Grade Inflation

Before I began to teach, I thought most concerns about grade inflation were silly. I still think that, but now I also think grade inflation is a big deal. Because after starting to teach at a technical college, I realized that there’s actually a real systemic problem, and the consequences are worse at lower-prestige institutions like mine. But that’s not what most people talk about when they talk about grade inflation.

Instead, talking about grade inflation comes off as old people grumbling about how easy the young ones have it. I don’t want to hear “kids these days”-style moralizing. As far as I am concerned, if I were in the mood for it, I would just read “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” as many times as necessary. And I really can’t bring myself to care that an “A” from Harvard now means what a “B” from Harvard used to mean. So why is it that I’m worried about grade inflation then?

I’m worried because at institutions like mine, grade inflation is part of a cycle that wastes students’ time and money, and makes starting their careers more of a hassle. We’re mostly preparing people for certification in trades and in health-related work. And we’re locked in a terrible positive feedback loop with the employers who hire our students, where grade inflation plays a big role. It works like this:

Putting in a bunch of extraneous requirements to be certified for a job is advantageous to the licensing body (this makes the job sound more prestigious and important). It is advantageous to people who are already working in that job (reduces the amount of people who can start working in the field, thus reducing competition). It is also advantageous to the college (more people need to take more classes and pay more tuition). It’s also very hard to push against. Arguing against increased certification requirements makes you sound anti-education (since it wouldn’t be worse overall if, say, radiation technologists were better at physics. It’s just not really worth it for them to go to school for an extra year to achieve that, for example). Thus, the requirements for licensing are continually made more strict.

As a result, a bunch of working class students looking to start careers end up taking courses in things they don’t really need to learn, but which are required for certification.

It’s in my interest, since I am an adjunct and am evaluated on it, to give them the grades they need to get into whatever programs they are going into. But honestly, totally apart from that, I don’t want to give low grades for required courses if I know that what the students are missing is not really required for people to do the work well. It seems unreasonable to stop someone from being an LPN over some arcane piece of statistics curriculum, say, when whether they are able to know the difference between a z-test and a t-test doesn’t really impact how good of a nurse they’ll be.

Or does it? I’m not a nurse, and have never held any job in the health professions. So I’m not actually qualified to answer that question. Luckily, our college’s nursing faculty have a lot of nursing experience. I went and talked to an instructor in our nursing department to find out.

They said that some math is actually really useful for nurses: they need to be able to understand proportions and do unit conversions quickly and reliably. Without that skill, they can’t do their jobs properly. But when deciding which math course would be required by the state for entry into nursing programs, it was decided (unwisely in the instructor’s opinion) to make the class statistics. Because it would be more prestigious, and also be connected with nursing research.

The instructor also gave me a textbook on nursing research. Here is the textbook’s explanation of what you should be doing when you first come up with a study to do:

These activities include reading, conceptualizing, theorizing, reconceptualizing, and reviewing ideas with colleagues or advisers. During this phase, researchers call on such skills as creativity, deductive reasoning, insight, and a firm grounding in previous research on the topic of interest.

Textbooks, man! But that’s beside the point.

The point is that I do what I can to “sneak in” unit conversion examples into my statistics class. But there are also external requirements for what I have to teach — so, I’m sorry, but these nurses will have to learn about how to perform a t-test. But if they can’t do it very well — well, now I’m pretty confident that that’s not really going to make them be worse nurses. Therefore, I am not going to let it stop them from getting into the nursing program.

And yet, as a teacher, I can’t just make up grades — I have to base grades on the work in the class. I’ve seen this having a negative effect on how courses are taught and how students learn. Because I try not to prevent people from going to their program of their choice if they put in some effort and aren’t missing anything that would be crucial to them in the profession, I have to structure a course in such a way that you can get a very good grade without knowing a very large percentage of the material. There are two ways of achieving this:

  1. Not teach any material the students don’t already know
  2. Not check whether the students have learned the material

Both approaches lead to a class focused on busywork and stop students from learning the material in the course. Which I guess would be OK according to my premises, since they don’t need it, but it’s a dishonest system and wastes the students’ time and money.

And not only is it bad, it keeps getting worse.

