OPERANT CONDITIONING

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2016 by Ed

Salon is running a particularly poorly thought-out piece, even by Salon standards, about the inability of college students to use the English language to express themselves in writing. I'll let the author off the hook for the stupid title ("Death to High School English") and the tagline, as an editor probably chose those. But the argument overlooks such an obvious explanation in favor of a more complicated one that it's difficult to take whoever she is seriously. When the tagline asks, "My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?" We could do that, I guess. Or we could rethink how we grade them in high school.

There is a tendency, even among educators, when outcomes are not as they should be to assume that teachers as individuals or the educational system writ large must be to blame. In this case we're hypothetically dismantling all K-12 English education and starting over from scratch with some sort of newer, better method. What this overlooks is the reality that most students in college – the same ones the author rightly points out are terrible at writing – have no idea that they're terrible at writing. They think they are quite good at it, in fact. They do not believe this because of simple arrogance or Those Darn Millennials or any other popular explanation. They believe they are good writers because they have been getting good grades on written assignments and in English throughout their educational careers.

Grade inflation and the reasons for it are too much of a Pandora's Box to open here, but I'll argue to my grave that students are rational even if not "smart" per se. They are very good at figuring out, for example, the least possible amount of work they can do while still getting the grade outcome they want. I have nothing but respect for K-12 teachers, and they face a problem that I have the luxury of ignoring: parents. Parents, students, government regulators, administrators, and state legislators all put constant pressure on teachers (who are told they are overpaid and underworked to boot) to deliver results. Schools that serve wealthier areas have parents who flat-out demand that their child graduate with a 3.9 GPA or there will be hell to pay, while schools serving poorer areas have an incentive to inflate grades to make it look like their students, many of whom are in terrible situations outside of school, are better than they really are. The dynamics are different but the end result is the same: students reach college having received many A and B grades throughout their lives for really mediocre (or worse) work.

I worked with a guy a long time ago who was famous for giving everyone A's. He often complained to me in private how frustrating his classes were – the students didn't read, they didn't participate, they rarely bothered showing up, etc. – yet never made the connection to the fact that they all rationally decided that there is no point in trying if they're getting an A no matter what. In competitive, academically strong high schools students very quickly figure out that the grades tend to distribute in a narrow range from a high of A+ to a low of maybe C+. A and B are perfectly good grades in the minds of almost any student, so when they get to college having gotten nothing but A or B in English and composition classes for their whole lives, why would they even suspect that they might be bad at writing?

In the reality in which K-12 teachers are actually underpaid and overworked, not the opposite that is so often claimed, the only real incentive they have to offer is the grade. If a student doesn't care if he or she fails or gets a D, then the teacher cannot do much to influence that person. If, on the other hand, we create a system in which giving a student a grade lower than B creates such a headache and so much hassle for the teacher that it's easier simply to give everyone A's and B's, then the teacher's hands are equally tied. This doesn't stop at the K-12 level; I wrote just last week about the pressure to do what is easier and less of a hassle, which makes me part of the problem. Students (and parents) understand this and exploit it. Some students learn that if they complain to enough administrators – which creates a headache for the teacher even when the complaints are groundless and the administrators are supportive – they can create incentives in exactly the same way teachers do. We tell students "Do X amount of work and I'll give you a B", and in return now students tell us in so many words, "Just give me a B and I won't cause any trouble."

Again, that's only one angle on the problem of grade inflation, and it's too complex an issue to untangle in a small space. The most obvious issue with English education, though, is not necessarily one of method of instruction, material, or teacher performance. It is that we have created this system of incentives that results in the vast majority of high school students who are likely to go on to college getting high grades for work that is often deeply flawed. We can tell them "Do better!" until we're blue in the face, but if they're walking out of the class with B or A grades they have every reason to believe that whatever level of performance and effort they're at is just fine.