Monday 15 February 2016

Is Your Professor a Better Grader than Moody’s or Standard & Poor's?

If you have been following the thread of my last posts you will have arrived at the question:  Why did savvy investors from around the world buy billions of dollars of worthless bonds from Wall Street companies in 2008?  The answer is that they absolutely believed the ratings.  If the ratings agencies said that a bond was AAA , they accepted that it was a guaranteed, virtually no-risk investment.  Investors in Germany, Japan, Canada, the USA and all over the globe  willingly or willfully ignored the fact that the ratings agencies—Moody’s and Standard & Poors—were being controlled and manipulated by the very companies they were supposed to be evaluating.

If this situation sounds inappropriate to you, stop and consider for a moment:  who evaluates you when you take a university course?  Yes, you are evaluated by exactly the same person who has a vested interest in demonstrating that his/her course has produced knowledgable, skilled graduates.  On the other hand, every course needs to show distribution of grades, but luckily there are always a few students who conspicuously “don’t give a damn” to whom it is possible to assign lower grades—always useful to take note of who sits in the back row.  Overall, non-permanent lecturers (who do most of the teaching)  are likely at risk of losing their jobs if the grades are low enough to cause protest or produce too many failures.  Among lecturers it is widely assumed that if they give their students low marks, the students will retaliate with low course evaluations.

The difference between the ratings agencies on Wall Street and those who evaluate university students is, I assume, that just about everyone is aware of the situation in universities.  I’ve started asking around (on Quora and Workopolis):  Do employers seriously consider a university graduate’s grades?  I infer from the answers I’ve received that the answer is “no, they don’t.”  The answers ranged from “no, they don’t consider them” to “they shouldn’t, if they know what they are doing.”  So, unlike investors who bought worthless bonds from Wall Street, employers are not being deceived by the ratings systems applied to university graduates.  

What does this fact—the disbelief in marks—mean?  Does it matter that grades don’t matter?

In my world, I mean the world inside my head, they mattered a lot.  Grades and their accompanying justification are supposed to give students the feedback they need to progress, and to make sound educational and career decisions.  When I look back on my own experience as a student, I am shocked by how infrequently I was tested in a thorough and convincing fashion.  Grades were used as punishment in some cases; in others they were gestures of sympathy, at best they were a pat on the back.  I never felt I was being reasonably tested or justly evaluated; nevertheless, I still allowed grades to determine my path in university and in high school for that matter.  A low grade meant that subject would be dropped next year; a high grade determined my next major.  No-one ever gave me clear instructions on what I would have to do in order to get higher grades--and it always seemed unfashionable, humiliating and whiney to ask. Besides, my grades were always high enough to get by.  I never clearly understood how my grades were being determined, what specific criteria were being used to evaluate me, and now that I have had a career as a professor, I'm quite sure my professors didn't know either.

Any experienced professor seeing where this argument is heading will be quick to tell you what I am on the verge of suggesting is just not possible.  The system does not allow professors to evaluate students in the clear and comprehensive fashion I am trying to imagine.  Moreover, it never has.  As a consequence it is typical for professors to separate themselves from the entire business of grading.  Marking is turned over to students; marks are arrived at in some comfortable non-judgemental fashion, or avoided in favour of pass/fail "exams" which no-one ever fails.   Many professors, myself included, feel that their jobs are to inform and encourage students, not judge them.

On the other hand, there is no quality control system for university degrees.  The assumption is that this work is being done by the people who teach, but at the same time these teachers are under constant pressure, from university administrations as much as from students, to give good grades.  There is no up-side to teachers' diligently, conscientiously and rigorously evaluating their students--except perhaps the silent pride which comes from the conviction that you are doing your job. The periodic evaluation of students should be an important  part of the educational process.  Grades are a reflection of the underlying education that students are getting (or not getting). The problem isn't in itself that grades are being inflated (and I don't doubt that examples of unjustly harsh evaluations are numerous--exceptions which prove the rule), but the constant growth of grade inflation has correlated to a corresponding devaluation in the worth of university degrees.

The discussions of the "housing bubble," the "financial bubble" and the possibility of an "education bubble" have gone on for years now.  Grade inflation in and of itself is not a great concern, but the fact that it has reached the point of making grades meaningless is a sign that the "education bubble" may have already burst.

What Does Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Actually Say?

In The Room Where It Happened , John Bolton points out that "This provision [Article 5] is actually less binding than its reputation [....