Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Do Education Schools Give Too Many A's?”

That is the question posed by a recent EdWeek article and answered in the affirmative by a recent study out of the University of Missouri which found that students majoring in education at public universities receive “significantly higher grades” than other majors at the same universities.

Several years ago a prominent local newspaper asked for and got a massive Excel file containing the grades all professors gave for an academic year at one of the state universities. As a courtesy, the university emailed the same Excel file to the professors and thus I acquired a copy. No student names were divulged; grades were aggregated by class, then section and then sorted into grade categories without cross-referencing student majors. Nevertheless, it was very clear that education grades are one to two grade points higher than other course grades. Only rarely does an education professor hand out anything but an A. The main exceptions were the “Math for Elementary Teachers” classes, taught not by members of the education department, but by mathematics faculty. Frequently, as many as 50% of the students fail this gatekeeper class on the first attempt.

In this state university, students must pass “Math for Elementary Teachers” in order to apply to the College of Education. I have seen students repeat the class three and four times. One student, exultant that she had finally passed, confided to me that she passed only because the professor got bogged down in multiplication and never covered fractions, decimals and percents, the topics she failed the previous times. What grade does this student aspire to teach? Fifth, the grade that is all about fractions, decimals, and percents. And what did this student propose to do to overcome her evident math weakness? “I'll figure it out when the time comes,” she said. It made me wonder how many elementary teachers are trying to figure it out in classrooms all over the country.

Fact is, if they have not figured it out before they graduate, they probably never will. Targeted intervention has been a disappointment.
At the end of the second year of implementation, the PD program did not have a statistically significant impact on teacher knowledge.
Teachers cannot teach what they themselves do not know. Even more startling, the math teachers in the study were middle school teachers, not generalists like elementary teachers. Nevertheless, what makes the study somewhat generalizable to elementary teachers us that only 23 percent of the middle school teachers in the study majored in math or a math-related subject.

I am guessing the professor stuck on multiplication faced a dilemma. He was stuck because so many class members were struggling. Does he slow down in hopes of achieving mastery, or does he press on and cover the required material even though he knows he is probably guaranteeing failure? He actually has two dilemmas. If he presses on and fails the repeaters, some of them might abandon education. But the department wants the tuition money. Slowing down is a win-win for the professor and the department. The professor artificially passes students. They give him glowing evaluations and he gets to keep his job. The department is assured of receiving tuition dollars until students so passed graduate. However, it is an eventual lose-lose for the student and later as a teacher, the teacher's students.

High education grades are a puzzlement considering that education students typically have lower SAT and GRE scores. I recall a challenging professor in my grad student days. The class was educational statistics. My classmates complained bitterly and even circulated a petition to replace the professor with someone “easier.” One classmate said with a straight face, “If we wanted to work hard, we would have majored in something besides education.” I wrote a letter to the chancellor defending the professor and angering my classmates who insisted that we needed to present a united front. The professor lost his job anyway. The university decided there was no point in keeping a professor if students refused to sign up for his class in the future because of the scuttlebutt. Need I mention that the object lesson was not lost on the rest of the education professors.

At the end of our studies, my cohort held a thesis party where we drank tea, ate cookies and passed around our theses. I was shocked at the low quality of the theses and embarrassed that all these people would get the same degree as me for a lot less work. I worked hard on my research, and the data later became the basis for a widely adopted curriculum design. I had all A's for my course work, but so did the rest of my cohort. Big deal. I felt that their degrees, acquired so easily, devalued my degree. Only later did I discover the low status of education degrees.

Some of my classmates have since become education professors themselves. Some critics of the Missouri study think the reason education students get higher grades is because they are taught by experienced trained educators. Not. In 2009, I did a small exploratory study examining curricula vitae of education professors. More than half listed no significant teaching experience on their curriculum vitae.

At this point in my life, I have observed three education departments either as a student or as a professor. It seems to me the grade inflation is a kind of mutual symbiosis. Both the professors and the students have an unwritten understanding: students get As, professors get glowing student evaluations.

Me, well I did not get the memo. (Well, maybe I did but I ignored it.) The first time I taught a curriculum class, I gave the students, predominantly seniors, a list of all the assignments for the class and their respective due dates. The next day half the students dropped because there was too much work. They signed up for classes with a lot less work. Came time for the midterm, an open book test, most of them brought no book. Based on their experience in other education classes, many had not bothered to purchase it. Of those who had brought the book, it was perfectly obvious they had never opened it, even though there had been assignments that (supposedly) required at least a little bit of information from the book.

I returned their midterms with no grades. I gave a lesson on writing essays, because according to them, no one had ever explained what “compare and contrast” means, or how to defend an opinion. They believed that an opinion piece could never be downgraded because “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” and “opinions cannot be wrong.” The idea that they were being graded on how well they defended their opinion was news to them. I was accused of being unfair for not telling them my grading criteria. I gave them a second chance to write their midterms, but with the additional requirement that the tests must be typed, proofread, and properly cited. I gave them a week. Most simply typed up the exact same garbage I had returned the week before. At least they corrected the spelling.

Then there was the student who missed the final exam because she went to The Price Is Right. She acted surprised when she failed the class. She went to the chair and complained that I was destroying her dream to be a teacher.

I wondered what some of the other professors were doing, and when I became a university supervisor of student teachers, I found out. My charges uniformly expressed surprise at the superior quality of my feedback after observing their lessons. They often asked why their methods classes (especially math methods) did not teach them any of this stuff. I asked them what they had done in their methods class.

“We just played with manipulatives.”

“What did you think of that?”

“We loved it. It was fun.”

“What do you think now?”

“I think we should have not given our instructor such great evaluations. S(he) didn't teach us what we needed to know.”

One education professor, who had been the state Teacher of the Year (don't start me on what a bogus award that is. Maybe one day I will devote a whole post to it), thought his science methods students should complete science fair projects and display them at the upcoming science fair. The professor's idea was that teachers should be more in touch with students by completing the same assignments.

The education students produced no better displays than fourth graders and in many cases, their work was much worse. Okay fine, but did their grades reflect the quality of the work? In what was probably a tactical error on the professor's part, he had posted grades and notes on the backs of the project boards where I read them. Each and every student got an A. Each and every student got a nice comment, like, “You will make a wonderful teacher.”

Punitive student evaluations are only one problem. The professor who does not play ball will have other serious problems. In another class of mine, eight students failed. In utter shock, they went to the department chair who took it upon herself to forge my signature on grade change forms for them. When I confronted the chair, she said the students who failed were in a scholarship program to foster higher rates of university attendance among certain populations. If they did not maintain at least C averages, they would lose their scholarships, and the department would lose their tuition money. Naturally, the relationship between the chair and myself was never the same.

As another EdWeek article points out, “It is common knowledge that graduates of university-based teacher education programs find their student-teaching experiences more valuable than their other coursework.” Perhaps if the course work were both more relevant, practical and rigorous, education students might feel they had gotten their money's worth and our schools would have true professionals for whom administrators would not feel the need to buy scripted curriculum.

Do Education Schools Give Too Many A's? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

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