A Different Classroom Analogy

I have seen on my Facebook feed an analogy in which a professor  “destroys” an argument by challenging his students to “give their As” to a student who spends all his/her time in drunken revelry, rather than working towards a grade. Of course all these horrible students are immediately swayed by the professor’s argument and likely become conservative economists who staunchly defend trickle-down economics.

The professor did not destroy my beliefs. Ultimately he did not alter my thinking. He did give me pause. I set forth the following without any expectation I might “destroy” someone’s thought processes or beliefs, or even that it might change a mind. I merely hope to give the reader pause.

The author of the referenced analogy begins with the mythical “welfare queen.” He sets us up by pointing to a lazy, unmotivated student who wastes his/her gifts and talents, expecting a free handout. When we begin with this perception of a welfare recipient, we are primed to deny help.  But perceptions are everything and a more realistic look at college grades helps.

First, let’s understand and agree that grades in a college classroom are based on an accumulation of points. Let us suppose that in this classroom one might accumulate 1000 points through papers, tests, quizzes, labs and such. Therefore, to get an A, one might have to accumulate 930 points. For a B it might be 870 points, etc.

Let’s assume too that the student in question is not a drunken partier, but rather a widowed mother of four, who did the “right” thing and stayed home with her kids until their father was killed, and before the insurance runs out she is in college to develop the skills she needs to take care of her kids. She now works two jobs to pay for household expenses and daycare, and attends classes part time. She rides the bus to save money on the ownership of a car, and daycare is in the neighborhood and relatively inexpensive, if not high quality.

Needless to say, she is exhausted, but she does what she can to accumulate the points she needs to do well in the class, but she just can’t keep up. The professor now suggests that the students do not simply give her their grades (because that doesn’t make any sense). He takes five points from each of them. In a lecture hall of 50 people that adds up to 250 points. She now has 750 points or more, and the other kids, who gave up a mere five points each are not affected at all.

That, however, is a pretty regressive system. Some people in the classroom have barely enough points for a C as it is, while others have over 990 points. So, the professor does this instead. He takes 20 points from those with over 950 points, 10 points from those with over 880 points and fewer still from those in the C range. Those with As still have As, but fewer points. Since the only thing that matters when they graduate is the grade, not the points, no one is worse off and those who need the most help are better off.

There will be students who won’t care. They earned those points. They aren’t giving them away, even if they still maintain their A. Other people can just suck it up. They just aren’t working hard enough.  Of course these might be the same kids who would keep all their points in a “legacy” system.

Let’s suppose the college operates on a legacy system. A kid goes to the same college his parents attended. His parents got straight As and accumulated a lot of points.  When the kid starts college, he inherits all his parents’ points. He’s got As before he starts. When he finishes the class he’s got 1850 points. But he still doesn’t want to donate any points to the working mom who is struggling to make ends meet, even though he did nothing to earn 950 of those points except be born to the right parents!

And let’s put this on a curve and make it competitive, so the kid with 1850 points drives the curve way up.  Those at the bottom have to earn more points just to pass, even though enough points to pass aren’t available. Now we’re having some fun!!!

Instead, what if the professor took the 900 points the kid inherited (read “did not earn”) and divided some of it up among those who struggle to make grades?! The curve is no longer stretched beyond the means of those at the bottom, and those at the top lose nothing they can’t afford to lose! The top grade earners keep their grades and merely give up a few points, some they didn’t even earn (something they don’t mind denying to those at the bottom because they didn’t “earn” it). Those at the bottom struggling to keep up get a little boost, and a sense of relief… and hope, I’d wager.

I understand that many will feel that grades should reflect learning, so this doesn’t make sense. That’s fine. In that case it makes no less sense than the original analogy. But some caveats; first, I don’t believe that grades actually reflect learning as much as a need to quantify something. Nobody asks what you learned in school. They just demand transcripts so they can see your grades. Secondly, I don’t believe the work one does in life is necessarily reflected in the wealth one has either.  Otherwise there would be a lot of wealthy janitors, housekeepers, coal miners, factory workers, garbage collectors, clerks, nurses and teachers.


About bjbundy2014

"And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy." -Munro Leaf in Ferdinand the Bull
This entry was posted in Economics, Education, Philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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