OPERANT CONDITIONING

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.

Be Sociable, Share!

54 Responses to “OPERANT CONDITIONING”

  1. canuckistani Says:

    Yes, this is exactly what I have seen as well – students in my university classes have no idea how bad their writing actually is. They are shellshocked by their first set of sub-80 grades on papers and exams. My colleagues with high school aged children and my more capable students confirm over and over that getting 80 or higher in high school requires a pulse and some persistence. They are often completely unprepared for whatever minor rigors we throw at them in university, largely because high school has taught them nothing at all, and challenged them almost never.

  2. J. Dryden Says:

    I'll grant you that my students are not great writers, but I question–skeptically, not stridently–whether their inability to do so represents an overall decline in student writing.

    Sure, I never wrote like this, and neither did any of my friends. But then, I went to a selective high school, and even there, I was one of the ones who cared about my writing (not so much my other classes) and thus was far more likely to work on it. And then I went to a competitive university, and even there, I remained devoted to my writing, and hung around with similarly motivated people. I lived, in other words, in a bubble of academic performance.

    So when I got to graduate school–again, the mere fact that I'm the sort of person who went to graduate school is an indicator–and taught my first class, I was stunned at the ignorance of my students. And it is of course easy to look back over my life and think to myself "well, in MY day, etc."

    But I'm not so sure that "my day" was any better. I mean, even given my rarefied environments, I went to school with a majority of students who self-evidently did not give a shit about their writing–and I strongly suspect that if I'd been grading their papers, I'd've been giving out the same low, rasping "Jesus" that I do now when my own students hand in their work.

    The notion that we were better educated back in the day–in grammar, in spelling, in punctuation–strikes me as an easy fallacy for the kind of assholes who write columns for Salon (seriously, fuck those outrage-bait spewing hacks) to make.

    Maybe the grades are inflated. But parents have always been parents (i.e. the people LEAST trustworthy when it comes to evaluating their children and raising them accordingly), and students have always been students (i.e. like most humans, an aggregate of self-interest and mediocrity), and teachers have always been teachers (i.e. overworked and underpaid and prone to burnout and self-importance)–I think this situation has always sucked, only now the people who write for the internet (seriously, fuck Salon) are having it happen to them, and thus believe that this is the first time this has happened to anybody, and the sky is falling, and won't someone please take them seriously?

    "Today's kids are ignorant and entitled!" – Something said by every generation ever.

    But yeah, I would agree that we need for the letter grades to be reaffirmed as meaning what they officially designate–"C" being what you give when someone has performed correctly and adequately. Otherwise, let's just readjust the meaning of the grades–we shouldn't have to lie when we give a mediocre work a "B".

  3. wetcasements Says:

    Writing is one of the most difficult skills to teach. In a perfect world, your English class size is never larger than 15 and your high school teachers can devote hours upon hours to giving you the individual help (in the form of multiple revision sessions) you need to think and write critically (those two things are inseparable, natch).

    But we don't live in that world and never will. I have no doubt a high school teacher struggling with discipline issues and overwork is probably happy — grateful! — if she can get a student to produce a decent paragraph response to a single question.

    I do think the dominant paradigm of the five paragraph response essay might need to be looked at. Lord knows I taught my share of freshman comp classes where this is the norm, but out in the "real world" of business writing, technical writing, grant proposals, etc., we might be doing a disservice to students by remaining locked into something they won't need unless they're going into graduate school for the humanities (which is more often than not a terrible idea, economically speaking!).

    So, a lot of good questions here but I definitely don't have the answers.

  4. carrstone Says:

    Far be it for me to wax critical, but might the problem not be that teachers think they 'award' marks rather than that students 'earn' them?

    If the latter, a teacher's marking guide would be a class handout and part of a teaching process in which the student would know where he went wrong rather than just that he went wrong.

    But that, in turn, requires that teachers prepare such a guide and that it be based on the targets set in an annual plan to be agreed with the head of department or principal.

    That would be wonderful – performance measured against agreed targets; everybody, teachers and students alike, would know why they're assessed at the level they are.

  5. Jestbill Says:

    There are foreign schools that produce students who are head and shoulders above US students.
    How do they grade? DO they grade? Maybe US teachers are trying to be referees in a game they really don't understand.

    After many years of self-delusion, I think I can report my observation that most people do the best they can under their circumstances. (Those are not your circumstances and are not in some ideal context.)

