the breaking point? And, what of the No-Child-Left-Behind program? I’m just asking.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Grade Inflation. Cui Bono?

Cui bono- who benefits when an oral examination committee passes an education administration doctoral candidate on a really lousy dissertation? For the details of the story, see my most recent installment to this blog: On Foxes Guarding Henhouses, Part II (5/17/10). So, when a sin was committed in the temple of knowledge, who benefited and who was damaged?

Who benefited?

1. The doctoral candidate. He was already a superintendent of schools in the region served by Lehigh University. Now he had his Ed.D., would henceforth be addressed as “Doctor”, would probably have gotten a bump in salary, and might have hung on for another few years as a superintendent in his school district.

2. The education administration professors who served on the doctoral candidate’s dissertation committee. These professors make a living from consulting with, and providing in-service workshops for, school districts in the university’s region. In many cases, the fees earned from these services exceed their salaries. The collaboration on the doctoral student/superintendent’s dissertation strengthened relationships and probably left the newly minted doctor of education with a sense of gratitude to those committee members who supported his candidacy. The superintendent, of course, has a great deal of power in the awarding of consulting and in-service training contracts as quid pro quo.

3. Me. As mentioned in my recent blog installment, I needed to win the support of tenured faculty if I were to get their votes for tenure, a few years down the road. By voting to FAIL, I would have seriously alienated these senior faculty members.

4. The Dean of the School of Education and the Lehigh University administration. Most of the time, when a doctoral student gets his or her Ed.D. and goes back to regional school districts as a principal or superintendent, he or she is a living advertisement for others to apply, enroll, pay tuition, and speak well of the School of Education and The University. They also often become well-paid alumni who will send their checks to annual fund raising campaigns.

5. Architects and construction companies. School districts often have big budgets and superintendents exert strong influence on how the money is spent. As an example, much of the dissertation research that was done back in the 1970s in Lehigh’s School of Education was on the efficacy of what was known as either open concept education or schools without walls. In hindsight, this was one of the many fads that have come and gone in the field of education. Of course, many of the badly designed education dissertations in that era seemed to give support to the efficacy of schools without walls. This led directly to the modification of school buildings, especially the tearing down of walls in existing buildings and the building of new schools with no walls or moveable walls. What a nightmare for taxpayers, especially since the walls had to be restored when the next ridiculous education fad swept the nation. For my neighbor the architect, however, business really boomed, thanks to the bad dissertation research that appeared to support new designs in school buildings. The same money-making phenomenon occurred for such vendors as textbook publishers.

Who was damaged?

1. Me. I hate violating my own morals and ethics for personal gain. I feel guilty about my contribution to inflated grades and lowering standards in education. Besides, I never did get tenure because I moved on to new career adventures before it ever came to a vote.

2. Education in America. When the leaders of public and private education are mainly influenced by political and financial considerations to inflate grades, pass bad dissertations, and award unearned degrees they are entirely on thr wrong track. By failing to reward honest effort, focused study, attained knowledge, and excellent performance, they have created a monster of a problem! Superintendents and principals exert major influence on the culture of their schools, and children will usually assimilate the values of the culture. Is there any doubt about why we have an epidemic of inflated grades, declining academic skills, and social promotion to the next grade among America’s school children and university students? The supposed guardians of the schools are often foxes guarding our henhouses.

3. The United States of America. As students acquire less knowledge in our schools and universities, we are all diminished as we become less able to compete for the best jobs in the world economy, less able to recognize the best schools and then send our children to them, less aware of the important issues of the day, and less able to be effective voters, jury members, and consumers. We are further diminished as our society has increasing percentages of public assistance recipients, prison inmates, homeless people, and medically uninsured.

It appears, at this time, that the short-term benefits to individuals are more powerful forces than the long term consequences to American education and the country itself. Focused and forceful leadership is needed to reverse the self-destructive downward spiral we are in. Such leadership could best be provided by a presidential administration and the presidents of major universities, but they, too, are heavily influenced by short-term economic and political pressures. It would take, at the very least, bold and charismatic leadership that is unafraid to lose a job or lose the next election.

Monday, May 17, 2010

On Foxes Guarding Henhouses- Part 2

School district superintendents might be the most insidious foxes of all. Now, I know that you can’t prove a point with an anecdote, but sometimes a story is all you really need to get the point. This one has haunted me for a long time, so please bear with me. In the 1970s, I was a tenure-track assistant professor in the School (now College) of Education at Lehigh University which hosted only graduate programs- we had no undergraduate courses or students. Please understand that I don’t have a background in the field of education as my field is actually counseling psychology. My main responsibilities included teaching a variety of graduate counseling and psychology courses, coordinating the master’s program in Community Counseling, and serving on doctoral dissertation committees.

I don’t know if there were rankings of university graduate programs in education back then, but in 2010, U.S. News & World Report ranked Lehigh’s College of Education 41st out of 278 graduate schools of education. I mention this ranking to suggest that while it may not be one of the most elite graduate schools of education, Lehigh is considered pretty good among its peers today, and I think this was also true back in the 1970s. So, if the story I’m about to relate occurred at Lehigh, I’m quite sure that similar stories have occurred in many other graduate schools of education.

On a few occasions, I was asked to serve on the oral defense of dissertation committee for education administration students who were about to complete the requirements for their Ed.D., the doctoral degree often earned in the field of education. Those grad students who sought the Ed.D. in ed admin were often already working as principals or superintendents or aspiring to such positions. In case you are not familiar with how these doctoral dissertation committees work, we usually had a committee of three professors who approved the doctoral student's proposed research and then supervised its progress. After the student’s work was completed and written, two more faculty were added to the committee, and this larger group of old and new members conducted the student’s oral examination in defense of his or her dissertation. I was one of the two professors who were added to each of the few ed admin dissertation committees on which I served. In each case, the original three committee members were tenured professors in education, two of them from education administration. I anticipated that in a few years I would be considered for tenure, and these professors would be in a position to speak and vote for or against me. So you can see that there were some serious personal ramifications to my performance on these oral examination committees.

What I am about to describe occurred, more or less, with each of the few ed admin oral exam examination committees on which I served, but I'm describing one experience in particular. Even though the doctoral candidate was supposed to deliver his final dissertation draft to me at least one week in advance of the oral exam, I actually received it the night before. The student came to my home and handed over his final dissertation draft at 9:00 PM. This left me practically no time to read the 300-page document and formulate my questions prior to the oral exam scheduled for the next morning at 9:00 AM. Not wanting to disturb the scheduled exam time, and not wanting to upset the senior faculty members on the exam committee, I pulled an all-nighter to prepare.

