I don’t think that word means what you think it means


From the Princess Bride–one of the great movies of all time

In the world of higher education, twitter has been abuzz the last few days. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) released its 51st annual “American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016” survey. The survey of over 130,000 college freshman provides “data on incoming college students’ background characteristics, high school experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations for college.” For those of us tasked with understanding how to help students persist toward a degree, the report provides both a valuable snapshot in time and an important way to measure consistency over time.

The report is chock full of great data, but the big story engaging news agencies is the apparent political “polarization” of incoming first year students. Only about 42 percent of students self-identify as middle of the road. According to the report, a higher percentage of female students self-identify as far left and more male students self-identify as far right. Visualize much hand ringing and angst as people envision a giant schism between the genders.

Except maybe not.

At the risk of oversimplification, we probably need to take a deep breath and not hit the panic button just yet. As much as I value the information in the HERI survey, we are reading self-reported survey data gathered from 17-18 year old incoming college students who have grown up in a world where the very terms “liberal” and “conservative” are largely undefined, confused, and have become divisive and synonymous with certain hot button social issues.

Heck, I’m not even sure our two major political parties could adequately define those two terms anymore. Are all Republicans conservative? Are all Democrats liberals? And where in the world does President Trump fall on the political spectrum?

More importantly for the survey data, what exactly does conservative or liberal political views mean to an 19 year old recent high school graduate? If not raising taxes on the wealthy is a conservative issue, the HERI report notes that 73.1 % of female students and 67.7 % of male students think we should raise taxes on that cohort. If dealing with climate change is a liberal issue, 82.4 % of female students and 77.6 % of male students want federal policy to address climate change.

Of course, while both cohorts want the rich to pay more in taxes (damn liberal kids), only 36.7% (female) and 39.5 % (male) want us to raise taxes to reduce the deficit (stingy conservative brats).

Unless you’re wealthy. of course. Then we’ll raise your taxes. But only if it reduces the deficit. (Dang wishy washy teenagers.)

Therein, I think, lies the problem with self-reported data from incoming college students. Understand that I’m not doubting the sincerity or intellectual ability of 17 and 18 year olds. I am, though, casting some doubt about their understanding of complex political terms.

Words like liberal and conservative are far more difficult to define than we might pretend. In my first year composition classes, I used to begin our semester by asking students to identify their place on the political spectrum. As a public regional university in west Texas, a not surprising number of my students self-identified as Republican or conservative. In their short essay, they had to tell me why that was their political affiliation. Part two of the assignment required that students take the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.”

What we found was that defining political ideology is a little more complicated than picking left versus right. Most of my students, in fact, are for smaller government until they want the government to pay for a bigger chunk of their tuition bill. Many of my conservative students were shocked that their liberal, deer hunting classmates want to protect the 2nd Amendment. My liberal students were surprised the conservative students wanted the government to leave homosexuals alone. And just about everyone is ready for legal marijuana. (That might not be very surprising. Stoners!)

The point, I tell my students, isn’t to turn you into a bunch of liberal, pinko communists or far right fascists. Language and words matter. Calling yourself something stakes a claim and creates identity–something that is a little more important than bubbling in a circle on a survey or blindly following your Uncle Frank’s Facebook rants. It takes more than a 140 characters to understand and adopt a political view.

As I read the reactions to the HERI report, I can’t help but think that knowing the political “polarization” of incoming freshman is about as useful as knowing how elementary school students feel about growing political unrest in southeast Asia. It’s conceivable that we need to be sure they actually know what the terms mean before we ask them to place themselves in one camp or the other.

The problem, of course, isn’t that HERI asked the question. Snapshots in time are important and useful but emphasizing how polarized we seem to be only reinforces people’s polarized ideas.

And let’s face it: the last thing we need is to focus on more ways we can’t communicate or agree on things in this world.





The Best Choice Might Be No Choice

Earlier today, I had a grandfather stop by the office on a reconnaissance mission for his grandson. He was here, he said, because his grandson is undecided on a major, isn’t a very goo'Students who major in these subjects have a 7% less chance of moving back in with their parents after graduation.'d student, but he needs to get started with classes this summer. “We told him,” grandpa said, “if we’re spending $100,000 on your college degree, you need to get going.”