    Students manage to learn enough to get to their next level and they study the subjects they believe are right for them.
    Of course some individuals are wrong–they're human–but life goes on and the fate of nations remains unaffected by someone's C- on a paper.

  6. NickT Says:

    The brute fact is that a deeply corrupt educational system suits everyone perfectly well except the handful of people who believe that education can be something more than a series of rubber stamps along the way into moderately crappy jobs.

  7. Nunya Says:

    I'll offer up a counter-proposal, albeit from the last century about a teacher that, to this day, I would absolutely love to punch in the mouth.

    I was attending a far less than stellar Los Angeles Public High School. I had qualified as a freshman for an Honors English course placement.

    I was excited to see a 23 year old teacher. He seemed eminently approachable. His first statement of the year was " I give one A, one B, One C, and one D. I will fail the rest of you because if you're not the best, you deserve to fail."

    I had never had a grade of less than a B and this was the early 80s.

    Fast forward 3 months and my parents received a notice that I was failing the class, along with the 42 kids of 46 that had not struck this prick's fancy.

    This was a much different era. Despite my complaints, this became all my fault immediately. My parents refused to act on my behalf despite reading all of my papers. This leprous asshole who, in his youthful arrogance, decided to fuck 90%+ of his class simply based on his own ego paid absolutely no price for his actions.

    Of course, a failing grade in an Honors class precluded your acceptance to another one forever. This arrogant wanker's comments cast me and 42 others in my freshman class to regular English classes where we discovered just how little was required to get a very high grade.

    I had to explain this sole grade below a B (in AP Physics) to six admission officers. I have no doubt that this one asshole denied me opportunities aplenty.

    Mr. Terrell, if you're reading this, please send me your address. I will allow you to choose pistols or swords. Nope, not kidding.

  8. April Says:

    Re. foreign schools…I'm the principal of an AP center in a school in China. I've been in China for five years now, at numerous schools, and I can tell you this – absolutely nobody in English-speaking schools is giving Chinese students the grades they deserve in any course that isn't either math or physics (but I repeat myself because physics IS math). Why is this, you ask? Because Chinese parents expect the schools to get their little darling into a top ten American uni no matter what, and for that to happen the little darling has to get nearly all A's. Of course even with these…ahem…adjusted GPA's the majority of Chinese students do NOT get into the Ivy's, but they all get in somewhere, many to really good unis.

    Here's what I would like to know…what is the failure rate of all these totally unequipped students? Nobody knows because no one keeps track (for obvious reasons). But as long as the money keeps flowing – from the parents to the schools and agents (parents pay an agent at least 17,000 DOLLARS to do the admission stuff), from the parents to the colleges – nothing is going to change. And if (when) the kid fails, well, there's a good iron ricebowl job (ie, government) waiting for them back home, and bragging rights by the parents that their little darling was accepted by UC Berkley.

    And in the meantime all of us foreign teachers make really good bank.

  9. Nora Carrington Says:

    I think the variable that has changed the most is parents. Teachers are still overworked, HS and college students are still self-obsessed and haphazardly motivated in the main, but parents are not the parents I had or that my peers had. My mother was a lioness in the face of a vaguely pervy Vice Principal who yanked me out of class on the last day of school because he didn't like what I was wearing (this was in the late 60s), but when it came to academics she would never have intervened on my behalf. I got out of teaching in the late 90s, and I was beginning to see the "customer is always right" attitude take over college administrations and I had parents contact me about my students' grades a couple of times. don't know why parents are different now, but I do know a whole lot of them are.

  10. Katydid Says:

    I'm sure you guys have all seen the forwarded emails about "what it took to graduate the 8th grade in the 1800s" with the weird, difficult questions. I always wondered just how many people actually graduated back then. J. Dryden, that's an excellent point you make about the academic bubble. When everyone you know is competently literate, you tend to forget just what a huge swath of the population…isn't. Back in the 1980s it was easy to overlook. Today, just read any Yahoo or Youtube comment section and you realize just how many people are completely oblivious to the subtleties of "your" vs. "you're" and "should of" vs. "should have". That doesn't even touch on the great apostrophe ignorance, or that "countries" and "country's" are not just alternate spellings to be used at whim.

