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How Teachers Pass Grade Inflation Onto Students

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I once served on a school board that was involved with hiring decisions. One of the policies that was handed down to us was that prospective teachers must have degrees in education. Now, maybe it’s because I’m a journalist who never went to journalism school, but I thought that this was not only a bizarre requirement but a misguided one. Sometimes the best teachers are the ones who have real-life experience with a subject area as opposed to those who learned whatever educational trends were being taught at a given time. And certainly some of the absolute worst teachers I had were the ones with vaunted education degrees. And I say this as the proud daughter of a public school teacher (who got a degree in education and is an awesome teacher).

In any case, a new study shows that students who take education classes at universities receive significantly higher grades than students who take classes in all other academic disciplines. According to the publisher, the grade difference is not a function of education majors being better students or the class size. They argue that the higher grades are likely a result of low grading standards and that these low standards have negative consequences on teacher training and contribute to a culture of low standards for educators.

The embedded graph here shows how striking that discrepancy is. The author says that the discrepancy was first recorded some 50 years ago. So the problem is pretty intractable. In conclusion, author Cory Koedel writes:

Low grading standards in university education departments are part of a larger culture of low standards for educators, and they precede the low evaluation standards by which teachers are judged in K-12 schools. The culture of low standards for educators is problematic because it creates a disconnect between teachers’ perceptions of acceptable performance and the perceptions of everyone else.

Society resists change, and resistance to change is particularly acute in education. But there is no rational reason for the low grading standards in education departments. Rather than asking why these grading standards should be changed, perhaps the more reasonable question is why they shouldn’t be changed. Put differently, if we were to start over with university education and could choose the grade distributions in each discipline, would we choose the currently observed discrepancy between education departments and all other academic departments?

University administrators are in the best position to intervene and modify the low grading standards in education departments. In the absence of administrative action, external accountability in K-12 schools will also likely lead to higher standards in education departments over time, although the pace of change will be slower.

What always strikes me about this grade inflation and teacher evaluation inflation is that it’s not a victimless crime. Truly excellent teachers — of which there are so very many — are lumped in the same pack as the teachers who shouldn’t be anywhere near a kid. That’s a problem and it’s unfair to our high performing teachers (such as my awesome mom) to have them all given gold stars for effort. Communities across the country are clearly fed up with the way public schools encourage mediocre behavior from faculty and students. Washington, D.C., where I lived for 15 years, has put amazing work into reforming this culture. Whether these actors have in any way improved the problem, I couldn’t say.

But perhaps teaching educators about the value of proper grading while they’re still in school is a good start.