The dissertation was of the lowest quality. The writing was unprofessional and there were numerous typos and spelling errors. These problems could be easily remedied, but the most serious problem was irreparable. The dissertation research involved a comparison of educational methods to determine which was most effective. This type of research is usually done as a scientific experiment comparing the treatments to each other and to a no-treatment or placebo control group. Proper definition of treatments, measurements of variables, and statistical analyses are essential. This would be true whether the research were medical, psychological, pharmaceutical, or educational. In this particular dissertation, there were so many methodological, procedural, sampling, and statistical mistakes that the research was just plain bad. If I were to give it a grade, it would be an “F”. In fact, each member of the examining committee was required to sign his name under one of two headings: PASS or FAIL.

In the oral exam, I questioned the doctoral candidate about his research design. Please understand that when I challenged him, I was, de facto, challenging his committee members, especially his advisor, who approved the proposal and ostensibly worked with the student every step of the way. If I were an original committee member I would have been embarrassed by the shabby work produced under my supervision. In the oral exam, I wanted to sign under FAIL, but the other committee members all were unequivocally signing under PASS. Let me say, there was no doubt that this dissertation study was a real stinker- absolutely no doubt! It was the rule that the doctoral candidate had to receive unanimous passes to be awarded his Ed.D., and if just one of us signed under FAIL, he would not be awarded his degree- and that was final. The committee chairman, realizing that I was about to fail his candidate, asked for a one week hiatus to give the student an opportunity to make corrections. It was obvious to me that the spelling, typos, and the weak writing could be corrected, but the research was rotten to the core and could not be salvaged without starting from scratch and investing another year or two on the project. Under the pressure of the group, I agreed to the hiatus, giving me one week to contemplate the matter.

So what was really going on in that conference room where that oral exam was held? The process and group dynamics were complex and intense, and four things weighed heavily on me. First, there was the group pressure. Four other men, all older, more experienced, and higher ranking than me all voted to pass the candidate. I had to question myself about the possibly that I was being too harsh in my evaluation of the dissertation and the candidate’s oral defense. Second, three of the others on the committee were tenured professors in the School of Education, and if I earned their disapproval in the intimate confines of that conference room, I might later receive their disapproval when the time would come for them to vote on my tenure. Third, a doctoral candidate and human being who had invested several years, many dollars (although probably paid by the school district that employed him as its superintendent), and much effort (although not enough effort in my opinion), would have his reward snatched away from him at the very last instant. And fourth, this was a real test of my courage of conviction. If the work were substandard, would I stick to my position despite all of the pressures?

One week later, the doctoral candidate appeared before the committee, having made only minimal changes, none substantive. Yet, in the blink of an eye and the stroke of my pen, I changed from guardian to fox. I also became a grade inflater when I molded FAIL into PASS. My motive for violating my own moral and ethical standards was simply career ambition. I now realize that whenever I have lowered standards and inflated grades since that fateful day, my motive has always been pretty much the same.

Why were the full professors of education, who already had tenure, so ready to sign under PASS, even though the dissertation was so poor? Stay tuned.

On Foxes Guarding Henhouses- Part 1

Inside the henhouse are our students from el-hi through undergraduate college and graduate school—young, impressionable and full of potential. How life will turn out for each student will be determined by genetics, family, culture, and the environment of the henhouses. Interestingly, increasing numbers of parents are protecting their children from the henhouses by opting for home schooling. In 2003, 2.2% of American school children were home schooled. For the full account see:

In our capitalist democracy, the guardians of our schools and universities include parents, teachers, professors, school and university administrators, school board members, governors, congressmen, the secretary of education, and the president. To function as effective guardians, they need to share the value of learning and knowledge in helping people become responsible contributors to society.

The foxes lurk among the guardians of the henhouses, having forgotten or never known, what the actual purpose of education is. Many of the foxes value the attainment of diplomas and degrees, but have forgotten that these diplomas and degrees are only symbols of attained knowledge. If degrees are awarded to those who pay taxes and/or tuition and attend class without learning anything, then education has not taken place and the diplomas are hollow symbols. Many of the foxes and others in our society seem to ignore this fact, sharing the delusion that hollow diplomas have value. Just last week, my local newspaper reported that of the 16,703 teachers employed last year by the Broward County (Florida) School District (255,000 students), only 11 teachers received unsatisfactory job performance evaluations, where teachers are rated by principals as either satisfactory, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory. Among tenured teachers (those with more than three years in the district), only 2 of the approximately 16,000 teachers were terminated for unsatisfactory job performance since September of 2007. To read the entire excellent article, see,0,4881935.story

Outrageous! How is it possible that only 11 of 16,703 teachers (.07%) were evaluated as unsatisfactory? Do you think that the district’s school board, superintendent, and principals might be foxes masquerading as guardians of the henhouse? The political and economic intricacies ($1.9 billion annual budget) of this bloated, poor-performing, monstrosity of a school district must be beyond belief.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sin in the Temple of Knowledge

In the Temple of Knowledge, the greatest sins are those associated with stealing or distorting facts, data, and knowledge. For students, plagiarism and cheating are the most common sins. For professors, teaching inaccurate or outdated information, fudging research data, and the distortion of grades are examples of the most serious transgressions. When professors inflate grades, they are providing dishonest ratings of how well students have demonstrated what they have learned. This undermines the foundation of colleges and universities as places where knowledge is discovered and disseminated. For administrators, failure to communicate standards of appropriate conduct and turning a deaf ear to reported transgressions are major sins which serve to avoid conflict, law suits, or loss of revenue. If the administrators fail to set and enforce appropriate rules of conduct, the academic environment readily deteriorates to one of amorality.

How did we get to the point where dishonesty in grading has become so commonplace? Like most complex phenomena, grade inflation has many intertwined causes. A prime source appears to be our colleges of education where the professors are often blatant models of dishonesty in grading. Most of our elementary through high school (el-hi) teachers get their training, for better or for worse, at these colleges. So do most of our education administrators, i.e. principals and superintendents. Almost everybody who has attended four years of college knows that the easiest major in the institution is often education. This is supported by several authors including Martin L. Gross who, in his book The Conspiracy of Ignorance (1999, HarperCollins), went into detail about the low SAT and GRE scores of education students and the extraordinarily easy courses offered in colleges of education. James Joyner in (3/31/10) observed that: “The average GPA at the top twenty public research universities for 2009 was a whopping 3.13…..In education departments, though, the GPA was 3.72…..And, remember, these were the least promising entering freshmen.” According to Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of the 4-year study, Educating School Teachers (2005), “Teacher education is the Dodge City of the education world…..unruly and chaotic.” He noted that universities rely on education departments and colleges of education as cash cows and that the quality of teacher education has been compromised by setting low admissions standards which inevitably increase both enrollments and revenues.