Employers and licensing bodies see that the grades no longer mean what they used to. Meanwhile, they still want to maintain the prestige of their profession and stop competition from new workers. Therefore, they try to tighten the licensing and employment requirements further, meaning that students now need to take even more classes, and get even better grades in them. As a result, we might be required to tailor our classes even more towards busywork and ensure that everyone can get a good grade no matter their level of understanding. But the range of grades we can work with has shrunk — instead of going between 50 and 100%, we now get to range student understanding between 75 and 100%, and then between 90 and 100% and so on. The students have to do more and more work that requires less and less understanding. They waste more and more time and end up learning less and less.

Since many students have barriers to success — many of them, for example, are single parents who also have to work nearly full time — some of them don’t end up finishing the courses the first time around and can’t enter the profession. Which is great for the licensing body, but terrible for people’s lives.

Of course, this has mostly been the standard story that the more libertarian-minded people of good faith tell about licensing requirements. The point that I want to highlight is that we can maybe combat some of this trend by combating grade inflation.

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The Flipped Classroom

This is a thought I’ve just recently started having, as I’ve started teaching in a “flipped” classroom, and I’m not sure if it’s at all true. I wanted to share it in case someone who is more knowledgeable about the world of education and education research would comment. To briefly summarize, a “flipped classroom” idea is that the concepts are delivered to you outside the classroom (e.g., through videos and notes) and then the class time is spent on problem solving and group work, applying the concepts already learned.

My initial thought was that this is a good system for teaching concepts to the median student, but was not effective for the very best and very worst students. I thought that, since this method implies you have to put in work outside of class to be able to do anything in-class, the students who were not putting in enough work outside of class would quickly fall behind in a way that left them unable to catch up, since attending class would be useless for them. However, those who did put in the work would benefit.

Very preliminarily, I’m finding that something like the exact opposite is true. The flipped classroom is not useful for people who are relatively diligent, but really great for people who do no work whatsoever. Since my job as an instructor becomes more tutor-like, I am able to go through problems with people who don’t get them at all. Since the people who don’t do the assigned work will not get the in-class problems at all, I spend almost all of my time with them. As long as they admit they don’t understand what’s happening and are receptive to help, which is obviously not the case for everyone.

As a result, in my implementation at least, the class of student who benefits greatly is “the student who wants to learn but doesn’t put in even the minimum amount of effort to do so”. Whereas the median student basically has very little reason to come to class. This looks good on evaluation metrics (a much larger percentage of the class gets C’s or above than before, say), but I’m pretty sure it’s non-ideal.

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Cost Disease in Education

At Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander writes a post on a pretty important question: why do things cost so much more these days, without there being any particular benefit to the average person? Like he mentions, there are many people who think they know the obvious answer, but they disagree on what the obvious answer is. For my part, I think the answer cannot ignore the fact that the cost disease is happening at a time of ballooning inequality, something that Alexander mostly elided in the original post. All the same, in my field of education, I think a part of the explanation lies in a combination of Alexander’s points #4 (increased regulation), #2 (things like administrative bloat), #6 (reduced risk tolerance) and #5 (fear of litigation). I wouldn’t necessarily put the negative gloss on this that that implies, though.

Here is how I would tell this part of the story. Our society used to be run in a way that was basically majoritarian. I mean that in the sense that the institutions of society were created explicitly with the majority in mind. With time, though, as a society, we seem to be gradually, fitfully moving towards the idea that institutions of society need to cater to everyone in the society. This is the aspiration that guides naming US education law “No Child Left Behind”, etc. However, this gradual change has come with a huge increase in cost, because accommodation of everyone is disproportionately expensive.

In my day-to-day work as an instructor, I see very clear examples of this dynamic.

For instance, I used to use the whiteboard in my classroom to explain material I was covering. My students would take notes based on what I wrote. However, not everyone in my class is necessarily able to take notes (I’ve had students who were veterans with hand tremors, for example). So, I switched to taking notes on paper, projecting the notes on a document camera, and then scanning the paper afterwards and posting it online so that people in my class can have a record of what happened in class, even if they can’t take notes.

