Education and entitlement

2009/04/29

This morning, I encountered an article [1] on the Random Musings blog that analyzes a specific problem in our nation’s education system; it is one about which I have mused from time to time, so I figured that I should comment about it. The notion of student expectations regarding the grades they deserve for their work is not a new one; I am certain that each generation of students has bemoaned their apparently undeserved assessments at one time or another. What seems to be lacking here is the understanding that academic results should be based upon merit, and not expectations.

I suspect that this attitude is very closely tied to the ways in which our education system prepares students for challenging situations, or, more specifically, how it fails to do so. Consider the following attitude:

If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point? If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.

and the following:

I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.

Does this sort of effort truly merit an excellent or above-average assessment? After all, an “A” used to denote just that: excellence, while a “B” indicated above average performance. Simply reading the course materials, completing all assignments, and attending all classes is not a mark of excellence; these are the base requirements for successfully completing a course of study, otherwise known as “average.” Completing these requirements merely indicates that one has acquired knowledge (ideally, though I suspect that many students do not retain much of it – more on that in a moment), but this does not imply that one understands the information, or that one can apply said information to situations that are not described in the course materials. This latter point is, in my opinion, far more important than simply acquiring knowledge.

Do not misinterpret my intent, however; the acquisition of new information is a vital skill, but it is only a first step. Without the ability to analyze, interpret, and apply this information to new and unfamiliar situations, an individual is little more than an organic encyclopedia. Again, this ability is not without its uses, but it is also a limited one, and it is not a particularly uncommon ability. Many children have the ability to memorize and recall a multitude of facts and figures, such as sports scores and statistics, fashion trends, entertainment industry histories (e.g. movie stars and their various personalities, work histories, and such), etc. Apart from being able to recall this information on demand, however, such knowledge does not always serve practical purposes. For example, it does little good for a student to know that the U.S. Constitution had seven articles (“chapters”) when originally written, that it was originally written in 1787, that it has 24 amendments, etc., if said student cannot use this information to analyze whether or not a proposed law may violate the restrictions imposed by the Constitution. I may have some knowledge of the basic concepts of quantum physics, but this alone does not mean that I would make a good quantum physicist; I have little to no ability to use such knowledge as an analytical tool in actual practice.

This, more than anything else, indicates a significant failure of our education system, in that it does not prepare students to actually think. Much of this is likely due to the fact that academic progress is increasingly tracked almost exclusively by fact-based tests. This was already a common method when I was in high school, and given the new education initiatives supported by Bush II (and likely to be expounded upon by the current administration), this trend will likely continue unabated. The focus on improving test performance can only serve to reinforce this situation, unless the tests themselves require more than mere regurgitation of knowledge. Even when I was in school, there was already substantial student resistence to so-called “word problems,” i.e. questions that required analysis, along with fact recall. Undoubtedly, such questions are more difficult for students to successfully answer, and more difficult for teachers to properly assess, as they are somewhat more subjective than simple recall.

This leads to a more fundamental (and potentially fatal) flaw in our education system, specifically that not all students are capable of the same levels of analysis and application of knowledge. Of course, such a thought has become anathema in most discussions of our modern education system, but based on my own experiences, I can personally state that such is the case. When I first applied to colleges, I was seeking acceptance into their engineering programs. My high school grades, specifically the math and science ones, were sufficiently satisfactory to justify placement in these programs. I proceeded to fail miserably – I finished my first year of engineering classes with a whopping 1.8 GPA on a 4-point scale. My brother, on the other hand, achieved exceptional marks in engineering and mathematics courses. Granted, one can argue (successfully so) that my brother is simply smarter than I am (he is – take my word for it), but my failure was not one of acquired knowlege; [2] rather, it was a failure of application – I simply could not use the information at my disposal in any meaningful way. [3] Additionally, no amount of extra effort applied to memorizing formulae and facts would have sufficed to yield better results than what I earned; the fundamental problem remains, namely, that I could not apply the information as required. If I had applied additional effort (and trust me, I did try this), does that necessarily mean that that effort, alone, warranted a higher assessment of my results? I think not; knowledge was only one component of the course requirements. Demonstrated ability to apply said knowledge to unfamiliar situations was of far greater importance.

Of course, there is probably a substantial degree of “horizontal” equivalency among students, i.e. most students probably have similar intellectual capabilities, but this does not mean that they will be able to apply said capabilities to the same subjects with the same efficacy as each other. Only a relative few can successfully apply their abilities to any subject (Da Vinci, for example), and there are also likely to be a relative few who lack such ability completely. Average is not necessarily an evil thing; there are still many opportunities for excellence therein, particularly when one considers the wide range of available opportunities and career paths. Treating students as though they all possessed similar abilities is likely to prove counterproductive to our societal interests. Not only does such an attitude fail to properly assess the true abilities of each student, but it also has the potential to encourage lower standards and/or improper assessments to meet the performance expectations that the attitude implies.

Paradoxically, it is difficult to fault the current generation of students for believing that they are entitled to receive high grades; after all, they have been reared by a system whose primary focus is on fact regurgitation and minimal analysis of said facts. They believe that effort expended at memorizing and recalling information should translate into higher “performance” assessments. Fundamentally, they have been indoctrinated with the notion that they receive grades, rather than earning them. Even those who do believe that they earn their grades may not fully understand what the grade itself reflects – does it reward the mere acquisition of knowledge, or something more than that?

Ultimately, our education system does a dis-service to the students it is supposed to educate, and to our society as a whole, if it continues to function based upon a flawed ideological perspective. Human equality is an admirable idea when it is applied to fairly esoteric concepts such as human dignity and legal standing within society; it is far less so when applied to a great many practical situations. Unless the system acknowledges that individuals are not equally skilled, and that individuals with similar skill levels are not equally skilled in the same pursuits, I fear that attitudes such as those indicated in the article will continue to predominate within the student community. We are not all equally skilled, but this is not necessarily a bad thing; society has as much need for “low” skill workers as it does of “high” skill ones. Don’t believe me? Just see how smoothly our society would function if we had no cooks or bricklayers or trash collectors; anecdotally, quantum physicists are not nearly as adept at taking out the trash as they are at smashing atoms together and recording the results. This, of course, does not validate the communist ideal of providing equal economic compensation for all working individuals; higher skill levels do warrant higher levels of compensation. This does not mean that “low” skilled workers are not valuable, themselves. After all, our individual sense of self-worth should not be based on our income level, should it?

Notes:

[1]: New York Times article, 18 February 2009.

[2]: My brother and I are only one year apart in age, and we attended the same high school. While his grades were consistently better than mine, again, my grades were not so bad as to prevent me from attending college-level engineering classes.

[3]: For example, I could understand the fundamental components of calculus (derivatives and integrals), but the most common thought that would go through my mind when faced with the exams was that I had no idea what equations were needed to answer the questions being asked. Of course, you’ll have to take my word for it, but given that I’ve already admitted to nearly failing these classes, I don’t have much of a vested interest in providing misleading reasons for said performance.

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