Addicted to the Curve

Addicted to the Curve

            I have been told that this little story is true.  I have no reason to doubt its accuracy, but its importance lies, not in its historicity, but rather in the fact that it is entirely plausible. And that says a great deal about academia today. . .

           Once upon a time staff at a major charitable foundation became concerned about the large number of college students who were failing to succeed in college.  To explore solutions to the problem, they identified a few courses at a nearby university in which a seemingly excessive number of students failed, withdrew, or received very low grades. Not surprisingly, a gateway course in math was near the top of the list, and the group approached the department, proposing that the foundation fund a multi-year initiative to devise new means to increase the success rate in the course.

            Over this period the foundation supported a number of innovative strategies to help more students master the basics of the subject.  They created study groups, peer-instruction processes, and an evening call-in television program to support students in their efforts.  At the end of the process they surveyed the numbers of students receiving “Ds,” “Fs,” or withdrawing from the course, and the rates were precisely the same as before the initiative.  When the dismayed educational researchers went to the department to try to understand why all their efforts had had no result, the mathematicians responded that, of course, there had been no change.  “We grade on the curve,” they said. “The best exams get ‘As,’ the worst get ‘Fs,’ and the rest are spread out in between. How else would we know what grade to give each student?”

            Behind the obvious irony of this little story lies a fundamental conflict within higher education today — a conflict that emerges from the survival into the present of earlier stages of the evolution of our institutions.  The staff at the foundation were operating from the perspective of a society that had a critical need for educated thinkers and of students, whose path to a good life, of necessity, involved mastery of the material in such courses.  For them the central task of higher education was to prepare as many students as possible for meaningful roles in society.  The math department, by contrast, was operating in terms of an older social reality, in which colleges existed either to prepare a small number of very qualified students who were needed for the few positions in society that actually required higher education or to legitimize the social position of the elite. In such a context a central role of the university involved identifying those who arrived in college with the appropriate preparation and rejecting the rest. Grading on the curve achieved this goal very efficiently.

            An unconscious residue of this earlier stage in the development of our institutions of higher education is the assumption that an instructor has only two options – to maintain high standards or to betray the honor of the discipline by “dumbing down” the material. Such a belief system has the secondary benefit of insulating instructors from the notion that they might have an obligation to actually adjust their teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that they are hoarding.

            This last point suggests that there is a second irony in this story. The same departments who are so committed to structures that automatically assign “F”s to some students, frequently give “A”s to all of their own members for their efforts as teachers.  Instructors who still use the pedagogical equivalent of Roman numerals are accorded the same respect as those who have developed complex ways of understanding and solving the intellectual puzzles posed by undergraduate learning.

Some of the old attitudes are dying, but not quickly enough.  There are signs that at least some universities are adapting to the realities of the world that surrounds and funds them, but the transition is still quite slow. Our society needs large numbers of students to be educated, and its patience with our reluctance to abandon the illusions of the past may be limited.

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