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud grandpa’s willingness to be actively involved in his grandson’s college education, but I can’t help but wonder if little junior didn’t wish granddad had a different hobby.

I also want to know who manages his retirement portfolio if he’s got that kind of bank to spend on his grandson.

Grandpa was particularly concerned that junior doesn’t know what he wants to major in when he starts college. Like so many folks who talk about educational indecision, though, he followed his concern by telling me “Not that I knew what I wanted to do at 18.”

Neither do most college freshman, I told him. Anywhere from 20-50% of entering freshman are undecided about a career path. Close to 75% of college students change majors at some point in their college career. You can’t hit a faculty member on most college campuses who didn’t change majors at least twice.

Like grandpa at 18, most students don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. For many students, their decision about that first major is made based on peer pressure, parents’ expectations, social media, or fear of being indecisive. As importantly, high schools can’t expose students to all the possibilities that exist, and heaven help students from low income, disadvantaged schools. We know those limitations inhibit their understanding of where they can go to college and of the possible fields of study.

I don’t blame them for not knowing. Here in Texas, we’ve decided that students should choose a graduation path that forces students to choose one of five Endorsements. As 9th graders. Because we all know what great judgement 15 year olds have. These kids can’t decide how much body spray is appropriate, and we want them to decide between a STEM path or a Public Services path. In the name of efficiency, though, we want to be sure there no children left behind and there are no wasted classes. What happens, inevitably, is that students choose the endorsements that make the most sense based on the world in which they exist. Forget the tyranny of low expectations. We’re facing the an educational fascism in the name of efficiency.

Heaven forbid some student accidentally find out there’s more to heaven and earth than contained in his parent’s or his neighborhood’s philosophy.

Understand that I’m not completely against efficiency, although I think more people need to remember what it’s like to be 15 (or 18). More importantly, we also need to keep in mind that education is a messy process filled with discovery and failure. The goal of education isn’t to see who finishes the fastest.

Anyone with kids (or who’s been around kids) knows that given a chance their interests change over time. We also know that our teenage aspirations don’t always match our abilities. There’s plenty of data out there showing that college students change majors because they realize their abilities don’t match what their parents, friends, or grandparents wanted them to do with their lives. If you can’t pass College Algebra, you aren’t likely to be a doctor no matter what dad wants. By the same token, if you are a math wizard, maybe you should consider Physics, even if you’ve never met anyone with a Physics degree or mom wants you to be an English teacher. Or, as I recommended to grandpa, maybe if the thought of sitting in a classroom four hours a day sounds about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, you might consider some sort of skilled trade. Last time I checked, apprenticeships don’t cost $100,000.

Most importantly, though, I reassured grandpa that he won’t be wasting money if little junior shows up on our doorstep without a clear career path. In fact, there are some interesting data sets out there showing that students who choose a major after their first semester persist at higher rates than those who chose a major before starting college. This is particularly true at universities who treat the first year as an exploratory opportunity. The path to degree, in fact, might be more efficient if we let students take some classes to find out both what they enjoy and what they do well before we demand they pick a career. (After all, not many kids tell you they love the classes they failed.)

Taking this approach, though, would require that we stop pushing students to make decisions about what “path” they want to pursue before they’re ready. Sometimes, after all, no choice is better than any choice.




Efficiently Inefficient

Back in the old days when higher education was inefficient and less expensive, we scheduled classes in late October, students registered in November, and faculty turned in book orders, hopefully, some time before the first day of class. Eager young scholars showed up to class on the first day nervous about the workload and completely unaware what books they might, or might not, need for any given class. Sure, a few eager beavers and over-achievers had already been to the bookstore but they knew not to take the shrink wrap off those shiny new books in case the absent-minded professor changed his mind over the break.

Working in the Registrar’s Office and at the campus bookstore was its own version of hell the first two weeks of class as hordes of students descended on the poor, understaffed workers, and took whatever frustrations they couldn’t express in class out on the poor soul flipping through a course guide or that student assistant working the cash register.

The class can’t be full! I need it to graduate, they demanded.

I’ll have the money tomorrow. Can’t you hold my spot until then, they begged.

What do you mean, they yelled, you don’t have any more books with all the important lines highlighted!

Fortunately, now that universities are efficient but more expensive, we schedule classes in early October, register students about two weeks later, and faculty turn in book orders sometime in between.