  11. buckyblue Says:

    Nunya: yeah, that scenario doesn't exist these days. What Mr. Terrel would have to go through to carry out his idiotic scheme would not be worth it, to Mr. Terrel. I'm required to call each of my parents that have Ds or Fs at progress report time and at quarter and semester, and inform them that their little darling is in danger of failing the class. That's four times a semester, for each kid. I can't leave messages either, because we can't be sure that the parents would actually get the message, which they wouldn't, but have to keep calling. It quickly becomes not worth it. Ed's right on this, the kids, and teachers, realize who the customer really is and decide, rationally I believe, that they will put in the minimal amount of work necessary. For my phone calls my grading system has taken care of my issue. You just have to earn 25% or more of the points and you won't earn a D or below. Twenty-five percent gets you a C/D. And since we do grade on something that Carrstone describes, which also means we can't grade behavior, we have to allow students to turn in work late. Which means that almost no one turns in anything on time. And since Fucking Scott Walker took over net $1,000 out of my paycheck each month, with no way of re-cooping it, I say fuck-it. You created this situation, I'm not going to kill myself for what may be dubious results.

  12. Jimcat Says:

    April: $17K a pop to submit college applications for foreign students? How do I hop on that gravy train?

  13. anotherbozo Says:

    I think I shared a story once before about my disciplinarian of a high school teacher and his punctuation rules that had to be memorized (and they stay in the memory forever: "Rule 1W: Words like hence, thus, nevertheless, moreover, however, indeed, yet, still, and so are not conjunctions. They are called formal conjunctive adverbs. Whenever they introduce…" etc.). Years later I had college student who was a product of a Chicago ghetto and distributed commas like glitter; so I sent for a copy of the punctuation rules from my old teacher, still at work. The result was an overnight change in the student's writing. She just had never been told about punctuation in any organized way. But she had a great attitude.
    Now illiteracy is so rampant that it is leaching into our mass media. You can read "it's" for the possessive form on billboards and all manner of confused usages and spellings on TV crawls and graphics.
    Grade inflation: so happy I got out of teaching 25 years ago. The last college where I taught was so expensive the kids used that fact for blackmail: "please pass me because my parents can't afford to pay for an extra semester here."

  14. Hazy Davy Says:

    To be honest, the shocking realization for me was how many of my son's middle school *teachers* appear unable to write a high-school level essay.

    The cause is the same, though.

    We go through the motions of measurement much more rabidly, but with far less precision.

  15. Hazy Davy Says:

    But to J. Dryden's point…we've been touring private schools, lately. The most revealing metric, for us, about the caliber of the school?

    How *ambitious* to the kids appear?

    In some schools, the kids produce.
    In some schools, they don't.
    But the valuable attribute, to my mind, is where the social norms confirm ambition.

  16. anotherbozo Says:

    @Nunya: why the lot of you didn't exit Terrell's first class and head straight to the Principal's office with this announcement of his grading policy amazes me.

    Since he announced it so freely, why it wasn't already enough to get him fired dumbfounds me.

    Why you stayed in his class at all, with those odds facing you, mystifies me.

  17. April Says:

    @Jimcat. Come to China. Get a job as a teacher somewhere. Get to know a couple of students. Do their applications for a minimal fee and get them into a top 50 uni. Get referrals for the next year. Make a reputation at the unis that you are sending decent students. (Those first few are really important.) Quit your teaching job and raise your fee. Rinse and repeat until, like a couple of people I know, you have 10 students a year you usher through the admissions process and bring home 1,000,000 RMB.

    (Oh, by the way, doing agent work as a teacher is strictly forbidden, so do this stealthily. And after you quit your teaching job you'll have to create a business or something to keep your visa.)

    Oh, and learn Chinese or else marry a Chinese girl. You have to be able to talk to the parents.

    Piece of cake, no?

    Piece of cake, right?

  18. April Says:

    (Need an edit function. Sigh.)

  19. Misterben Says:

    I aced my way through high school and thought of myself as an excellent writer. When my college professors were critical of my writing, I was stunned: no one had ever called me "pompous" or my writing "gibberish" before!

    But it was pompous gibberish, and I'm grateful to my college profs for helping me work through that. I also came to understand that my high school teachers had graded me well because they were grading me on a high school scale: I could construct sentences; my grammar was solid; my vocabulary was good. But college had a different scale.

    I understand that things are different today, and I know I could never keep a teaching job in the present system. Fired after one semester: that'd be me.

  20. Jimcat Says:

    "please pass me because my parents can't afford to pay for an extra semester here."

    Rather ineffective blackmail, considering that what the school wants is tuition money. Whether they pass or not, they won't be paying for another semester, so I don't see the leverage on the student's side.

  21. nonynony Says:

    @Jestbill

    There are foreign schools that produce students who are head and shoulders above US students.

