The Grade Game

Granted, I was never the hottest hot shot in my school (not any school: elementary, junior high, high school, college, law school).  When I got a B (a reward for "good" work) I was generally content.  When I got an A, I managed to work the fact into my next conversation.  I was neither the brightest (but then I don't need to tell you that) nor the most diligent (one of my law school professors, later a state Supreme Court Justice, stopped himself mid-sentence once to announce my tardy arrival).  So, hey, who am I to judge?

I raise this question now because I've been reviewing emails from several of my students at a university to remain unnamed, though you've heard of it.  These emails have a single common theme, to wit: why did I not receive an A?

I do, in fact, give out the occasional A, when it has been earned, but I'm not willy-nilly about it.  In a way, this is complicated by the fact that for the past nearly 17 years I've taught exclusively in graduate schools and law schools (Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, George Washington, Maryland), with the knowledge that in such institutions, a C is roughly equivalent to a D elsewhere and that a second C paves the way for exile.  Thus, simply by dint of having been admitted to the institution, one is assumed to be capable of better than average work. I actually agree with that: I once stood in a Harvard faculty meeting to argue against adopting a "curve" (we euphemistically described it as a "recommended grade distribution"); I was then vice-chairman of a Kennedy School admissions committee and stated that if every student in the class did A-quality work, each should get an A; if we hadn't thought they were capable of it, I said, we should not have admitted them to the school in the first place.

But this is what I now face.  In the semester just past, I did, as always, reward with an A those students who had earned the reward.  There is always the sore-thumb C, some student who simply failed to tune in properly, but for the most part, the grades are in the B range (which, remember, stands for "good" work).  Now, and for several years past, however, any grade other than an A is often met with a challenge.  An A, it seems, has become, in the minds of students, at least, the default position; unless the professor can point to some egregious failing, something so far out of whack as to invite derision, an A is apparently what one expects.

I've been explaining, item by item, class participation, exams, presentations, final papers, the assessments that resulted in the eventual B minus, B, or B plus.  But the game has changed: where once the default was perhaps a C, with better work -- "good" work, in fact -- getting a B, and a truly exceptional performance earning an A, the expectations have been reversed.  Now, students who failed to get an A demand to know why.

Why does this matter?

Because just as the expectations have been reversed, so have the roles of the university, the faculty, and the students.  Where universities once felt it their obligation to instruct (with the assumption that the students who enrolled in their courses were yet insufficiently prepared in the offered subject matter), more emphasis today is placed on the consumer-provider exchange in which the goal of the provider (in this case, the university) is to make the consumer happy.  Happiness may be measured, of course, in knowledge obtained, but it may just as easily be measured in A's accumulated or a two-hour break from rigor.  I am not opposed to students evaluating their teachers (I was fortunate enough to be honored as the outstanding teacher in the Kennedy School, by vote of the students, so evaluations were not a scary thing), but when it is more important (for tenure, or advancement, or recognition) for professors to satisfy the students than for students to satisfy the professors, we have made a fundamental shift in the educational process.

And why does that matter?

It matters for two reasons.  First, because the granting of a grade (or, cumulatively, a degree) confers a certification of the recipient's knowledge and skill.  Employers read transcripts; inflated grades make students feel good, but they deceive.  I once found it necessary to give a failing grade to a graduating student in a course on administrative law.  The pressure to relent and revise was considerable but I understood that to give a passing grade, when undeserved, would be to leave the student's prospective clients with a false belief that he understood the subject which had led them to come to him for help.  This is a weighty responsibility and one that should be taken seriously by teachers, students, and administrators.

But to be honest, it's the second reason that matters more to me.  The form of government by which we in America determine our laws is that of a participatory democracy, "participatory" being the operative word. It is essential for our continued well-being -- our security and our prosperity -- that our citizens be capable of serious thought. The ability to engage in critical thinking is far more important than the memorization of dates or the ability to remember which theorist goes with which theory.  I am, to be sure, extreme on this question: I discourage the use of Powerpoint presentations (which may limit the attention to nuance and connectivity) and discourage, as well, the use of citations and footnotes in student papers because I want to be able to judge their capacity for analysis and thought rather than how well they have managed to recall what somebody else thought.  An extreme and perhaps nutty position? Okay, guilty.  But at some point, in some way, critical thought must be nurtured or the ability of our democracy to sustain itself will be diminished.

This brings me back to the question of grades.  If a teacher has a single responsibility that transcends all others, it is to combine three important elements: (i) to provide the student with knowledge he or she requires and does not yet have; (ii) to provide the student with an accurate assessment of where he or she stands in the continuing pursuit of knowledge and understanding (as well as in developing competence in thought and communication), and, finally, (iii) to accurately convey to the larger community -- those who might place the graduated student in positions of responsibility -- the level of preparedness that new employee will bring to his or her assignments.

I will now return to the necessary, but not necessarily enjoyable, task of congratulating those students whose work earned an A and explaining to those who earned a B that a B is not a failing grade, that a B actually translates, in English, into "good", and that an A is not automatic absent calamity.  I could attempt to make them feel better by pointing out that much of the world's progress has been made by former B students correcting the missteps of former A students, but I'm not going to go there.