Because, of course, now that all these things are automated and more efficient we have to do them sooner because they go faster.

Ostensibly, of course, these efficiencies are supposed to help students make “informed” choices and give them opportunities to  graduate quicker. Universities can better anticipate how many credit hours students will enroll in the next semester, helping them plan for faculty teaching loads and budgets.

Additionally, bookstores can better determine the value of buying back used books and pre-order texts, theoretically lowering prices for students. Such a system would also allow students to order books from Amazon or other off-site stores so they can have the books on day 1 and be ready to learn. They can shop for the best prices.

I feel comfortable reporting that books aren’t less expensive and students aren’t showing up with chapter 1 read on the first day of class.

You might have also noticed that being able to anticipate enrollment hasn’t exactly solved the rising tuition problem or improved graduation rates.

We’re definitely more efficient, though.

In fact, after today (only two or three weeks after the deadline), the students registering for my spring senior level Studies in the American Novel class can pre-order the novels and read them during the last half of this semester.

Yeah, right. Me, too.

While I realize that popular culture imagines college professors who are lazily coasting through the day, here in the real world my colleagues are working 55-70 hours a week teaching the current students they meet 2 or 3 times a week, reading chapters, grading papers, advising students, attending meetings, and finding time for scholarship and research. We are, simply put, focused on the students we have now and not really worried about the ones we might have next semester.

Earlier today, in fact, I needed to spend my morning preparing for next week, reading ahead of my students and wondering how I will keep the D students motivated and the A students interested.

Instead, I was picking novels for a class that doesn’t start until mid-January because for some reason the bookstore needs over 2 months to order books, even though I’ve given them the title, author, publisher, and ISBN number. I’m pretty sure my son could order those books before I finish typing this sentence.

What happens, though, as we become efficiently inefficient is that we are left with less and less time to explore different approaches to teaching our courses. Because I’m ordering books less than halfway through a semester, I can’t know if the books I’m using are worth trying again.

As importantly, I can’t know if the students find the books useful because our course evaluation happens at the end of the semester when I submit my grades.

For the novels course, a class I haven’t taught in a while, I need time to go back through the memory rolodex and ask how 2007 went. What other novels, I might ask, should we read? How, I might wonder, did Craig Thompson’s Blankets work as an example of changing novelistic forms? Would Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (yes, I think it’s more novel than short story collection) work better to close the semester or should I take a chance on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (a novel I plan on reading over the holiday break)? Do I really want to read The Blithedale Romance again? Will requiring Moby Dick open me up to accusations of cruel and unusual punishment?

Good questions all, but ones that are difficult to answer in the midst of grading 52 first year essays, completing the state mandated Sexual Harassment Training we have to complete every two years, and preparing my next lecture on audience analysis and passive voice.

Gosh, it’s a real shame we don’t  have an automated system that would help us be more efficient and give me time to finish this semester before I plan the next one.

Correlation Isn’t Causation But Sometimes It’s Close

The recent report from the SAT folks comes as no surprise to those of us teaching first year courses at American public universities. The quality of student writing has plummeted over the last 15 years. Gone are the days when my class grades resemble anything close to a bell curve. Of 51 essays this semester, 26 earned Ds or Fs. Understand that I’m not some unreasonable jerk when I grade papers. I have a clear set of guidelines and reasonable expectations for first year college student writing based on skill sets students will need to succeed both at the university level and after college. Despite what my current students think, there was a time when I recorded double digit As and Bs in English 1301.

The problem with the essays isn’t necessarily critical thinking skills. Eighteen year old thinking hasn’t changed all that dramatically over the course of time. Much like I was back in the day, 18 year olds are vague, focused on being the hero of their own narrative, and they have a difficult time thinking about the world outside of the limited sphere of their experiences. There might be more to the world than is contained in their philosophies, but damned if most of them are much interested in exploring that planet. Such things are reserved for older, more mature people like professors and parents.

Instead, what has changed dramatically are the number of students who struggle to write complete sentences, follow any logical grammatical structure, or recognize the way words work. Language, as I’ve written before, helps us organize the world. Grammar serves as a shared system allowing us to communicate and, hopefully, understand content and intent. “Rules” can change over the course of time, but that change comes slowly and represents cultural shifts in the way we think and communicate. In essence, things like commas serve a purpose beyond indicating the moment you ran out of breath while reading the sentence. If not, smokers, asthmatics, and distance runners would never understand each other’s writing, and lord knows how the slow-breathing yoga instructor might write.