    What the heck are you talking about? Are you talking about the fact that the best foreign students that come to the US can outperform the best students raised in the US? if so this is wrong. Are you talking about the fact that in other countries they "track" the worst performing students academically into vocational and other programs so that they're just teaching the ones who are the most academically inclined? If so this is true for a number of countries, but isn't a model we can use here because in the US people wouldn't put up with that kind of tracking.

    Once again to climb onto my hobby horse – what I think that Ed is seeing can be easily explained not by "grade inflation" but by the trend of people going to college. These days 30% of folks in the US go to college. 20 years ago 20% of the population went to college, today it's 30%. Do you really think that extra 10% has learned more in High School than the same population would have 20 years ago? No. What's more, population growth in the US means that the number of people going to college has overall doubled in that 40 year span. Those of us teaching at state universities should expect to see more of that "bottom 10%" span in our classes than folks at the top 10 or even top 20 schools in the country just because of how the system works.

    Is high school grade inflation a problem? You betcha – but I don't think it's the biggest problem. It mostly causes students to go into paroxysms of self doubt when they realize that even though they were an A student at their High School they're shaping up to be a C student at Big University – small fish, little pond syndrome has been a constant for students as they go to college for decades. What's happening is that more people are going to college, and while 20 years ago the high school education they would have gotten would have been just fine for the job they were getting with their high school diploma, it isn't sufficient for them to be starting out at college.

  22. Seth Kahn Says:

    There's so much bullshit in that Salon article it's hard to know where to start. I'll make these two points and probably get the usual snappish reactions, but it's worth a try.

    1. Who gives a flying fuck about where the commas go? About 99.999999999999999% of the time, it makes NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER in terms of understanding somebody's point if they've used a comma splice. Is it a technical error? Sure. Just like my unclear pronoun reference in the last sentence. Did you understand what I meant? Unless you were actively trying not to, yes, you did.

    2. There's are hundreds of well-conducted peer-reviewed studies by those of us who actually specialize in writing pedagogy documenting the pointlessness of teaching grammar skills *unless students give a fuck about what they're writing.* We've known this since the early 1980s. So when the guy from the high school English department in the article says they can't teach grammar because students think it's boring, he's unwittingly almost making the right argument. It's not that it's boring–it's that it's irrelevant until the students have something they want to say. THEN we can talk about how to say it well.

    And sorry, a third thing. One of my dissertation director's mantras is, "If you ask for shitty writing, you get it." Much of what students produce that most of you write off as incompetent trash is at least as much a function of bad assignments as it is of bad students.

  23. Seth Kahn Says:

    I'll bet a dollar right now at least one person will make a smart-ass comment about my typo. No, I didn't do it as a test to see if you'd catch it. It's just a typo.

  24. Katydid Says:

    @Anotherbozo: I cut some slack for the closed-captioning folks who are working under pressure, but I get frustrated when the newscrawl has obvious illiteracies in it. In my area, you can see the exact same news repeated from 4 pm – 7 pm and then again at 10 pm for a half-hour. They've got time for an editor to sift through the crawl, but editors were the first jobs cut in the 1980s and never replaced.

  25. Robert Says:

    One of the things I never learned in college was *why* we were doing the things we were doing. An English paper on "Women in Love" was not about confirming our understanding of the novel, but our ability to think about it and express our thoughts in a clear and meaningful way. Similarly, mathematics was not about solving the equations, but understanding how to do so.

    Didn't do well in either English or math. I like to think that if I'd understood what the point was that I might have done better. Since I could express myself well and conformed to a certain social stereotype of intelligence, people (including teachers) seemed resistant to the idea that I didn't actually know what I was doing.

  26. Dan C. Says:

    @J. Dryden: "'Today's kids are ignorant and entitled!' – Something said by every generation ever."

    I think that this itself has become a common myth for excusing the rather obvious breakdown in skills at the high school and community college level. At our institution we could certainly document rather stark evidence that we've been forced to make our courses and exams in math more rudimentary over the last few decades.

    I suppose to be charitable we might possibly say it's possible that the proportion of people in the overall population who can read, write, and do elementary-level math could be the same as it ever was, but the credential inflation has clearly made the proportion of proficient people at a given high school, community college, etc., much less than it used to be.

  27. Wim Says:

    I was amused reading the bit about no one knowing how to use commas, as it reminded me of a guy I knew in college who fucked up an essay in his entrance exams by a lack of punctuation of any kind. He whined to anyone who couldn't escape (like his roommate) that he was accustomed to writing down all the words first and then going back to add punctuation where, when, and as seemed best–a method undone by a lack of time and the monstrous unfair amusement of those to whom he complained.