With grade inflation and readily available advanced degrees through distance learning and other convenient formats, it has become more common than ever for educators to earn masters and doctoral degrees. It is not surprising that the low standards in the field of education carry over into graduate study. In his blog Carpe Diem, economics professor Martin J. Perry reproduced a chart showing the average GRE scores in 28 fields of study in American universities ( (11/3/08). For the three GRE tests, Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical, physics grad school applicants had an average total score of 1899, ranking them first among 28 fields of study. Education grad school applicants had an average total score of 1514, ranking them 27th among the 28 fields of study. The only lower group of grad school applicants was public administration with an average total GRE score of 1460.

No doubt, there is plenty of blame to spread around, but I’d like to focus on our el-hi educators as one group that seems to set the stage for the sin of grade inflation in their own schools and higher education as well. In my next post, I’d like to share a personal story about how education administrators have gone astray with the apparent tacit approval of their professors/mentors in the graduate schools of education where they earned their degrees.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Confessions of a Grade Inflater

Hi, my name is Stephen and I am a grade inflater. Every time I do it, I resolve to never do it again, but I just can’t help myself. Lord knows, I’ve tried, but the pressures are just too great. I feel as though I have changed what I had the power to change, but I do feel powerless in the face of all the pressures. First, there is the administration that just doesn’t want to hear any complaints or law suit threats from those students who are absolutely sure that they are entitled to higher grades than they received. As an adjunct professor who has no contract beyond the current course I’m teaching, I could lose the chance to teach any more courses in the future if the administration receives negative phone calls and course evaluations. And second, it is very uncomfortable to have to deal with student anger, whining, and crying because their self-esteem has been bruised and they are absolutely sure that anything less than an “A” will hurt their transcript, future grad school applications, or chances for success in their careers and lives.

Now, I’m not an all-out grade inflater. Torn between my conscience on the one hand and my desire to remain in good standing with the university on the other hand, I have walked a fine line. I do give reasonably challenging exams and give some “C”s and occasional “F”s to students who obviously have not learned much. But, I also compromise standards by curving the grades so that the average exam grade in my graduate-level classes is “B” and any students that score a few points above the class average on an exam receive an “A”. In my classes, those who deserve a grade of “C” usually are given a “B”, and all those who deserve either a “B” or an “A” receive an “A”. Furthermore, when a student’s course grade falls right in the middle between two grades, I always give them the higher one.

Another way I have inflated students’ grades is by gradually eliminating assignments that students have found difficult. Over the last 25 years, I have seen an exponential deterioration of students’ skills in clear, focused writing and the organizing of projects and presentations. The grading of essay tests and term papers became a real ordeal for me because there were so many inadequate ones that it took far too long to read them and write constructive comments in the margins. I observed growing problems with spelling, grammar, clarity of expression, reference citation, and plagiarism. It was as if they had never learned these things in grade school, high school, and undergraduate college study, even though all students had to be exposed to things repeatedly during their years of schooling. I could only conclude that most students have received years of positive teacher comments and inflated grades, even though their writing skills were deficient. (I also suspect that many teachers at all levels, do not have sufficient writing skills to be able to properly grade their students’ written work, but this will be the subject of a future post to this blog.) So, there came a point when I ceased having students write anything, thereby making my job easier and eliminating the inherent subjectivity of grading essay tests and term papers. I then gave only objective, Scantron-scored multiple choice tests and in-class oral presentations as the only graded activities.

Of course, there is some subjectivity to the grading of oral presentations, even though I have used a simple rubric to keep me focused on the critical elements to be evaluated in each student’s presentation. While many students in my classes had excellent platform skills and were very talented at putting together PowerPoint slides, several deficiencies became much more common in recent years. The most serious of these has been disorganization of effort: many of my graduate students do not know how to make an outline to guide their efforts, and many do not know how to read a detailed 3-paragraph assignment, extract the key requirements, and then make sure they address each of the required elements in their oral presentations. In addition, I have practically begged my students to contact me to review their presentations before the due date, thereby giving them a chance to clear up any problems in advance. Unfortunately, relatively few of them (maybe 10-15%) have actually taken me up on my offer.

Virtually all of my students claimed to have done many oral reports in their previous courses in high school and college but, nevertheless, the problems I have just described have become increasingly common. Oral presentations took up a great deal of class time, made many of the students very nervous, and resulted in a good many students challenging me about the fairness of the grade they received. I have had students get furious with me because I would not change their grades and several have written vitriolic comments on their course evaluations. The problem had grown to be so serious, that I eventually eliminated this kind of assignment from my courses.

By eliminating assignments that students found to be difficult, I actually dumbed-down my courses and inflated student grades. I believe that I would not have maintained my work as an adjunct professor for 25 years if I had taken a stand based exclusively on ethics and professional standards. Of course, now that I have posted this blog, there’s a pretty good chance I might not be teaching much longer. C’est la vie!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grade Inflation 101: How to Inflate Grades

The school district’s curriculum committee requires students to learn the presidents of the U.S.A. as part of the high school American History curriculum. One history teacher (#1) gave a test that included the following question and 99 additional questions of a similar difficulty level:

The third president of the U.S.A. was
A. John Adams
B. John Hancock
C. James Madison
D. Thomas Jefferson

Another history teacher (#2) in the same school district gave a test that included the following question and 99 additional questions of a similar difficulty level:

The third president of the U.S.A. was
A. George Washington
B. Thomas Jefferson
C. Bill Clinton
D. George W. Bush

Which teacher is likely to get a higher average percentage correct among his/her students?

Using the conventional grading method (90-100%=A; 80-89%=B; 70-79%=C; 60-69%=D; 0-59%=F), the #1 teacher’s students are apt to get a normal distribution of scores and grades, with the class average in the 70s. The #2 teacher’s students are likely to get a skewed distribution of scores and grades, with the class average in the 90s.

Right away, you can see that one teacher will give many more “A”s than the other if we assume that both groups of students are of similar ability levels.

Suppose #2 teacher made a practice of giving an extra credit question at the end of each test that is something like this:

For 10 extra credit points, who is your favorite president
in American History? Please explain why you chose this president.