I realize I sound like a grumpy old fart who is arguing that back in my day, kids where smarter (and stay off my lawn you whippersnapper). We are seeing, though, evidence that this trend isn’t just my imagination.

Terrence Stutz, writing for the Dallas Morning News, tells us “Students across the U.S. saw their scores in math drop slightly. But the long-standing achievement gap between Texas and the nation grew significantly this year.”  In fact, as you dig deeper into the numbers (provided in a chart at the bottom of Stutz’s article) you can see Texas SAT scores consistently below the U.S. average with increasingly precipitous drops in recent years.

The falling SAT scores mirror declining scores on the ACT reported last year. 

I admit that test scores only tell part of the story, but we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore that part of the story. Test scores like the SAT and ACT do provide us with long-term comparisons since the exams remain largely the same over the course of time. Hence, generational shifts in performance indicate trends worth noting.

In many ways, though, what’s notable about the declining test scores isn’t the slow but steady drop in performance over the last 9 years.

Instead, we are afforded an opportunity to review the failure of political philosophy writ large on our educational landscape. Texas, as you see from Stutz’s article, is under performing in relatively dramatic ways. We are, it seems, racing our way to the bottom. Texas consistently ranks nearly last or in the bottom half of almost all educational rankings, including spending per pupil.

We are, it seems, getting what we pay for each and every year.

While our state leaders attribute the declining scores in Texas to an increase in students (in particular low performing students) taking the exams, Stutz shows us that California (yes, Governor Perry, California) is outperforming Texas, even though our test takers have a similar demographic make-up. In other words, when you control for increased test takers and ethnicity, California is out performing our students. I wish our Governor was as eager to compete educationally as he is when he tries to lure new businesses to Texas.

If we can’t take the easy way out and blame minority students, perhaps we can at least recognize the correlation between Republican educational policy and academic achievement.

The current class of students taking the SAT and ACT tests were born in the mid-1990s. Despite a slight rise in math scores a few years ago, test scores have been steadily and consistently trending downward.

George Bush became Governor in 1988. Republicans seized control control of Texas politics with their gerrymandered districts after the 1990 census. In the last 24 years, every major political office in the state has been controlled by a Republican. School funding has been cut per pupil every legislative session. Our small government Republicans have demanded increased “accountability” and emphasized a desire to create “efficiencies.” We’ve been requiring minimum skills testing (TAKS, STARR, etc) at astronomical rates because, in many ways, our state leaders have almost no faith in school teachers to do their jobs, and we have a Texas Board of Education that has grown increasingly politicized and exerted greater and greater control over text book and curricular decisions, spending hours upon hours demanding science classes teach creation theory (a religious belief that by definition depends on faith) instead of teaching actual science.

Can we finally recognize those are failed policies and ideas? We have test scores from a generation of students who were educated under our Republican state leadership (and No Child Left Behind–President Bush’s signature education reform based on his policies as Governor of Texas). The results aren’t pretty.

Education is a messy and difficult process. Teaching requires patience, time, and an ability to recognize standardization reaches the middle. More importantly, when we rush the process, we skip the essential and fundamental skills students need to organize and articulate ideas. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers, loss of autonomy, and the politicization of education under our Republican leaders has left my students unprepared and with false expectations. Just as importantly, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest see returning to the classroom as a viable career choice. In essence, we have less well prepared students taught by increasingly incapable teachers.

I fully understand that correlation isn’t causation; however, correlation does matter.

Our Republican leaders in Texas are more than happy to take credit for unbridled growth in incomes among our wealthiest citizens and for our better than perfect business climate. It’s only fair, I say, they shoulder the blame for the consistent drop in the quality of our students as they move into the university.

Educational achievement is complicated and we can rarely attribute success or failure to one single moment in time, and I don’t pretend that I have the solution to what ails us.

But, I do feel pretty confident I can tell what doesn’t work when I start grading papers each semester.

Inflatable Education

I rambled my way through a discussion of grade inflation in my last post. Spurred by an article in the San Antonio Express News that argued our “consumer-based” culture has turned university classrooms into the proverbial easy A, I spent about 1000 words almost making a point. The issue, I argued, wasn’t necessarily economic so much as a pervasive cultural rhetoric where grades are so de-valued in favor of standardized testing that we might as well hand out A’s and avoid the hassle of upset students.