    Even then–this was early in Reagan's first term–every one of my instructors who had to deal in any way with student writing complained that students These Days couldn't write their way out of a wet paper bag. I don't think the phenomenon has changed so much as the underlying reasons. And forget those kids who coasted through high school and thought they were doing well. Wait until you have to deal with home-schooled kids who honestly believe they're geniuses, just like Mom said.

  28. SeaTea Says:

    It feels like there's been a giant shift in terms of what is expected from an upper-level program. A University used to be like pilot training school in "Officer and a Gentleman" where it was expected most people would wash out and those left would be the best of the best. I can remember classes at the UW-Madison where the professor would brag about how "half the people in this class are going to drop out by the midterm". The understanding was that it was a tough program and if you wanted to get through it you had to be among the better students. Smarter, better study habits, etc.

    Now it seems like the University is seen as a place where you pay your money and you get a piece of paper that says you can be hired for a job that pays a lot of money. Anything else isn't acceptable. Because the University is seen in this way, the processes that feed into the University are also seen this way out of necessity. And since each grade feeds into the next, it goes all the way down.

  29. carrstone Says:

    @J Dryden
    You're right, kids'll be kids, but my parents respected my teachers; could be that GBS's aphorism about teaching wasn't as painfully appropriate as it is today.

    @Jestbill
    Beg to differ – most people do not do the best they can but the minimum they can get away with.

    @Misterben
    When I was pensioned off from my job in the 'real' world, I found a way 'to pay back' by teaching high-schoolers. I didn't even last one semester – the kids didn't want to learn the subject, they were interested only in finding an easy way to pass the exams.

    @nonynony
    It's endemic – students are suffering paroxysms ofself-doubt when their elders and betters don't know that a rise from 20% to 30% is 50%, your 10% are points – percentage points.

    @Seth Kahn
    Well, if that's your attitude …. yet you claim to specialize in 'writing pedagogy' [whatever THAT means]; what hope is there for the world if anybody were actually to listen to you? You've unwittingly hit the nail on the proverbial head, though, when you say, "…. until the students have something they want to say"; that's precisely the problem, people tend to write as they speak and speech, it may surprise you to learn, has no punctuation marks.

  30. Seth Kahn Says:

    @carrstone: Huh? I don't "claim" to specialize in writing pedagogy. I have a PhD in it, so yes, I actually do know a good bit about it. None of that has anything to do with the argument I made, though, which is that the research is crystal clear on teaching grammar—it DOESN'T WORK unless it's in the context of writing that students care about because they're motivated to say something they care about. By the way, if you can't live with the use of the word "say" there as a substitute for "write," then your world must be horribly boring. Apparently metaphors, euphemisms, puns, any wordplay of any kind must not exist for you

    And what on Earth do you mean by "hope…for the world?" Huh? That's awfully melodramatic. There's maybe one documented instance in the history of the English language where a comma splice had an actual negative impact on anybody's understanding of anything.

  31. F Says:

    I like this post as a pushback against "kids are terrible these days" type stuff. Kids are trying to get the best grades they can with the minimum amount of effort. Who can begrudge them that?

    The problem is that designing a rigorous evaluation system that actually teaches good writing is super hard and super time intensive. So teachers with too many students and too little time (and the flipside of that coin: teachers who don't care anymore) design grading schemes that are easily gamed.

    This gives rise to a class of students I call the savants. They have excellent grades, but if you talk to them for 2 minutes, you wonder how they can breathe without assistance. They have quite simply learned how to "defeat" the "game" of the class grade by spitting out the answers you require without actually having understood the bigger picture.

  32. Brutus Says:

    Curious intersection between two common memes: (1) kids these days and (2) what’s wrong with education. A large overlap has always been present. To all the ever-was arguments I can only say that the amount of remediation colleges now undertake to bring new students up to college-level performance is enormous. Basically, it’s reteaching high school in college — for a premium. That’s lost productivity. I don’t have any numbers handy, but remediation has been increasing over the decades as secondary curricular values shift toward “good enough” and “why bother?” *(e.g., basic math has become estimation and guessing, English grammar has become “just get something down on the page”).