Of course, almost any answer could be given the full 10 points since the question asks only for the student's personal opinions. In this way, students in #2 teacher’s class could conceivably get 110 points on the test, and when all tests for the year are averaged together, it would not be surprising for some students to have an average that is higher than 100%.

If all students and their parents were surveyed to find out their satisfaction with #1 teacher and #2 teacher, it is quite probable that the students who received “A”s, and their parents, would give the most glowing feedback. It is probable that the teacher who gave more “A”s and fewer “C”s, “D”s, and “F”s would get higher consumer satisfaction ratings. It is also probable that, in the future, based on both teachers' reputations, more students and their parents would ask for placement in #2 teacher’s American History class. If you were to ask the two teachers’ principals, which one is the better teacher, it is very possible that they would choose #2 teacher.

Of course, the similar inflation of grades can be done when grades are given for term papers, essay tests, science projects, and in-class oral presentations. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of inflating students’ grades?

Advantages of Inflated Grades

1. More students and their parents are happy with the grades.

2. The teacher’s bosses get fewer complaints about the
grade-inflating teacher.

3. In subsequent years, more children want to be in the teacher’s

4. Inflated grades result in inflated student self-esteem.

Disadvantages of Inflated Grades

1. Students have inflated perceptions of their own skills
and knowledge.

2. Accustomed to inflated grades, students are easily upset
by future teachers who do not inflate grades.

3. Students are unprepared for more difficult colleges
that do less inflating of grades.

4. Tests and assignments tend to be so unchallenging that
students no longer need to read, study, or even attend
class. Reading skills, critical thinking skills, and
study habits are not developed or atrophy from disuse.

5. Engineering, pharmacy, and medical schools must either
fail the many students who are unprepared for their
more demanding expectations or engage in grade inflation
to keep their students happy.

6. Private for-profit universities attract increasing
numbers of students, give inflated grades to keep
their students/customers happy.

7. More inadequate people slip into engineering, computer science,
medicine, pharmacy, nursing, paramedics, etc.,
resulting in more medical errors, computer system failures,
power grid crashes, and NASA space mission disasters.

8. Competent teachers and professors quickly become disillusioned
and leave the field of education while
incompetent teachers get good ratings
and remain in the field.

9. Children in schools in the USA perform poorly on PISA
(Program for International Student Assessment), ranking 24th
in math, 21st in science, and 15th in reading among school
children in all the world’s developed countries.

As an adjunct professor who has taught graduate-level courses in psychology over the last 40 years, I have given tests with both kinds of questions demonstrated above. The vast majority of my students liked the easy questions and gave me feedback that they considered these tests to be very fair. When I gave tests with the more difficult kind of questions, especially those requiring them to use reasoning to figure out the answers, I usually got complaints, describing these tests as “too hard,” “ambiguous,” and “tricky”. Several have complained that they were in danger of getting a “B” in the course, and it would ruin their perfect straight “A” record. They often asked for special deals in which they could either do-over an assignment or do an extra assignment (that no other students would know about or have access to) to raise their grade. It was obvious to me that many students were accustomed to getting these sorts of special deals in previous courses they had taken, even after their final course grades had been posted. How did I cope with the moral and ethical dilemma? Stay tuned.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Grade Inflation in Societal Context

What do all of the following have in common?

1. Vanity sizing of women’s clothing
2. Photoshop
3. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court
4. McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as V-P running mate
5. Basketball coach fired after team wins by score of 100 to 0
6. Breast augmentation

If you don’t see the common thread, some facts about each of these phenomena might help.

VANITY SIZING- In recent years, many manufacturers of women’s clothing have altered the size labels in clothing as the average weight and size of women have increased. For example, if a woman who has gained weight used to wear a size 8 dress, she could now buy a dress with a size 8 label, even though she would actually need a size 10 by the old standards. Women can now operate with the misperception that they are still the same size as they were when they weighed less. The dress manufacturers benefit because women who have gained weight are more likely to buy dresses if the purchases are of the same size as when they were thinner. In this way, women can maintain their self-esteem through delusion.

PHOTOSHOP- This computer program is a digital photograph editor that can be used to improve the looks of a photo or change a photograph for the purposes of propaganda. For example, one could put a person’s face on another’s body, making it appear that a hostage is still alive when he really is not. One could also take a photo of group of 50 soldiers and make it appear like an army of thousands. Today, when we see a photo on the internet or on TV, it is wise to question its authenticity.

HARRIET MIERS- When a president nominates a person for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the country is accustomed to candidates who belong among the top nine jurists in the country. We expect each nominee to have graduated at, or near, the top of his/her class from one of the very best law schools, and to have established a superior career as a lawyer, judge, and/or legal scholar. Most of us are not knowledgeable enough to be able to evaluate these candidates by ourselves, so we place some trust in the president and the congress to do it for us. I am not qualified to evaluate Harriet Miers’ (nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005) career accomplishments, but I looked up the law school origins of recent & current supreme court justices and found the following:


Alito----- Yale (1)
Sotomayor----- Yale (1)
Thomas----- Yale (1)
Breyer----- Harvard (2)
Roberts----- Harvard (2)
Scalia----- Harvard (2)
Souter----- Harvard (2)
O’Connor----- Stanford (3)
Rehnquist----- Stanford (3)
Ginsberg----- Columbia (4)
Stevens----- Northwestern (10)
Miers----- Southern Methodist (49)

I certainly can’t argue that a 1970 graduate from Southern Methodist’s Law School would be less adequate as a Supreme Court Justice than graduates from the top 10 law schools (2009 U.S. News and World Report rankings). I do know, however, that the admissions requirements for the highest-rated law schools are much more competitive in terms of intellect, prior accomplishments, college grades, and LSAT scores. From the above chart it is obvious that President Bush side-stepped one of the common criteria for nominees. I’m quite sure that relatively few Americans were aware of this, while congressmen of both major parties immediately recognized this as a critical issue and she was quickly withdrawn from consideration. The perception that Bush tried to convey is that Harriet Miers was every bit as qualified as the sitting justices for a seat on the Supreme Court.