This solved the problem for those unable to take notes, but it created a new one. Any piece of material posted online needs to have alt text so that online material is accessible to the vision impaired. If I made handwritten notes in class, I would have needed to recreate the notes after class in a typed version as an alt-text. Which is difficult to do, because the notes involve a lot of diagrams and mathematical symbols.

Therefore, I needed to go to a third system, preferably one without a lot of in-class handwritten notes. So now I prepare my notes electronically beforehand, show them in sequence, and if something does come up that requires new notes, I have to then type it up after class.

The amount of work involved for me is significantly greater than the original “writing on the board” method. Whereas the benefit to most students is not there. Most people can take notes, and don’t need this procedure. The fact that my notes are pre-arranged has some positives, but also some negatives in terms of flexibility in responding to questions, etc. In addition, since students know the notes are available, they are less likely to take notes. Whether taking notes helps one learn or not is very individual — but I would say on the whole it does. So, the entire endeavour I would guess makes my students less successful on average. It probably is enough to cancel out the on average one student per quarter who needs note-taking help.

Meanwhile, it’s true that people who need one kind of accommodation are not the same people who need another kind of accommodation. In fact, the number of students I’ve had who both requested notes and needed alt-text for online materials is zero.

So, let’s sum up the previous anecdote. The overall results are that I have to do a bunch of extra work, at no net benefit to students. In addition, we need new equipment (a document camera), and tech support (to set up this camera and the associated recording software). We also need administrators from accessibility services: someone needs to interview the students with special needs to figure out what those needs are and how they can be accommodated. Someone needs to explain this to me. And someone needs to monitor that I am in fact doing this.

Scott Alexander can look at the situation and say “well, the overall performance in zolltan’s class seems to have gone down, and the cost has gone up tremendously. The mystery of cost disease strikes again!” — and that’d be correct.

However, if we are to take seriously our mission to educate the public, then it should also be the case that we educate the public, and not just those who we find it convenient to educate. So this is not a case of an obviously bad decision as much as choosing between real tradeoffs.

Is this the right choice? Is it worth it? I tend to think that in the case of public education, it is. But the question is not at all an easy one. And answering it needs the participation of people whom it directly affects most of all — i.e., those students who need accommodation.

I don’t claim that this explains all of cost disease everywhere, or even much of it, necessarily. But what it does for me is put in context the complaints about bureaucratic inefficiency and how private companies can be streamlined while the government just wastes your money. You don’t have to ask whether private companies are more efficient than public ones to figure out why the price of public education is increasing. You just note that, say, educating 95% of the people is a lot, lot cheaper than educating all of them.

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The importance of math for the trades

There’s a cynical joke that goes “School never taught me how to go about buying a car or a house or paying taxes. But boy am I glad I know … the pythagorean theorem!” I always disliked the joke, but I think it’s fair to point out that school doesn’t do enough to teach life skills. I also used to think that people generally never really used math after school, so putting such an emphasis on math in school was not worthwhile, except for people who go into STEM fields. This was because I underestimated how crucial basic math knowledge can be.

If you asked me two years ago whether it was a reasonable scenario that someone was too bad at math to be a good welder, I would have said: no. I no longer think that, and not just because I’ve seen some people who are really, really bad at math. That’s not even the primary reason.

Instead, I learned a little bit about welding. (Not a lot, unfortunately. Seriously, I am so bad at welding. It hurts).

For instance: welders need to calculate material usage. That requires using fractions, maybe some elementary algebra. They need to know how to run their machines for what process and what material, and that requires reading charts and graphs.

practical-problems-in-mathematics-for-welders-applied-mathematics-5th-edition-93aba35c2759dbb0298c443bc8660e97Welders need to read blueprints. That requires the ability to convert between 3D and 2D representations. To go between these blueprints and real objects, they sometimes need to calculate areas and volumes. To read dimensions off blueprints, they need good mental arithmetic involving fractions. And they need a basic understanding of Euclidean geometry, including angles.

Then there’s also the math you need to run a business, or to not get screwed over by someone else. How many people can understand the mathematical arrangement of doing piecework? It turns out, not everyone, not by a long shot.