    @Seth Kahn, I have no desire to be snarky, but to argue that things don’t matter is absolutely true only if nothing matters. Failure to learn and continue to refine one’s ability to communicate in writing has effects in spoken language as well. I’ve been in far too many meeting where participants simply cannot express themselves and use the same halting gibberish Donald Trump uses on the stump. No thinking person of academic merit is at all buffaloed but that idiocy, but plenty of mediocre to poor thinkers are. The result is a rash of adult incompetence accompanied by bluff and bluster. We’re headed straight toward Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, though I doubt it will take 500 years.

  33. J. Dryden Says:

    @ Dan C. – I think one also has to factor in the percentage of people pursuing higher education. If we have more students coming in who are unprepared to take college-level courses in math (which I quite believe, just as we seem to have more students who are less adept at composition), might that not be because we have more students period?

    The American workplace now requires some kind of advanced degree. It shouldn't, but when the manufacturing base went, so did the ability of most high-school-graduates to make a living wage. That plus a general cultural trend towards "Everyone Should Go To College" means that the students who wouldn't have been at even a community college a few decades ago, now are. Which means that "higher education" is now no longer occupied solely by the occupants of the academic bubble–it's occupied by people who are there because they have to be.

    This, plus the increased tendency to run higher education like a for-profit enterprise means that we can't keep out the students we might otherwise turn away due to their low skill levels–it's economically unfair to them, and it's economically unfeasible for us.

    In short, if there are more students who can't write, it's likely because, in part, there are more students. Which is a phenomenon caused by a number of economic and cultural shifts, many of them seemingly unrelated to knowing how to diagram a sentence.

    …this is a book that should be written, isn't it?

  34. Seth Kahn Says:

    @Brutus: Never said it doesn't matter at all. I said, or at least meant, that it matters *in context*, and that there are few/far between contexts in which most grammar errors are all that important.

  35. Nunya Says:

    P.S: This happened almost 30 years ago. My parents believed that those in authority were always right. Times were quite different.

  36. Kaleberg Says:

    There was a change in the way English was taught back in the early 1970s. My mother was a junior high school English teacher, and she was told to stop teaching grammar. It was over. My sister and I went to school three years apart, but she was taught a totally different curriculum with regards to reading and writing. She wasn't taught grammar. Not learning grammar seriously has affected her to this day. She is still uncomfortable in her writing, and has no systematic approach in her reading.

    When I tutor local high school kids, I find they all want to write well. They are motivated just fine. The problem is that they were never taught anything about grammar. I often have to explain nouns, verbs and adjectives. That's elementary school stuff. Their eyes light up when I explain how grammar lets one build complex sentences. They actually want to know this stuff. The problem is that no one ever taught it to them. They have the same problem my sister has. They were too late. The educational establishment stopped teaching grammar.

    Grammar was dropped for political reasons. A lot of people felt that expressing oneself shouldn't require following repressive rules. It isn't all that important if anyone else can understand what one is trying to express as long as one gets to express oneself. It wasn't just touchy-feely leftists. The right wing was never comfortable with intellectual pretensions either.

    Now the kids are being cheated. Grammar is part of our genetic heritage. We are wired for syntax, hierarchy and labeling. We are also wired to understand how we use language. We aren't song birds who can only apply a simple grammar to communicate. Grammar is one of our tools, like a stone hand axe or a smart phone. It's a pity we aren't teaching it anymore.

  37. April Says:

    A woman without her man is nothing.
    A woman; without her, man is nothing.

  38. X-RWU Says:

    @Nunya: Wow, that's quite a tale. I'm genuinely sorry to hear that you got screwed over like that. I hope Mr. Terrell eventually got his somehow. I also sympathize, because I can recall some b*** in high school (not a teacher, but a librarian) who screwed me out of a few opportunities for BS reasons. And I also had to deal with blind, authority-trusting idiocy on my family's part – you know, the "you got punished, therefore you must have done something to deserve it!" illogical fallacy. It angers me to no end how I couldn't get a proper job for years while that b**** got to keep her job and continued to get paid with our tax-dollars to sit on her fat ass all day and screw things up.

    I'll stop here before I go any further and really spike my blood pressure, but suffice to say, if I ever encounter that b**** again… well, to use one of the favorite sayings of my late grandmother: "I ought to spit in your eye and charge you for an eye-wash."

  39. Seth Kahn Says:

    @April, again–didn't say it doesn't matter. Said it matters in specific contexts and sometimes not much if at all.

