< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: Outsourcing Grades

Friday, May 27, 2005

Outsourcing Grades

This article was sent to me by Mitya, and I greatly appreciate it. The topic of grades is immensely important; to me, to this country, and to all knowledge loving beings everywhere. In fact I believe we just don't take grades seriously enough anymore. This will sound odd to most educators who live in a hyper-sensitive, grade inflated world. But it isn't odd at all. The competition to "get As" is as much as a downward spiral as shopping at Wal-Mart. In fact, it is worse. Here is what I mean.

The article suggests outsourcing the grading function because its tedious, time-consuming, and ultimately wasteful from a pure teaching point of view. That is, the teacher derives no benefit from grading, and most of the students don't derive much of a benefit either. Rather than waste time on this administrative task, send it to India and let them do it while the teacher can focus time on more important, "value added" tasks.

When did it become okay in America to view education this way? When I grew up, grades were everything, and the teacher did her or his best to make sure your grades improved. If your grades improved, that meant you were improving. That isn't the case anymore. Most colleges and graduate schools today use multiple choice tests and grade curves to determine who is the "best in the pack". Or, as a former colleague once told me: "the goal of these finals is to separate the goats from the sheep."

The problem with that approach, and the problem with the approach argued for in this article, is that the pack just might not be so hot. Just because one student, and one student only, gets an A+ doesn't mean that student deserved it. Just because one student is the worst in the pack, doesn't mean they necessarily deserve the low mark they get either... the pack he's in might be a really good one. I have ample anecdotal evidence to support this, but I don't think its too difficult for one to follow this logic. When standards of excellence are determined ex post, what you get are popularity contests. Excellence slumps towards normalcy; or "tends toward the mean" as the statisticians say.

I have an even more revolutionary idea than outsourcing grades. Why not just get rid of grades altogether? Or at least, get rid of the pack, curved, popularity contests we call grades today? Why not ask every teacher to assure that the student earning an A today would have earned an A yesterday, and that each particular student deserves the grade they are getting? Why not ask teachers to evaluate their students openly, honestly, directly to the student rather than through the medium of grades? You can still have grades for credit purposes, but why not give tailored feedback to students instead of the regurgitated phlegm we call grades today? Think this is revolutionary? It isn't, its how teaching has always occurred until very recently in historical terms, and it is a shame that we don't go back to it. Incidentally, such a program is already in effect at St. John's College (the don rag-note the historical references), perhaps we can study that to see if its really a good alternative?