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March 24, 2003

Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology


It continues to baffle me why society places such an emphasis on the subtleties of where one goes to college and what grades one got there. Presumably, this is because these two pieces of data give potential employers (and potential spouses) an idea of the contribution a person can make to their respective enterprises.

But how good are these two data points? Recent coverage of affirmative action lawsuits has revealed the incredible vagarieties of the university admission process. Clearly, the bar one must jump to be admitted to a selective university is far lower if one is a student athlete or a “legacy” than if one is an ordinary mortal.

And a story in the New York Times of March 24 reveals the ludicrous nature of grades as a measure of accomplishment or learning. This story, which you can read here, discusses an online service called Pick-a-Prof, which provides a “Consumer Reports”-like analysis of professors at public universities. Not only does Pick-a-Prof allow a prospective student to scrutinize comments and ratings for a professor from previous students, but it also allows students to study the grade distributions handed out by that professor in previous semesters.

This latter capability has made professors and administrations nervous. Apparently some are worried that

…increased emphasis on ratings would lead professors to focus more on popularity than on substance and to forgo complex and subtle instruction for what was easily accessible.

Dr. William T. Stuart, the director of undergraduate studies in the anthropology department at the University of Maryland, is concerned that:

I'm not saying the sky is falling, or that it's a crisis, but I do believe that if you start orienting your work to the applause of the audience, that has unfortunate effects.

I’m a little confused by Dr. Stuart's reasoning. Presumably, a college student wants to pick the professor who will teach them the most. The explicit evaluation of how much a student has learned is, of course, the student’s course grade. Therefore, it would appear obvious that the professor with the highest percentage of high grades is doing the best job teaching his or her class. Right?

For teachers to imply that students are doing something improper by choosing a teacher with higher grades is to admit just how completely broken the grading mechanism is—how little grades are comparable from one instructor to the next, and from one subject to the next—without, of course, teachers actually having to come right out and admit that their grading system is so out of touch with reality that it encourages gamesmanship far more than actual learning.

But it’s not unusual for college professors, like other instructors, to “blame the victim”—in this case, the student—for their pedagogic failures. The psychological model of school grading seems to derive from the theological concept of Protestant predestination, in which the elect—those who get good grades—go to school in order to be separated out from the damned—those who will not do well at school or life. The instructor, naturally, plays a role akin to that of God, in that his or her tests reveal the predetermined status of the student’s soul.

Now, one could take a different approach to school. For example, one could use the Japanese “total quality management” (TQM) approach in which the goal is for 100% of the products of a supplier to meet predetermined specifications before being accepted by the customer. I’m not aware of too many suppliers to, say, Japanese car companies who get away with the notion that their windshields are defective because they were made from inherently unworthy sand (although this is absolutely the position of teachers handing out poor grades to students.) No, the Japanese car companies just expect their windshield vendors to find a way to make every windshield do the job.

Perhaps we would do better to abandon theology and look into TQM when reforming our schools.



posted by Friedrich at March 24, 2003


I have to say, as a current college student, I think to place the blame on the professors in this case is wrongheaded, for a couple of reasons. First, having a high proportion of high grades in your class does _not_ necessarily mean that you're doing a fine teaching your class (and if you're being sarcastic here and I'm missing it, my apologies; I'm rather tired.)

Given that grades in college are driven, in large part, by the amount of work you put in (certainly at many of the most selective schools, that's the case), for there to be a lot of high grades means one of two things. 1) A high percentage of the class is putting in the hard work it takes to get an A (and in a good class, it does take a lot of hard work to get an A), or 2) The professor is giving out too many As. While there are cases where Case 1 is true, I would say, based on what I've seen as a student, that Case 2 is much more likely.

I don't think Professor Stuart is implying necessarily that grades are utterly subjective and meaningless, as it stands. Certainly there are differences between professors; some are just more challenging and more demanding than others; fact of life. (That, by the way, has nothing to do with grade inflation; the basic premise would be true no matter the average grade).

However, one should try to keep the variation of what an "A" means to a minimum, and base the A on what the most challenging fair teacher gives (because that gives it the most weight and meaning). What _that_ means is that only a small percentage of the class (say 10 or 15 percent, perhaps) will get an A, because only that percentage will have the ability (and more importantly, the work ethic) to get that kind of grade.