You may say that all of these skills — reading blueprints, planning material use, figuring out rudimentary finances — are tangential to welding itself. Maybe so, but they are required in order to be a welder worth hiring. They won’t help you put down a bead. But, surprise, they already have robots that can put down a bead like nobody’s business. You can only dream of welding as consistently as a robot. If you’re going to be a welder, you need to succeed at what the welding robot doesn’t do. Part of that is dealing with non-repetitive situations. And part of that is all the peripheral aspects of the job.

And yet, there are people who can’t do it. And yes, some of it has to do with not being able to do the math to figure out the material you need, or to read a blueprint*.

There are also specific mental blocks around multiplying fractions, and about using algebra with letters instead of numbers. And calculating things in 2D or 3D. And the people that have problems with this kind of math are going to have trouble being successful welders, automotive technicians, machinists…

What is someone who can’t get a welding job going to do for steady, secure, dignified work? There’s a sort of triumphant Tom Friedman-esque idea that the loss of low-skilled work doesn’t matter, because workers can be retrained into at least slightly-below-average coders, and get work. But you need more math than many people have in order to be a good welder. And you’re saying they’re going to be coders? I really, really don’t think that’s true.

*Interestingly, the way some people are bad at math isn’t the way I expected. Most people I’ve seen are actually pretty good at “mental math” up to a point. But they don’t perform the mental math in a conscious step-based way. Instead, it’s like a black box that spits out an answer. So if it gets past the point where they can intuitively guess the correct procedure, they are totally lost. For example, there are many people who can easily answer “If 2/3 of a number is 6, what is the number?” but can’t say how they got that answer. And that means that they can’t — even with using a calculator — answer “If 5/12 of a number is 40, what is the number?”

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Teaching Thoughts: Teaching is a service

Gonna start talking about what I learned from teaching with the biggest thing about teaching that I think people don’t always consider: it’s a service.

I was actually just planning to link to Freddie de Boer’s essay on the topic, but his site seems to have gone down, and then been resurrected without the blog. I don’t know if it is archived anywhere. So I will have to say it myself: the biggest revelation to me about teaching is that it is not at all a “product”.

Your job as a teacher is not to be the fount of wisdom for the students to drink at. After all, as everyone keeps saying, information is free these days, and the library and the internet are a lot more accessible than college. You are not there to manufacture lessons. Maybe at some very high level of material, it actually is like that. But at the community college level, that’s definitely not the case.

Instead, your job is to figure out how to get the students motivated, learning, doing work, overcoming trouble, getting through specific questions. It’s also your job to figure out where a specific student is having difficulties, and tailor your teaching to that.

And doing all this makes a difference. Or at least, the only difference you can make as a teacher. This is at least one reason why MOOCs have so far failed to fulfil the promise that techno-futurists ascribed to them.

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Simone Weil v. Jarvis Cocker

Attention conservation notice: I take 1000 words to give you the “amazing revelation” that experience can teach you things. Then I bizarrely suggest that you should go be a dilettante hipster farmer. I finish off with a career announcement and an intro to a new post series on the blog.

In 1934, Simone Weil took a year’s sabbatical from her job teaching philosophy to go work in a factory so that she could better understand the plight of the working class. Was this an admirable act of intellectual curiosity, putting your money where your mouth is, making sure that what you are working towards corresponds to what people actually need? Or was it an example of an out-of-touch elite “slumming” in a way that’s ridiculous and borderline offensive? The action certainly fits with Simone Weil’s other behaviour where the consequences for others aren’t super well thought out. Like the time she tried to persuade the Spanish Republicans to send her on a covert spy mission ignoring the fact that, being French, she would have a lot of trouble passing for a Spaniard. Or joining up with a commando unit despite being so bad at marksmanship that her comrades had to waste their time protecting her rather than her doing anything to help them. These actions are object lessons in the idea that good intentions are not enough. And joining the factory sort of also seems like that. It’s doing things that look good but don’t actually do good. Simone Weil was a prominent writer and philosopher — she could clearly do more for workers as a philosopher, than she could working at the Renault factory.