    @Kaleburg: Your point about why schools "stopped teaching grammar" is about 3/4 right. The founding document of the movement is the National Council of Teachers of English statement "On Students' Right to Their Own Language." It's well worth reading, mostly because it doesn't say what many people took it to say. You're right that it got interpreted to mean "We can't talk about grammar," but that's very clearly not the intent of it. It's an argument based on sociolinguistic research, contending that what most of us call "correct grammar" is raced and classed more than most of us recognize, and that demanding that minority and non-native-English-speaking students learn standard white American English in order to be considered "educated" is, yes, a highly political act.

    And it's worth making the point more clearly, I think, that the question of "whether" to teach grammar has never actually been a question that anybody who knows anything about writing pedagogy (or more importantly, curriculum–thanks, Kaleburg, for that distinction) has asked. The questions are always "When?" and "How?" What Kaleburg describes is what happens when pedagogical principles get misinterpreted and misapplied, which happens all the time even with the best pedagogies. Pedagogy isn't magic. People have to do it right. Ed is right that lots of K-12 teachers (and college faculty, for that matter) are overworked and underpaid, but that's only part of the problem here. The other part is that courtesy of "educational leadership" graduate programs (and other such quasi-managerial horsepoop), the people who do the actual teaching have shrinking say in pedagogical or curricular decisions anymore; those are getting made by people with very little if any teaching experience or training.

  40. Katydid Says:

    @April: "Let's eat Grandma!" vs. "Let's eat, Grandma!"

  41. Ohio Mom Says:

    My kid is finishing up high school, only a few days left. He has a disability and tests on the low side of average.

    In our school district's heroic effort to keep their high-stakes testing scores high, they spent a lot more time teaching him how to do well on the writing tests than actually teaching him to write; for that, we hired a private tutor.

    The writing tests have a lot of multi-choice editing questions, e.g., "How would you improve this sentence: My brother he tall." So they are not too hard to teach to.

    No Child Left Behind and its testing gauntlet was enacted in early 2001; its successor is Race to the Top. That's a whole generation of student writers. The work you college professors see from your freshmen isn'the going to improve any time soon.

  42. Dan C. Says:

    @J. Dryden: I 90% agree with that you wrote above. Certainly more people are attending college for just the reasons you describe, but the resulting weight is actually forcing lower standards in otherwise fixed courses and waypoints (up to and including getting rid of remediation because it's simply hopeless, of which we're on the cusp at my institution).

    I did just find a book that seems to fit that bill (haven't read it yet): Scherer and Anson, Community Colleges and the Access Effect (2014). An observation from the authors:

    "In an end-of-semester reflection paper, [a] student admitted, 'I am that student who is not up to par for college… I was the kid who never really tried in school, especially junior and senior year of high school, because I knew I was going to (the local community college) after high school.'

    "In our book, we also relay the shocking anecdote of a junior, tenure-track math faculty member who disclosed that her department chair had explicitly instructed her and her colleagues to lower standards to achieve the student success rates needed at the institution to maintain or increase the current budget under the new performance funding formula.

    "Open access and performance-based funding are on a collision course, and degradation of academic standards is the predictable consequence. Lowering academic standards, though, to achieve continuously improved completion rates and/or other student success outcomes prone to manipulation will only buy community colleges time and eventually be their and their students’ death knell in an increasingly competitive, outcomes-driven world."

    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/06/17/new-book-says-community-colleges-should-tighten-their-admissions-policies

  43. Amanda Says:

    It is so easy to open the Pandora's Box of all the problems with public education today, but when focusing in on this problem alone, I can say without hesitation that it goes the way you said where the families for the teacher in the position of "Give me a B (or an A) and I won't cause any trouble." In the case of the poor schools it's the administration putting out the same message.

    I call it Applebees Manager syndrome: Maybe if they yell loud enough they will get that lava cake free and little Susie will get an A in English III.

    I could write a series of blog posts on why teachers themselves can't write worth a damn, but that's not necessarily the subject here. With all the rubrics, standards, and guidelines in place, teachers should have the skills they need to grade effectively, even if they can't write well themselves. But even then, most teachers will say fuck the rubric if giving the kid a B keeps them off the phone with the parent and out of the principal's office going over complaints.

  44. My take on a professor’s lament « blueollie Says:

    […] A college professor writes: […]

  45. April Says:

    @Seth – Oh I know. Sorry if I implied otherwise. It's just my favorite example.

  46. Your Conscience Says:

    This also might explain why you can't publish.

    Sidebar: you teach American government. Anybody who needs to take your classes needs help far beyond basic training in functional literacy. You made your decisions and should not be surprised that, based on your merit, you are mostly just talking in front of the infirm.