What Professor Stuart is concerned about stems from the fact that not all teachers are like that. There are certainly some professors who give out A's like candy--I 've had some of them, and they were usually profs I didn't learn much from. Given that students want high grades but not hard work (I mean come on: we're human, after all), many (though admittedly not all) will gravitate toward such professors and classes. Something like Pick-a-Prof only exacerbates the problem, which is what Professor Stuart is objecting to. I fail to see the problem in his objection, myself. An A in a course ought to mean something, after all.

To address one other point: how is it a pedagogical failure to want students to have to work to get an A? It's not a question of the "state of their soul" ; well, maybe it is. Let me clarify: it's certainly a measure of how hard they're willing to work. I do think that's a meaningful measurement (and certainly one that employers would be interested in); I think it's in our interest to keep it meaningful. And I fail to see how we can ensure that everybody achieves the certain basic level of competence that something like TQM requires if we take away the standards by which the competence can be evaluated.

Remember: in college (I would think also in primary/secondary schools, but particularly in college), there's only so much the instructor _can_ do, based simply on the expectations students have of the institution. To a large extent, what the student gets out will be a function of what they put in, _regardless_ of how good the professor is as a teacher. Been there, done that. If we want to change that system, fine. It's certainly not perfect. But neither is it a creation of the professoriate, either.

Posted by: Mark Shawhan on March 25, 2003 3:27 AM

I think it would be nice. When I was back in college, you had no guide on the professors other than asking other students. Some profs. did student evaluations, but we, the students, never saw the results.

The only "F" I ever got was a vendetta "F" from a grad. student who was angry when I tried to drop his class because he was so bad at teaching. The college didn't let me drop the class, and the process was so stacked against the student, even my advisor openly commented on how much I got screwed in the process. (For one thing, the texts where written by two local profs whose second language was English - their first being Chinese - so the texts wouldn't have managed to get out of English 90 ("bonehead English"). They were incomprehensible.) Needless to say, that "F" blew my grade point average out of the water - I would've graduated with honors. The only way to wipe out an "F" at my college was to repeat the course, and I had neither the time nor the money for that.

I'm happy to report not ONE employer has ever asked about my GPA, which was still pretty good, btw. (Because the dirty little secret is the only people who care about your undergrad GPA are graduate programs. Real world employers simply don't care. With the exception of the East Coast Ivy League stuff, where your connects count as much or more than your ala mater, most employers only care about your having a sheepskin at all.)

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 25, 2003 10:47 AM

See, I don't have any problem with evaluations of professors. Columbia students, for example, have set up a website which has organized and collected hundreds of reviews of professors, written on an anonymous basis. I think that's great. I do have a problem with sites that analyze professors by what _grades_ they give out (as opposed to their teaching ability), for the reasons I detail above.

Posted by: Mark on March 25, 2003 4:19 PM

With a TQM approach, you and I might actually have learned a thing or two at our Lousy Ivy College. As it was, I figure I learned about ten times as much from you as I did from any prof.

Profs and kids can put up all the dueling websites they want to, as far as I'm concerned. Isn't part of the challenge of college and rankings and making profs responsible to students etc, though, the in-between state of students themselves? Are they kids, or are they adults? To overdramatize the point: if a bunch of second graders put up a website ranking their teachers, we'd all laugh. What do second graders really know about what they need to be taught? But if a bunch of 50 year olds who'd taken classes put a site ranking their profs, that's something else. Adults are more likely to go into a class knowing something about what they're looking for, and (rightly) to see a teacher as there to serve. College kids? Well ... More worldly than 2nd graders, granted, but hardly aware of much about the world, or (at least in my case) much about what they're looking for, or will need.

Which complicates the whole profs-should-serve-consumers picture a little, doesn't it? In an interesting way? Not that I have any idea what to do about it.

Posted by: Michael on March 26, 2003 12:22 PM

Two words: Normal distribution. Classes made up of human beings will differ in terms of ability, capacity for work and therfore grades, as they do in all other attributes, whereas windshields can both in practice and in theory 100% perfect.
And Japanese management theory as a guide to education? If it acheived a 12 year deflationary recession it must be right.

Posted by: Evaluator on March 27, 2003 2:19 PM

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