Apart from the missed opportunity, it’s also easy to be against this kind of thing for hypocrisy reasons. Pulp covered this point in their hit song “Common People” where Jarvis Cocker sneers at rich people living like the poor: “still you’ll never get it right / cause when you’re lying in bed at night / watching roaches climb the wall / if you called your dad he could stop it all”. It’s hard to avoid the idea that Weil was “playing at being a worker” and feel kind of insulted on behalf of the people who had to spend their whole lives at the factory.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. While I still think it can be done in a hypocritical and not well-thought-out way, I have come to believe that since lived experience is the best teacher, seeking it out is the morally right thing to do. Far from being worthy of mockery, what Simone Weil did deserves respect and emulation. If you want to advocate on behalf of people working at car plants, as she did, you have to know what matters to people working at car plants, and what car plant workers’ lives are actually like. You can say “believe the people who have the experience“ all you want, but this doesn’t actually cover it. For one, actually working in a car factory is by far the best way to get that second-hand perspective anyway. It’s also true, though, that as an outsider, you can’t tell how important one concern is relative to another. Working in the factory will make you a more perceptive judge. People are going to opine on any number of issues — if you’re not a car factory worker, you have no idea what is part of the reality of how life as a car factory worker is, and what is some external opinion.

It’s not that you’re going to learn everything you thought was right is wrong, but that lived experience can bring up issues you may never have thought of. It also has a way of being convincing in a way other things aren’t. So even as I find myself learning new things and changing my mind less and less due to argument, I still find myself learning new things. And changing my mind overall more and more — because of personal experiences.

But what about the fact that Simone Weil only did it for a year? Isn’t that not nearly enough? Jarvis Cocker says “Everybody hates a tourist / Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh / And the chip stains’ grease will come out in the bath”. Of course, the more all-encompassing and long the experience, the more you learn from it. However, I think this is overhyped. Whatever “the learning curve” means, it’s true that you learn the most right at the beginning.

I worked as a steel tier for less than three weeks. Granted, the main thing I learned on that job is how incredibly shitty some jobs can be. And how easy it is to get tendonitis. As a co-worker on another labour job told me later, “they give you that job when you first join the union so that you don’t complain about any of the other ones”. But that’s not the only thing I learned there. Knowing how to tie rebar is (hopefully) never going to be a skill that is vital for me, but both a realistic picture of what that job is like and talking to other people working there was very valuable to me. It’s been the same at everything else I’ve tried doing. And it’s been especially true of teaching.

This is why my new piece of political advice is: for issues that you care about, if you can manage to, actually go and do it. If you want to be active in food politics, work on a local farm. Yes, you might be a dilettante. Yes, you might be the annoying hipster who doesn’t know how to farm and is a laughingstock. But I guarantee that you will learn more than you would by just reading about the issue and believing what the farmers say. And you’ll be doing the right thing. And when you do read to learn more, you will be more informed about what information is important and trustworthy. Do you want to understand factory work? Be like Simone Weil, and go work in a factory for a year. It will inform what you are saying, and what you learn from then on.

This is one reason why, knowing that I will be teaching math to welding students, I decided that I needed to take a welding class. And I was right. I am never going to be a good welder. But I am already much better at understanding what welding is like, and what skills you need for it. It’s been incredibly worthwhile (not to mention really fun, but that’s a special case that won’t always be true).

I am coming to see learning through experience to be the most valuable thing that I can do to know about the world and to be a more useful person. So it is partially with that in mind that I have decided to leave teaching to try something different. Of course, that wasn’t my motivation. The fact that my new job (technician on a high energy physics project) involves going to CERN is kind of the big draw. But it’s one reason I think I’m doing the right thing.

So for now, my time as a teacher is coming to an end. What did I actually learn? In the next few posts on this blog, I hope to write about some of the things I’ve changed my mind on as a result of working as a teacher. As for “Common People”, I still love the song, but I no longer share its worldview.

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If you prick us…

On Feb 8th ’17, Alexei Navalny, a nobody, with 0% chance of winning, but someone who stated that he will seek to be a candidate in next year’s Russian presidential election, has nevertheless, facing double jeopardy, been found guilty of embezzlement of state funds, in a politically motivated trial, which barring success in appellate court, will prevent him from participation in the upcoming election.

After browsing the state owned “Perviy Kanal” website, I found no mention of this seemingly newsworthy item.

I write this, simply so that there’s evidence of one more person with eyes capable of reading and digits capable of typing who did not fail to notice that this occurred.

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