SARAH PALIN- When presidential candidate Sen. John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate, many McCain loyalists trusted that he thoroughly vetted her, that she was fully qualified to become president in case McCain, who would have been the oldest person to ever become U.S. president, might not survive his first term. Sarah Palin was in her first term as governor of Alaska, having served for 20 months at the time of her nomination. Prior to that, her elected experience included president of the Wasilla PTA, Wasilla City Council member, 2 terms as Wasilla (population: 7,000) Mayor (1996 to 2002), and Alaska (population: 686,000) Governor from 12/06 to 8/08 when McCain named her as his running mate. When she was elected governor, a total of 238,307 votes were cast, and she received only 48% of them. Her college education included attendance at Hawaii Pacific University (1982), North Idaho College (1983), University of Idaho (1984 & 1985), and Matanuska-Susitna College (1985), before she finally obtained her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from the University of Idaho in 1986.

The image that the McCain campaign tried to convey was that Sarah Palin was a fully-qualified executive by virtue of her experiences as mayor and governor, and that she was also a down-to-earth person, a “soccer mom”, who understood from first-hand experience, the real-life problems that most people have in their lives. Of course, they did not focus on her very limited executive experience in terms of both number of years and size of the populations she governed. Nor did they focus on her nomadic college experience at undistinguished colleges and universities. Many voters had little awareness of how limited Sarah Palin was as a vice-presidential candidate, partly because they trusted that Sen. McCain would not nominate a person who was unqualified.

BASKETBALL COACH- Actually, this story is not unique. Similar incidents have been recently reported in the media, but this one is a good example. On 1/13/09, Covenant School defeated Dallas Academy in girls’ basketball by a score of 100-0. Dallas Academy had not won a single game in the previous 4 years. The coach of Covenant School said that he would not apologize for his team’s overwhelming victory, and he was soon fired. The Covenant School administration stated that “It is shameful and an embarrassment that this happened” and that “This clearly does not reflect a Christ-like and honorable approach to competition.” They went on to ask the league director to record the game as a forfeit. For an account of this story, see:

Of course, the Covenant School coach had prepared his players to play well and competitively, and had recruited strong players to this private school. When he inserted his subs, they continued to run-up the score because every competitive player wants to do her best and the opponent was weak. The coach did not want to tell any of his players to play poorly or to stop trying as this would be contrary to what coaches generally try to instill in their players.

What about the coach and the school administration of the losing team? Why were they so uncompetitive that they did not win a single game in 4 years? Did the administration fail to emphasize girls’ basketball sufficiently to avoid such lopsided losses? Should the administration have entered the team in a less competitive league? Did the coach prepare the girls effectively? Why weren’t the administrators and the coach at Dallas Academy called to task for leading their lambs to slaughter? Surely they knew that the Covenant School team was very good. In fact, after the drubbing and the associated news stories, the Dallas Academy administration withdrew its team from the league.

More critically, what has happened in this country that a coach who succeeded in developing an excellent team is castigated for poor sportsmanship and an unchristian attitude while a coach whose team was unprepared to compete was not even criticized? Further, what has happened to our concept of fairness which used to mean that everybody plays by the same rules? Today, fairness involves a sliding scale of rules depending on the needs of each participant. Therefore, if a sports opponent is weak, the stronger one is supposed to ease-up so as not to inflict shame or embarrassment, and to demonstrate good sportsmanship and compassion. It is in the same zeitgeist that our grading of students has softened so that the weaker ones can still get an “A”, and we often give a “C” for poor performance because an “F” would seem like cruel and unusual punishment.

BREAST AUGMENTATION- Today, most women who can afford the surgery can obtain a shape that rarely occurs in nature. Both genders pay attention to women’s artificially enhanced appearance, and are impressed by cosmetically enhanced bodies just as though they were obtained the old-fashioned way: genetics, proper diet, and exercise. Now, large numbers of women seek to enhance their figures through breast augmentation and other cosmetic surgeries. Even teenage girls are getting parental permission for these procedures. We have been experiencing a shift in what our society considers attractive and the lengths to which people will go to achieve some idealized image of beauty. In effect we have seen perceptual inflation in physical appearance standards: what used to be considered beautiful has become ordinary, and the new concept of beauty is widely attained through artificial means: cosmetic surgery.

So What Do These Six Things Have in Common?

They are all devices that have been used to alter people’s perceptions of reality. The vanity sizing of women’s clothing and cosmetic surgeries such as breast augmentation, serve to change both the way women view themselves and the way others view women. The Photoshop program is used to have viewers of pictures see something other than true and accurate images. The nominations of Miers and Palin by powerful figures in our society tells the public that these two nominees are good, even though the facts indicate that they were actually precedent-lowering standards. Even though neither nominee succeeded, they might contribute to a disinhibitory effect in which we become accustomed to the serious consideration of less adequate nominees in the future. Finally, in the 100-0 basketball scenario, we see the very successful winning coach get fired and the very unsuccessful losing coach get pity. The perception of winning and losing has been changed in our society by what appear to me to be religious values taken literally and to the extreme. In the past, it would have been more likely that the losing coach would have been fired while the winning coach would have been counseled by his boss on compassion and sportsmanship.

Grade Inflation As Altered Perception

Grade inflation is another example of this kind of perceptual shift. The synergy within our society works two ways. First, in a society in which the manipulation of people’s perceptions is commonplace, it becomes easy to embrace one more misperception: grading that is unrelated to actual performance. And second, with lowering standards permeating all levels of education, we will have fewer citizens who have the critical thinking skills and knowledge of history, government, geography, math, and science to be able to recognize substandard nominees for high office, the possibility that news photographs might have been manipulated, or that new standards of beauty and fairness might be problematic.

In my next post, I will demonstrate how easy it is to inflate students’ grades.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What's Wrong With On-Line Universities

On-line universities (OLUs) look much different than traditional bricks-and-mortar universities (TBAMUs). First, they lack physical campuses including classrooms, residence halls, libraries, fraternities and sororities, and athletic teams, although some have single buildings or suites in office buildings, scattered across the country like banks or fast food franchises. Second, they are for-profit businesses whose primary goal is to make a profit for owners or stock holders. Third, they make heavy use of part-time or adjunct faculty who typically hold other full-time jobs. These instructors tend to be more practical and less idealistic but, unlike the full-time faculty members at TBAMUs, do not usually devote their professional lives to studying, researching, and teaching their chosen field. Finally, being profit-driven, they market themselves more aggressively, accept virtually all applicants who can pay the tuition, aggressively help applicants obtain tuition loans, sell college credits for life experiences, permit students to re-take failed exams, and help students obtain 4-year degrees in as little as 1½ or 2 years.

