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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 For professors, teaching inaccurate or outdated information, fudging research data, and the distortion of grades are examples of the most serious transgressions.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.

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