When Will They Ever Learn?

I was recently reading a paper on "grade inflation" published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.  It states that "In the face of acknowledged grade inflation, the Princeton University faculty limited the percentage of A's a department could give: no more than 35% of students in any class can receive an A."

This kind of stuff drives me crazy!  Why is it that the symbol of academic excellence is in short supply in high schools and universities? 

If you are an elite school, why would you not want all students to make all A's?  It makes no sense for a university like Princeton to select the top students in the country and then set up a process where 65% cannot get an A.

Grading is a teacher behavior.  This is acknowledged by a recently initiated practice at Wellesley where the faculty mandated that most introductory courses have average grades of B+ or lower in order to reduce student incentives to gravitate towards easier grading departments.  As a result, faculty members now assign many more b-level grades!  What changed?  Did student achievement decrease or was it some action on the part of the professors that caused the drop in grades?

Why shouldn't professors be required to specify what a student should know in order to earn an A?  If all students meet, or exceed the requirement, why should they not be given the grade they earned?  Under this arrangement the teachers whose students all earned A's would clearly be the best teachers.  It doesn't matter how tough the requirement, as long as all who achieved it are awarded an A. The more A's, the better job the professor did.  Teachers who produced a high percentage of "A" students could then be rewarded for excellence in teaching.

Actions on the part of Princeton and Wellesley demonstrate that the descriptor, "Institutions of higher learning" is often misapplied.  While the faculties may know how to create a syllabus and give a lecture, it appears by these policies, that they know little about effective and efficient ways of transferring knowledge.  Fundamentally, this indicates that the university-the chairs, deans and Vice Presidents, don't trust faculty.  The assumption is that the faculty member who gives many A's is lowering his or her standard to accommodate mediocrity-it is not possible, they believe, for all students to be excellent. They are in love with the bell-shaped curve!

While a great many managers agree with me on this assessment of university teaching, the methods they use to evaluate performance in the workplace are essentially the same.  Why shouldn't a manager be evaluated on the percent of employees who earn the top rating?[1] I have known too many managers who have been punished by having too many high performance ratings.  If performance is related to the performance appraisal rating, the organization benefits when all employees earn the top rating and suffers when they earn less.  Businesses don't hire a bell-shaped distribution of ability and it should not be the goal of management to create one.

It is time to change outmoded methods of assessing performance in both education and in organizations.

[1]I know all the arguments about why this is not a good idea and I will discuss them in later blogs, however at this point, let me say only that the mission of a manager is to create successful employees.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.