At for-profit OLUs, grades are grossly inflated, giving even the weakest students the feeling that they have finally arrived at a place that understands them and recognizes their “true abilities”. Student weaknesses in math, reading, and spelling, as well as a general lack of knowledge, are downplayed as being unimportant. Much like rats in a Skinner Box, they continue to pay tuition to gain high grades and a degree as repeated affirmation that they are the equal of any successful student at TBAMUs. When asked, the on-line students adamantly defend their on-line education, even though they usually do not have the experience to actually compare it to a TBAMU experience.

It is instructive to consider the very clever Kaplan University TV commercial in which an actor plays the role of a distinguished professor at a TBAMU. In the ad, the actor/professor apologizes to all of the students in his audience for his university’s old-fashioned educational practices, and then promises to take a more modern, more relevant, ostensibly better approach from now on. To all those viewers who have not done well in school, who do not have the attention span to stay focused on lectures or read textbooks, or whose lifestyle makes it difficult to sustain their studies at a TBAMU, this ad offers them hope that they can succeed in school, get a college degree, gain access to good occupations, and have successful careers. At all levels of education, testing and grading practices are subjective, variable, and ambiguous enough that it is easy to toy with people’s perceptions. If the endeavor were the 100 meter dash, the results would be much clearer because a good stopwatch doesn’t lie. After a few slow races, an individual would know that the training regimen, which promised world-class times and Olympic medals, was making false claims. In the world of higher education, I routinely meet graduates of OLUs who had 3.8 and 4.0 cumulative GPAs and are completely unaware that their scholastic skills are below the level of the average high school graduate.

Priceless TBAMU Life Lessons: Hard to Replicate at OLUs

I have taken on-line continuing education courses that seemed entirely appropriate in the format they were offered. I must admit, that I was typically able to review the multiple choice exam first, skim the reading materials, and then answer all of the unchallenging questions with ease. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a place for some on-line coursework in both undergraduate and graduate education. But, to get any degree with all, or virtually all, on-line courses would detract from one’s experience and possibly result in uneducated graduates. In thinking about the various courses I have taken in my nine years as a student at three universities, I came up with a long list of courses and related experiences that could not be matched by on-line study. Here is a partial list of those experiences:

University of Pittsburgh, freshman year, Professor Buckwalter’s intro to geology course. A field trip by bus, an hour or so outside the city. We chipped sedimentary rock on the bank of a river, collecting fossils from varying layers of rock. I understood right then and there that Evolution was no longer just a “theory”. It was a fact. This educational experience shaped my beliefs and made it hard for me to allow that “Intelligent Design” should be included in grade school science textbooks.

Pitt, sophomore year, Professor Stern’s interdisciplinary humanities course. Showed slide of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and practically sang and beamed with enthusiasm as he pointed out the symbolism and the magnificent shade of blue. I did not share his enthusiasm at that time, but something significant was imprinted in me. 40 years later, as I strolled with my wife through the Uffizi, I was drawn to Boticelli’s masterpiece and noticed the rainbow of national origins crowding in to take a look. It was then that I realized that great works of art are threads that connect people of all nationalities and generations as they share aesthetic experiences.

Pitt, junior year, Professor Levitt’s physiological psychology course. Sitting next to another psych major, Alan, who always got better grades than me in the many psych courses we took together. After class, I asked how he managed to earn such good grades and he described his impressive study methods. I realized that I would have to step-up my effort to compete for admission to a good Ph.D. program. He invited me to join a study group of other similarly motivated psych majors, and this led to sharper focus, higher grades, and eventually, my Ph.D. My fellow students in almost every course I have ever taken have been a source of valuable information, insights, competition and friendship. This can't occur at an OLU because you don't have this kind of interaction with classmates when everything is on-line.

Pitt, junior year. The study group members were talking about finding a psych professor who would allow us to assist with his/her research. This extra work would demonstrate strong interest, initiative and commitment, help me learn more about psychological research, and establish a relationship with a professor who could write a good letter of recommendation for grad school. After knocking on almost every psych professor’s office door and being told that they needed no more research assistants, I approached Dr. Voss whom I had heard was very tough and intimidating. I did not find him to be anything but gracious and helpful, and he gave me some significant work to do under his supervision and that of another psychologist, Dr. Janus. I put subjects through an experimental verbal memory procedure, tabulated and statistically analyzed the data, and wrote a draft of the article which was eventually published. What great preparation for my master’s thesis, doctoral dissertation, and research publications in my future.

Teachers College, Columbia University, first year of master’s program in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling, Professor I. I. Goldberg’s psychological aspects of disability course. Dr. Goldberg was a brilliant, warm-hearted hulk of a man who spoke with an eastern European accent and who had only one arm. Every class involved exposure to another type of disability. Sometimes a person with a severe orthopedic disability, or a neurological disability, or a hearing impairment was invited to class to demonstrate the ingenious methods and persistent effort he/she used to accomplish everyday tasks such as eating, grooming, or using the telephone. In other classes we would simulate our own disability by walking through the Horace Mann Building with blindfolds and white canes or maneuvering in a wheelchair. The experiences took me far beyond the lectures, textbooks, and research papers that were also required.

Ohio State University, second year of Ph.D. program in Counseling Psychology, Professor George Taylor’s course on group therapy. Class size was limited to 12 students. There were no lectures. Each class was like a group therapy session with Dr. Taylor as the facilitator. He set the stage for productive group process, sometimes asking us to participate in structured activities. As we experienced all of the phenomena that occur in therapy groups, Dr. Taylor provided both commentary on the process and an excellent model of how to be a group therapist. During the 30 years following my graduation from Ohio State, I taught about 30 sections of a similar graduate-level course at two universities, delighting in seeing my students learn about themselves and the beautiful way in which groups of people can evolve into helping, compassionate, and growth-producing entities. I was shocked to hear that some psychology graduate programs now offer this course on-line. What a sad turn of events for the students, their future patients, and my beloved profession!

Ohio State, second year. As a teaching associate, I taught three sections of Psychology of Personal Effectiveness, which was actually a study skills course. Along with four fellow grad students, I taught this course under the supervision of Dr. Francis P. Robinson, the developer of the SQ3R study method and author of our textbook, Effective Study. The five of us met once per week in Dr. Robinson’s seminar, learned some of the finer points of how to teach, the details of the SQ3R method, and the research behind it. I was very nervous for the first couple of classes, but I quickly became more confident and really enjoyed teaching. For most of the years since, I have been a professor at three different universities. It never occurred to me that I would want to be a university professor when I chose to attend graduate school to become a psychologist. I doubt I would have made this choice if I didn’t have this outstanding experience at a TBAMU.