At least, that’s what I think I wanted to say.

As we hurtle toward another school year and I consider what I want my students to learn this semester, I necessarily have to think about how I will measure their success (or failure) by December. Grading, for better or worse, is always on my mind and I want to beat this dead horse one more time.

The data shows that grade inflation exists at the university level, although it is far worse at elite, private schools with high admission standards. Universities with lower admission standards and community colleges tend to show a slower grade creep, although we are seeing some inflation. My guess, and I haven’t delved into the data, is that we see grade inflation at the lower end of the scale at these schools. In other words, even in my own classes, I zealously guard the A, but I’ve probably loosened the reigns on the B and C some.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m an outlier, and my guess is we will start to see grade inflation increase (get bigger? blow up?) at public universities in the coming years with an increasingly high number of students receiving higher and higher GPAs. In many ways, the cultural trends I mentioned before will help fuel this grade inflation, but there are some other driving forces.

1. High school expectations will continue to make life difficult for college professors. Accountability and assessment have forced public school teachers to create rubrics, learning outcomes, and, in many ways, to oversimplify the skills and thinking we expect from students. I maintain that accreditation is the greatest threat to academic freedom we will see at any educational level, but the drive to create transparent grading expectations for students over-simplifies our ability to measure what students learn. My students arrive with a pre-conceived notion that an effective essay (a 3 or 4 on a state test) needs to include items that fit on a table/rubric. We’ve turned learning into a checklist of skills that discounts intangible, difficult to measure thinking and development. Common core goals, competency measures, and standardized learning treat intelligence as if it’s simply a dot on the data sheet. In much the same way that these efficiency measures rob teachers of opportunities to create and develop ideas, they encourage our students to see learning as something devoid of creativity and, in many ways, humanity. We might all have individual talents in this world, but, we seem to tell students, you better make sure your talents align with what everyone else can do.

2. Business and political leaders continue to push for college readiness for all high school students. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen an increasing number of students who, for all intents and purposes, see college as an extension of high school. College, what we once referred to as higher education, is a right, something that they think should be publicly funded and with the academic support that will ensure they both graduate and get a job in four years. Businesses that require a college degree for jobs that really don’t need such a degree or who demand a BA or BS for promotions drive this idea. Our growing cultural disdain for manual labor and skills-based “dirty” jobs doesn’t help. Too many high schools have eliminated Industrial Arts and Trade Programs in favor of Student Leadership and other such nonsense classes such that we not only push kids toward college, we create a culture of shame for those who don’t really want to spend four more years reading history books. Simply put, business leaders should begin creating paid internships and training programs instead of relying on colleges to help raise the next generation of workers.

3. I’ve written before about the trophy culture. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind giving every kid a ribbon if we also give those who perform at a higher level the biggest ribbon. But, there is no denying that our emphasis on rewards has re-defined excellence in American culture. Many of my students see a C as a failing grade. You can scale up from there. Essentially, failure is not an option or, in some respects, even a real concept for many students. They have never not known success in school. If they failed an exam or an essay, they had extra credit, revision, or a make up opportunity. Failure isn’t a challenge to improve; it’s a commentary, for many of them, on failed instruction or expectations.

4. Every time a college student fails, a faculty member gets raked over the coals by a politician. College completion rates have remained steady over the years but we are seeing more and more states tie funding to graduation and retention rates. The net result, of course, is that universities will become so focused on graduation rates and learning outcomes they will begin to deny access and opportunity to larger and larger segments of the population. Worse yet, the political discourse rarely holds students accountable for failure and they create a monetary reason to lower standards and increase pass rates.

Certainly, I’ve oversimplified the issue and I’m guilty of a reductive logic that might earn my students a C, but I do think that when we couple the four things above with a pervasive political hostility toward higher education, we create a generation of students who see college as a right and passing grades as something they deserve.

And, at the end of the semester, I’m not sure they will get what they deserve, but I do think they will start to get what they want more often than not.

