Normative Grading

Scott Jaschik has an interesting article on grade inflation at Inside Higher Ed.

It seems in an effort to fight grade inflation, colleges and universities have placed limits on the amount of A's students can receive in a course. It hasn't gone well:

A number of colleges and universities adopted policies designed to curb grade inflation. But one of the most prominent of those institutions -- Princeton University -- now appears poised to roll back the most controversial part of its policy: a limit of 35 percent on the A-range grades awarded in each course. A faculty report released Thursday made that recommendation, and it was endorsed by the university's president.

I've never understood the impulse to limit the amount of A's and B's that can be received in a course. Maybe it is because I was trained in a standards-based system, where grades served as signals of how much students learned during the course. It was simple, if all students met my expectations, then they all earned B's. Students that went beyond the goals of the class earned A's.

Normative grading -- where average grades become C's and students are sorted around the mean -- limits the amount of A's available for the course. Rather than measuring how much students learned, you're now measuring how much students learned compared to other students in the course.

Among other things, this means grades are now difficult to compare over time, because each semester will contain a different mix of students. The same student doing the same work in semester X could get a different grade compared to semester Y.

In addition, students are now incentivized to fight for grades. Any sense of cooperation goes out the window. Why form study groups when you’d just be helping your opponent do better in class?

Can you see how this would be a problem? As the article notes, the students at Princeton did:

The faculty report at Princeton noted the unpopularity of the current policy with students. The 35 percent targets for A-range grades "are too often misinterpreted as quotas. They add a large element of stress to students’ lives, making them feel as though they are competing for a limited resource of A grades," the report says.

Rather than focusing on the content, students were looking at their peers. Students stressing out because a class is difficult is perfectly fair. Students stressing because they have to meet a moving target based on peer performance? Not so fair.

Princeton and other schools are right to scrap limits on A's.


"How can I gamify Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction?"

That's the question I've been asking on and off all summer. But maybe that's the wrong question.

Maybe I should be asking "Why do I want to gamify Edu 3059?"

Is it because I think it will be beneficial to the students' understanding of the topic? Or is it because I want to do something cool?

Social Studies

This year I'll be teaching a course in social studies curriculum and instruction for the first time. As the department's "social studies guy," I'm very much looking forward to the experience. However, I'm wondering where the balance should be between teaching methods and content.

The course's foundational concept is simply:

Social studies is not history.

At our school students getting certified in social studies are history majors. There's nothing wrong with that, but I worry that it gives the impression that all a social studies teacher needs is history content knowledge. Sociology, political science, anthropology, and economics are all included in the NJ standards (and Praxis exam), but they can sometimes seem unimportant when compared to history. Part of my goal with this class is to show the students how a good teacher can incorporate these other perspectives.

Part of this will involve teaching content in the areas outside of history. What I'm working on now is deciding how to work these areas into a course that is designed to cover lesson planning.

The Missing Juku

In her article Why do Americans Stink at Math, Elizabeth Green contrasts the American and Japanese styles of teaching mathematics in public schools. Here is one example:

By 1995, when American researchers videotaped eighth-grade classrooms in the United States and Japan, Japanese schools had overwhelmingly traded the old “I, We, You” script for “You, Y’all, We.” (American schools, meanwhile didn’t look much different than they did before the reforms.) Japanese students had changed too. Participating in class, they spoke more often than Americans and had more to say. In fact, when Takahashi came to Chicago initially, the first thing he noticed was how uncomfortably silent all the classrooms were. One teacher must have said, “Shh!” a hundred times, he said. Later, when he took American visitors on tours of Japanese schools, he had to warn them about the noise from children talking, arguing, shrieking about the best way to solve problems. The research showed that Japanese students initiated the method for solving a problem in 40 percent of the lessons; Americans initiated 9 percent of the time. Similarly, 96 percent of American students’ work fell into the category of “practice,” while Japanese students spent only 41 percent of their time practicing. Almost half of Japanese students’ time was spent doing work that the researchers termed “invent/think.” (American students spent less than 1 percent of their time on it.) Even the equipment in classrooms reflected the focus on getting students to think. Whereas American teachers all used overhead projectors, allowing them to focus students’ attention on the teacher’s rules and equations, rather than their own, in Japan, the preferred device was a blackboard, allowing students to track the evolution of everyone’s ideas.

It is implied that Japan's relative success on the PISA exam is due to a more participatory and constructivist pedagogy, and this may be true. However, no mention is made of private tutoring as a possible source of Japan's success. This is a major pet peeve of mine. We simply have no idea how much of Japan's (or South Korea's, or Shanghai's) success on international exams are due to classroom practices, or how much to attribute to the Juku (or Hagwon, or Buxiban) system.

It is difficult--if not impossible--to disaggregate the contributions of public education in systems with high levels of private tutoring, yet articles in the popular press consistently make little or no mention of the hours students spend after school in cram school. Instead the focus is made on polices and practices of the public education system. Why?

While I believe the practices describe by Green are more effective, and that is the style of math teaching I teach my students. However, the answer to the titular question could just as easily be "because they spend hours in private tutoring academies."

What is Secondary Generalist?

The short answer is this is a simple blog written by me, Mike Russell.

What kinds of things will be posted here?

This blog will serve as home to a few different types of content:

  • Thoughts about education and ed reform that are too long for twitter. Ed reform is a huge, complicated topic and sometimes debates on twitter lose the nuance needed when discussing huge, complicated topics. So I'm going to do that here instead of strings of tweets.
  • Little chunks of research. Parts of my dissertation or articles in progress, or maybe bits of research that will one day become publications. I'm not quite sure.
  • Workflow posts. I find talking (or writing) about my workflow helps me think about and refine my workflow, so I'll be doing some of that here. It's a stereotypical topic for a grad student, but it's also useful. Hopefully someone will read what I'm doing and get some ideas of their own (or comment and tell me what I'm doing wrong.)
  • Linked lists. On occasion I'll gather interesting articles on education and post them here. Maybe weekly? Again, I'm not quite sure.
  • Thoughts on teaching. This fall I'm teaching four courses: an intro to education class, a basic ed theory course, a "how to write a lesson plan" class, and a social studies curriculum and instruction course. I plan on trying some new idea I gathered from THATCamp Digital Pedagogy this summer and I'll blog about how that goes here.

What will not be posted here?

  • Rants about students. Teachers shouldn't downtalk their students. That's something I teach and something I believe. I think the "millennials" have gotten a bad rap (yes, really) and I'm not going to waste time complaining about texting in class or whatever.

Why the "Secondary Generalist" name?

My first job title as a teacher was secondary generalist. I was hired to teach high school. As in I was the only high school teacher for all subjects for freshmen through super-seniors. It was great.

I've liked the idea of being a generalist ever since. It's not a good trait for a grad student (we're supposed to hyper-focus on a topic, after all), but it seems to work for me. In my current position I work with secondary students so the title still kind of works.