The above seven experiences were just a small portion of the many that rounded out my education. None of them could have occurred without having great professors who devote their lives to academia. Many of these experiences depended on having direct contact, competition, and cooperation with fellow students who knew more than me. None of them would be possible had I logged-on to courses in an exclusively OLU. I believe every TBAMU student has similar priceless experiences, some subtle and some profound. I believe students have far fewer of these critical experiences at for-profit OLUs and this would seriously diminish the world in which our graduates live, work, create, and educate future generations.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Students Rating Professors: A Chilling Effect

During the Viet Nam Era, when university students protested for more relevant courses, universities reacted quickly to calm the demonstrations that sometimes became violent. In 1968, while I was a grad student at Columbia, the university’s reaction was an almost immediate shift from traditional letter grades to PASS/FAIL grading, which meant that anyone who did “C” or "D" work could get the same “PASS” as the person who merited an “A”. Talk about grade inflation! In addition, students were given the option of anonymously rating their courses and professors to let the administration know their opinions of the quality of instruction, the relevance of the course content, the suitability of the classroom, etc. The PASS/FAIL option soon faded, but the student rating of courses and professors has grown into a universal practice which, in fact, is now required by college and university accrediting agencies.

On the surface, the rating of courses and professors appears to be a good thing. What could be wrong with administrators getting a glimpse of what really goes on in each professor’s classroom? After all, raises, promotions, and tenure were traditionally based on three elements: (1) teaching, (2) research and publication, and (3) service to both the university and the larger community. The teaching part of the triad had been the hardest part to evaluate because senior faculty rarely sat in on junior faculty members’ classes to evaluate them. Today, at most universities, the only documented information regarding the quality of professors’ teaching comes from student ratings.

As the years have passed, the teaching part of the triad has become the only significant activity of most faculty members at most universities. Relatively few of the colleges and universities in the USA are considered to be “research institutions”. The vast majority of smaller public, private, and private for-profit universities are mainly teaching facilities that offer courses, credits, and degrees, but do not contribute original research and “new knowledge” to the world. Increasingly, these universities hire local experienced professionals such as school teachers, police officers, lawyers, and accountants to teach courses in their area of specialty on a part-time or adjunct basis. Because most of their income usually comes from their full-time day jobs, they often do not spend much time keeping up on the latest research and writing in their respective fields. What they have to offer the students is their ability to summarize the content of basic textbooks and anecdotes regarding their experience in the field. Most undergraduate students, and many graduate students, are completely unaware that the professors at the research-oriented universities have published extensively in professional journals, written textbooks, and devised the leading theories and concepts in their fields.

The problem with students as the only evaluators of their courses and professors is that they are usually unaware of all of the functions of professors and universities. They might not realize that the professor who wrote the textbook and has a theory named after him/her might be dividing time between research, writing, consulting, and teaching. Such a professor, who has worked very hard to become eminent in his/her field, might expect commensurate initiative, dedication, and hard work from his/her students. When students rate these professors, they might give them lower ratings than they give to the part-time, less knowledgeable instructors who tend to offer interesting stories, easier course requirements, and easier grading. It takes quite a bit of maturity and wisdom for a student to appreciate the value of the higher powered professor as a mentor, a fountain of knowledge, and one of the key contributors to the excellent reputation of the very university that will enhance both his/her chances of admission to a good graduate school and the impressiveness of the student’s resume.

The typical course evaluation form is much like a customer comment card at a hotel or restaurant. The student responds to 10 to 15 rating scales by marking a number from 1 (Unacceptable) to 5 (Excellent) to rate such areas as the instructor’s knowledge of the subject matter, enthusiasm, testing and grading practices, and attitude toward students. Next to each rating there is usually enough room to write a one- or two-sentence comment. Traditionally, course evaluations have been done with paper and pen in the classroom, immediately after the final exam. Lately, many course evaluations are done on-line, after the final exam but before final course grades are posted.

In my experience as an adjunct professor teaching masters-level psychology courses at the same university for the last 25 years, most students do not want to take much time to rate the course, so they simply circle all “5”s and leave it at that. Those students who had an extremely positive or inspired experience in the course will sometimes write a few lines to say so. Those who are unhappy with the amount of work required of them, the expectation of a lower-than-hoped-for grade, or who have been advised to modify their tardiness, absenteeism, or disruptive behavior, tend to give lower ratings and to write derogatory comments. Within the same class, students’ comments have ranged from “Way too much material and unfair exams.” to “Best course yet- I really learned a lot.” Angry students have sometimes gone overboard. A former student anonymously wrote: “This is the worst course I have ever taken. If you don’t fire the professor, I’ll tell my friends not to come to the university.” All evaluations, of course, go directly to department administrators who decide whether to invite me to teach future courses.

For an excellent review of literature on this topic, see “Student Evaluations: A Critical Review” by Michael Huemer at He found that the research has supported my assertion that “students tend to give higher ratings when they expect to receive higher grades.” Among many cogent observations, Huemer also noted that the student evaluation of faculty leads to the “dumbing down” of courses. It is very clear that professors could get more good ratings and fewer bad ratings from students if we were to require little work from them, assign easier-to-read textbooks or no books at all, give easier exams, provide do-over exams and assignments, and give more high grades. Certainly, a few strong, well-motivated students actually give lower ratings for watered-down courses, but this represents a small percentage of the total. The reality is that there is an ever-growing proportion of adjunct faculty in an ever-increasing number of for-profit and non-research not-for-profit universities. These part-time professors often work with the weakest of the nation’s students. If they were to give un-inflated grades, they would suffer through classes with many unhappy students and be quickly replaced by professors who would keep the customers happy, obtain good student course evaluations, and satisfy the marketing and enrollment needs of their universities.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Grade Inflation in Universities

Grade inflation in colleges and universities has been occurring at an explosive rate. Today, many well-respected universities have 50% of their senior classes graduating with honors. A cumulative GPA of 3.5 will get the designation cum laude and a 3.8 will get the graduate a summa cum laude. Quite a contrast to my 1966 graduating class from the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of Pittsburgh in which the average graduate had a 2.5 GPA, a 3.0 GPA was needed to graduate cum laude, and relatively few us had 3.0 cumulative GPAs. Why have “A”s and “B”s become so cheap? For your consideration and reactions, the next few posts will address my thoughts on some of the reasons.