  47. Steve Clarke Says:

    "We need to change the way we grade".
    Maybe. Or maybe grading is inherently counterproductive.

    http://goo.gl/2cB4T1

  48. Phil Says:

    In the late 80s, at my highschool we all learned how to write "the 5 paragraph theme" in junior English class. You know, intro paragraph ending with your thesis, 3 paragraphs of support, then a concluding paragraph reiterating thesis/conclusion. We were taught THIS IS HOW YOU WRITE A PAPER!!! according to our Junior year English teachers. Turn around to senior English, and our teacher said, "this is not how you write a paper!". We spent the year learning how to write different types of papers, none of which were The 5 Paragraph Theme. He warned us in advance that no one would pass the first paper. The goal was to teach us to write convincing, supported papers, not about the grades. 5 people dropped the class, and our valedictorian got the only passing grade with a D+ on the first paper. He caught hell from parents and students every single year he taught this class, but you know what, those who stuck it out learned how to write academic papers full of support and style. Even though we got horrible grades on our papers, he weighted the class so they weren't worth as much in our overall grade, so most people who participated in class, and wrote their papers still passed the course with flying colors. I honestly believe that he was the reason I flew through so many of my college courses. I had a teacher that taught a real skill, grades be damned. Basically, when I went to college, I realized that that my English comp. situation in high school was not and is not the norm, but bless you Gordon Sheffield for making us learn how to write a proper paper.

  49. Jason Bachand Says:

    I've been a substitute teacher in K-12 sporadically for about twelve years. (It's fun and provides a little extra income when I need it.) In that time I've observed that integrating special education students into the general classroom environment dramatically altered the way teachers structure their lessons and time. It's unfortunate, but classroom management and specialized lessons to meet IEPs for students with cognitive/behavioral deficits make a serious dent in the amount of time a teacher can send with the rest of the class. The option of helping average students improve or talented students maximize their gifts isn't there any more.

    A director of special education at an elementary school one said to me, "You know, once a upon we were okay with admitting that some of our students were destined to be bus drivers and custodians. We recognized that, though their worth and dignity as people is equal to all others, their cognitive abilities limited their options to a certain set. Rather than try to make every kid in the classroom into a physicist, we simply tried to equip them to be the best bus drivers or custodians they could be."

  50. HelloRochester Says:

    I'm not a great writer (I'm a working lab scientist and it doesn't take much to be a "great" writer in nerdville), but I do fairly well when required to write long form primarily due to a great journalism teacher in high school. We operated on the write, edit, write, edit, write, edit, repeat model. Editing helps you see your own blind spots even if the person editing your work is not a trained professional; a "what does this mean?" from a friend can point out that you're not conveying your thoughts to the page with any clarity. High school English teachers grade without offering opportunity for revision in most cases. Learning grammar rules can be relatively useless unless you're shown how to apply them practically.

    I know it is a game as old as sin for olds to criticize yoofs, but there is definitely a notable decrease in the thickness of skin in this generation of Boomer progeny. I don't wish the alcohol-soaked meanness of my junior year English teacher on my kids but it did help me develop a healthy "That guy? Fuck that guy" attitude with pretentious pricks whose pretension and prickness I've had to endure in life and at work. On the other hand, my kids' friends seem to be picking up the slack with being horrible at a very young age.

  51. Kaleberg Says:

    My mother got an MA in teaching at Columbia back when its teachers' college was world famous. (She stopped before a PhD. The course offerings were too limited with so many of the professors off doing war work.) She always pointed out the big gap between theory and its application. It was like law school. First one spends years learning the theory of law. Then one has to take a bar prep course to learn how to file a motion.

    Pedagogical theories have a long history of working well in prototype, usually with a small group of highly motivated teachers and students. The problems come up when rolling out the prototype to a larger school system where there were teachers and students of varying skills, attitudes, backgrounds and inclinations.

    I remember the 1960s and the open attitude towards expression and validation. A lot of people found their voices then for the first time. Unfortunately, a lot of people lost access to a valuable tool for expressing themselves.

  52. ScrewyCanuck Says:

    For those of you interested, here are the first 50 comments.

  53. smmcbean Says:

    Merci, M. Canuck

  54. Bad Writing Blues | The Spiral Staircase Says:

    […] at Gin and Tacos, the blogger has an interesting take on perverse incentives that function to inflate grades (and undermine learning), partly by encouraging teachers to give higher grades than deserved at the […]