Give Everyone an “A” and No One Gets Hurt

My second year of teaching as a graduate student, I had a student march to the front of the room after I returned their first essay of the semester. “You can’t,” he said with a barely masked measure of contempt in his voice, “give me this grade.” He held the essay toward my chest and lightly shook the paper. “I’ve never made a C in my life. My high school English teacher read this before I turned it in and she thought it was as good as anything I’ve written before.”

At the time, I was still full of idealistic good will. I offered to reconsider the grade. Perhaps, I told him, I read your essay late at night and missed some of the finer nuances of your style. I imagined that I was defusing the situation and also reinforcing the idea that the class was a place to share ideas, reconsider our initial thoughts, and recognize rhetoric was, in fact, a potential area of confusion and mis-communication.

Thank god I outgrew such naivete. Twenty-something years later, my first comment when a student accuses me of giving him a grade is to talk about the difference between earning grades and receiving them.

I did not, all those years ago, change the student’s grade. After re-reading the paper, I quickly realized that any areas of confusion and mis-communication were a direct result of the mish-mash of words and ideas he typed on the page. I also had strong doubts about either his high school English teacher’s competence or his honesty regarding her response to his essay.

The student complained to my supervisor, his mother called my office and the department chair, and, all in all, I spent more time on that one paper than I spent grading every other essay that semester. Combined.

The student, by the way, dropped my class.

Either way, I was, in many ways, fortunate when I started teaching. Our supervising professor and the director of first year writing classes was a man who steadfastly refused to let us inflate grades. Certainly, he would tell us, it’s possible 50% of your students are writing A essays, but it’s also possible 50% of you will all get rich as English professors. Learn the difference between possible and probable quickly, he said.

He held us to a fair standard and insisted that we do the same for our students. We must, he would tell us, maintain expectations of excellence and insist those earning a college degree meet those expectations. If not, we should sell diplomas in the back of magazines or on the street corner like counterfeit watches.

Despite his best efforts, though, grade inflation is “rampant” in America’s educational system according to Catherine Rampell (“Grade Inflation Rampant”). Rampell echoes data and information from Stuart Rojstaczer over at Grade Inflation.com, a scholar who notes that grade inflation is pervasive at private schools with high admission standards but not public universities with lower admissions standards.

As usual, such a distinction is important and begs us to ask Rampell if grade inflation is rampant at all universities or just the Ivy League schools, schools that only make up .4% of the undergraduate population in America but, it seems, 90% of the news related to higher education.

But enough about the chip on my shoulder when critics of higher education assume what goes on at Harvard goes on at Angelo State.

Either way, Rampell concludes, agreeing with Rojstaczer, that our “consumer-based culture” has helped fuel these rising grades. Essentially, as tuition has risen, students expect more bang for their buck and, in their minds, they are paying for high grades. Learning is secondary to the endeavor, and grades, Rampell says, have become currency in higher ed.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t dispute the data, and fully recognize that grades are inflated even at public universities with lower admission standards. I feel certain that average GPAs, especially in certain disciplines, are higher today than 25 (or 50) years ago, but I’m not necessarily buying the conclusion that our consumer-based culture is driving this increase. For the most part, student’s relative, real-time costs are stable because financial aid and student loans are also increasing. In other words, while the gross cost of tuition is up, the net cost remains the same.

To be fair to Rojstaczer and Rampart, both do recognize that the issue is complex, but like most criticisms of higher ed, neither includes the political and business climates that also impact students’ relationships with higher education.

In particular, we have seen a consistent barrage of criticism and a belittling of educators and teachers over the last 25 years. Our politicians decry the state of public education, throw money at charter schools, meddle in teacher training programs, and under-fund public schools. More important, the partisan disaster that is Washington has leaked onto our school boards and State Education Agencies such that we elect members to the State Board of Education based on their political affiliation and stance on abortion not their understanding of pedagogy or learning.

Students spend twelve years in schools where teachers feel increasingly excluded from the decision making process. Worse yet, accreditation and accountability requirements have created common course and discipline-wide teaching requirements that turn teachers into automatons parroting common-core goals and lessons. Teachers have simply become middle managers who exist to help students move from one standardized test to the next. Grades, those tools teachers use to measure student performance, matter less and less at the pre-college level because they have become meaningless.

In other words, our desire for efficiency and accountability has robbed teachers of spontaneity, creativity, and power.