The Paradigm Shift in the Meaning of University Education

Over the last 40 or so years, there has been a gradual paradigm shift in the meaning of a university education. In the past, universities were viewed as temples of knowledge, with professors being the learned priests. Students generally respected their professors because, within the temple of knowledge, the professor had studied his/her discipline and honed his/her expertise through dedication to mastery of existing knowledge and the pursuit of new knowledge. Many of the professors had written textbooks and published their research in peer reviewed journals. The student took the role of apprentice or neophyte, resepctful of the masters and ready to learn from them.

Today, universities are increasingly viewed as degree or credential shops with a focus on vocational preparation or training. Professors are course designers, and much of what they offer their students can be downloaded from textbook publisher websites. Instructional aids such as textbook chapter summaries, PowerPoint presentations, term paper topics, discussion points, and homework assignments are all available to the part-time or adjunct instructors who represent the majority of many of today's faculties. Many of these instructors lack doctoral degrees, but do have practical experience in their fields. Some have Ph.D.s from on-line universities and other distance learning formats. While they might not be up-to-date on the latest research in their field, they usually have pragmatic know-how and are able to relate interesting anecdotes from their wealth of in-field experience.

Students at today’s degree shops tend to view themselves as customers who are buying credits and degrees. The universities, including the traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions who compete for students and tuition dollars, are also viewing them as customers who need to be satisfied with the product they are purchasing. In fact, today’s students often have a sense of entitlement because once they've paid their tuition, they expect to get excellent customer service, high grades, diplomas, and good jobs. Wanting to have satisfied customers, the universities (both for-profit and traditional bricks-and-mortar) are offering their products in convenient forms such as on-line, intensive weekend, and one-evening-per-week formats. For example, a TV advertisement for the for-profit Keiser University features a young woman who states that she can earn her degree by taking on-line courses without ever getting out of her nightgown.

Another marketing element of today’s for-profit universities is the absence of competitive admissions, with the only criteria being a high school diploma or GED and sufficient credit to borrow the tuition. Inflated grades are also essential to the marketing of these for-profit universities. By admitting anybody who can pay the tuition, it is certain that many of the students lack what are usually considered college-level scholastic skills. Only by giving passing grades to virtually all students, regardless of their deficiencies, can these universities expect to get good word-of-mouth advertising and referrals while avoiding lawsuits from dissatisfied customers. To insure good grades for all, many of these diploma shops allow students to re-take exams if they do not do well on the first attempt, and some permit an unlimited number of re-takes.

To my thinking, it seems as though more and more universities are shifting their implied mission statement from the provision of high quality educational experiences for qualified students to making a profit by selling degrees and diplomas to anyone who will pay the tuition and meet some very minimal standards.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Grade Inflation is Good for America

We all feel good when we receive an “A” and not so good when we get a “C” or lower. I believe that we have found an easy way for more children to get “A”s, thereby raising the national self-esteem quotient. In his article, If You Want Good Grades, Move to Texas, Jay Matthews of the Washington Post (10/30/07) reported that according to the College Board nationwide survey of those in the 2007 senior class who took the SAT, 49% of the seniors in Texas had GPAs in the “A” range and 43% of all seniors who took the SAT in the USA had GPAs in the “A” range. This is quite an achievement when you consider the legends on most report cards that read: “A” = Excellent; “B” = Above Average; “C” = Average; “D” = Below Average; “F” = Failure. I’d personally like to congratulate the educators of the great State of Texas for insuring that their students maintain both high self-esteem and scholastic excellence, thereby approaching the ideal set by Lake Wobegon, where as Garrison Keillor tells us every week, “all the children are above average.”

As an adjunct to grade inflation, we could also institute a feel-good program like No Child Left Behind, first envisioned by the George W. Bush Administration, and now being busily modified by President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. Inherent in the choice of words, “No Child Left Behind” is the idea that no matter how many obstacles a child might face (neurological, behavioral, socioeconomic, or motivational), the sky is still the limit! The only roadblocks to this brilliant plan are standardized tests such as the various state achievement tests, and the SAT, ACT, and GRE. Now if we could just discredit these tests by claiming that they are really not correlated with academic performance we’d really have something. We could also claim that they are unfair to the learning disabled, the dyslexic, the poor, and most minorities. Between grade inflation, No Child Left Behind, and the elimination and watering-down of standardized tests, every child would have a good shot at getting into Harvard, Princeton or Yale, just as long as they could afford the tuition. The elite universities could then establish scholarships to give the economically disadvantaged more opportunities. Finally, the universities would have to get on board with the grade inflation ploy to make sure that no student is left behind in his/her endeavor to become a doctor, lawyer, hedge fund manager, or CEO. At this time, it appears that most universities are, in fact, cooperating with the grade inflation program. For example, according to a 2002 American Academy of Arts and Sciences study, in 1966, 22% of all grades received by Harvard undergrads were “A”s. By 1996, this figure had climbed to 46%. One fly in the ointment: to counteract the easy-“A” atmosphere that had evolved, Princeton University has now instituted a grade deflation program which limits “A”s to 35% for each department. Let’s hope other institutions don’t follow suit by elevating their standards!

There would probably be a few signs that the above plan has flaws, but most Americans would never even notice them. We could eliminate newspapers and get only snippets of current events from our web browsers. We could gradually lose sight of the role of journalism as a check-and-balance on government (including the public schools) by focusing on unfaithful celebrities and gossip about American Idol contestants rather than hard news. We could become more isolationist and xenophobic as a country, and explain away others’ anger as jealousy and religious extremism. We could blame the loss of good jobs in the USA on illegal immigration, the financial collapse, and the economic recession. And, with regard to the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results that found that we are ranked 24th in math, 21st in science, and 15th in reading among all the world’s developed countries, many of us would simply tune-out this information because, after all, we are 24th in math and we don’t understand anything numerical.

In future blog entries, I’d like to explore some of the educational corollaries of grade inflation including, but not limited to (1) the standards that exist in university teacher education and education administration programs, (2) the national shift in the concept of fairness from (A) the same standards apply to all to (B) each student must receive special consideration due to his/her unique issues and circumstances, (3) the proliferation of for-profit universities, (4) the accreditation of entirely on-line university programs that offer everything from A.A. degrees to Ph.D.s, and (5) the widespread, practically magical, overnight conversion of 2-year community colleges to 4-year state colleges, thereby rapidly increasing the numbers of teachers and nurses to meet labor market demands.

I’m hoping that there are others out there who share my deeply-felt concerns about what is happening to our education standards, that they will find this blog, and that they will share their experiences and express their views. If enough of us register our views, maybe we can impact the national dialog regarding these concerns. Let’s hear from you!