When The Class Gets Fs, Who Fails?
Imagine this hypothetical. The university level class is full of bright, eager freshmen, that have the normal distribution of intelligence, abilities and dispositions. The professor is somewhat better than average in his ability to hold the class’ attention and willingness to help the students on his own time, and is more demanding than average. Much. More than 90% of the students get Ds and Fs at the end of the term.
Before you demand his resignation, you also must know that it is school policy to admit freshmen from a pool that is not selected on academic criteria, and in fact, only 12% of them will graduate after four years (and only 30% after six). In the case of our professor, the average (median) student has attended 66% of his classes. What he is demanding is that students show up for class.
I lied. This is not a hypothetical, and Professor Steven D. Aird has been denied tenure – fired – from his job teaching biology at Norfolk State University for one reason, he says – he failed too many students.
A subtext of the discussion is that Norfolk State is a historically black university with a mission that includes educating many students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The university suggests that Aird — who is white — has failed to embrace the mission of educating those who aren’t well prepared. But Aird — who had backing from his department and has some very loyal students as well — maintains that the university is hurting the very students it says it wants to help. Aird believes most of his students could succeed, but have no incentive to work as hard as they need to when the administration makes clear they can pass regardless.
“Show me how lowering the bar has ever helped anyone,” Aird said in an interview.
It’s a matter of standards, he says. And it’s not a matter of academic excellence – it’s a matter of showing up.
Norfolk State would appear to endorse this point of view, and official university policy states that a student who doesn’t attend at least 80 percent of class sessions may be failed.
The problem, Aird said, is that very few Norfolk State students meet even that standard. In the classes for which he was criticized by the dean for his grading — classes in which he awarded D’s or F’s to about 90 percent of students — Aird has attendance records indicating that the average student attended class only 66 percent of the time. Based on such a figure, he said, “the expected mean grade would have been an F,” and yet he was denied tenure for giving such grades.
The question, then, is about deciding if we have a teacher who, for whatever reason, is incapable of teaching large numbers of students, or a school that is taking students’ money knowing that 70% of them will never get a degree, and that the remaining 30% will have one so watered down as to be nearly worthless.
I wish I could add words of wisdom here, but I can’t. When “social promotion” has become policy at the university level, then there is no happy ending for anyone that I can see – not the fired professor, not the uneducated students and parents who’ve paid for those degrees, not the taxpayers who subsidize this, and not the employer that needs an educated workforce.