Students, however, enter colleges empowered, pushed to become active learners, and, quite frankly, comfortable in their own intellectual superiority. They live in a world where we feel compelled to test them every year and trust the scantron instead of the teacher’s grade book. You don’t have to a valedictorian to realize where society places its values and upon whom our trust rests. If, a student might ask, I’m passing my standardized test, who are you to give me a low grade?

After all, my student from 20 years ago might say, “You can’t give me a C on this paper. I’ve never made below a 4 on my state mandated writing sample and my Facebook friends read the paper. They thought it was the best thing I had ever written.”

This time, though, I might just give him the “A” and grade the other essays.

Cheaters Never Win, but They Do Go To Harvard

The big news coming out of Harvard this week is that their incoming group of first year students is more interested in cheating than having sex. What’s the point of cheating on homework if you don’t use the extra free-time doing something fun? Youth is wasted on the young.

Those of us who have spent time in higher ed are in no way surprised that our current generation of students plays fast and loose with their classroom responsibilities. We’ve known for years that more and more students arrive in our hallowed halls willing to cheat.

We might, in our older and grumpier moments, simply blame technology. The influx of computers and the internet has certainly made cutting and pasting much easier. Students have access to vast amounts of information. Chances are there isn’t an algebra problem known to man (and woman) that google hasn’t already considered.

While some critics of higher ed are more than willing to point their judgmental fingers at colleges and professors, arguing that universities are prone to fibbing to get higher rankings and our students are simply modeling our behavior, the Harvard survey shows the students are arriving on campus already willing to cheat.

But it’s also worth offering up a slight defense of our incoming class of ne’er do wells. We should acknowledge that cheaters (and their pants) have been around as long as liars (and their burning pants). In other words, the 21st century doesn’t hold a monopoly on unethical behavior.

Certainly, the data shows that cheating in universities today is far worse than it was in the 1940s.  Over the last 60 years or so, the number of self-reported acts of dishonesty have increased.  Of course, comparing the campus climate in 2013 to the 1940s is about as useful as comparing driving habits from the same time periods. I’m going to go out on a limb and claim the goals, purpose, and pressures at the pre-World War II, pre-Korea, pre-Vietnam university were a tad bit different than they might be today.

I definitely don’t want to excuse dishonesty, but I do want us (as educators, parents, and citizens) to recognize that as the social pressure to “get an education” increases, we see a corresponding willingness to cheat. We should also note that the pressure to succeed at the university is brought to bear not just by universities and parents. Employers are increasingly requiring college degrees for positions that, quite frankly, not need college degrees.

Why, we might, ask do students cheat? Because the cost of failure has become so high. Scores on standardized tests, too often, have become gateways to a better (or worse) world. Simply put, culturally we have turned education into a task one must complete that may or may not be useful. The degree has become more important than the journey itself. We have equated not completing college to failure, even though the majority of Americans don’t have college degrees and they are quite often successful.

When I first started teaching English Composition, our first essay assignment was always about the purpose of higher education. Is our goal, I asked, to provide training and skills or are we here to engage in the epistemological journey of self-discovery? Increasingly, my students resent classes that don’t “apply” to their major, but who can blame them. We bombard them with learning objectives and focus on assessments and accountability. We have reduced the number of hours required to get a degree from 130 to 120 and we focus on pathways to completion and competency-based education. They are, in fact, modeling our cultural values regarding education.

Yet, we also know that thinking critically isn’t measured by filling in the blanks. Classical education concerns itself with hows and whys. Answers are often fluid. Truth, meaning, and even language are fields of play where complexity reigns. Not knowing is an important part of understanding.

But none of those things are practical. Or fast. Or measurable. Or multiple choice.

And too often, culturally, not important. Instead, we spend our money and our time on standardized tests that pretend to measure a student’s intellectual ability. We tie that score, the bubbles filled in correctly, to Ivory Tower access and we reward students who master the practical. All you have to do is eliminate 75% of the choices and your future awaits.

I don’t intend to hold students blameless. My own classes include strict academic honesty policies, but I’ve also come to realize I must spend time teaching academic integrity and reminding students that learning at an institution of higher learning involves more than simply demonstrating a specific skill. We can, and must, teach both the hows and the whys, but we must also remind our students the why (or the why not) is the more important of the two.

But it’s an uphill battle. After all, those kids who cheated did get into Harvard.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)