When I was in kindergarten, children were considered to be advancing if they learned to recite the alphabet and share their toys. As I progressed through the education system, the standards by which we were evaluated became more rigorous. Graded homework assignments and examinations were the norm. Students who neglected to turn in their assignments or show up for an exam might, in many cases, be given a second chance by their teachers. Regardless, they would be expected to complete the work to earn their grade.
How times have changed! On May 18, Edmonton high school physics teacher Lynden Dorval was suspended from work. The reason? Mr. Dorval’s school board forbids teachers from giving a student a grade of zero, even if the student fails to do the work. Mr. Dorval, with 35 years of experience, refused to comply. According to the letter of suspension Mr. Dorval therefore violated his “Principal’s lawful directives to conform [his] student assessment practices to the required School standard”. As explained by the Principal of Ross Sheppard High School, these practices are informed by “our belief that assessment, grading and reporting are complex processes involving individual efforts on the parts of students, teachers, parents and school administration.” Yes, you read that correctly.
Common sense dictates that putting students, parents, and the school administration on an equal footing with teachers in assessment and grading hardly serves as a recipe for meaningful evaluation of learning outcomes. But like other similarly misguided policies undermining our once laudable education system, this one completely misses the mark. The Edmonton “School standard” fails to promote a basic work ethic and sense of personal responsibility. This might satisfy those students who believe that they are entitled to a passing grade simply by showing up occasionally for class. But in the long run, it does our society a dangerous disservice.
Sadly, the problem is not confined to high schools nor should the Edmonton Public School Board bear all the humiliation. Rather, such issues afflict education at all levels right across the country. In elementary and high schools, overzealous parents might badger the teachers to raise their grades and lower their standards. At the extreme, one diligent elementary school teacher in Montreal faced a lawsuit from parents after she asked a student “to redo a part of his homework that had clearly been written by the mother”. At the post-secondary level, it is more often the students themselves, amply assisted by administrators, who coerce educators in such a manner. At my own university, several colleagues have been threatened by students or their superiors for maintaining fair and consistent grading practices. Professors who refuse to comply have been punished, or have seen the administration simply change their grades unilaterally. We can poke fun at the Edmonton Public School Board, but sometimes, even at McGill, “assessment, grading and reporting… involv[e] individual efforts on the parts of students, teachers, parents and school administration.”
Still worse, evolving policies with respect to academic dishonesty, such as Newfoundland’s “no academic penalty” for cheating are training a generation of students to believe that the most serious consequence for such misconduct is an opportunity for a “do-over”. Again, the problem is more widespread than Newfoundland. Disturbingly, I have witnessed some students at McGill rewarded for plagiarism, with their grades increased after being caught.
Allowing policies on grading and expectations of academic conduct to be dictated by administrators or determined by a minority of under-achieving students, rather than agreed upon by educators, risks debasing the system. The result is a commodification of education in which the students are customers rather than learners. In turn, we are witness to an inversion of the traditional relationship between student and teacher, reflected in part by the growing emphasis on student evaluations of teaching in the university. While there is compelling evidence to suggest that student evaluations may be meaningful measures of teaching effectiveness, there is similar evidence that the use of such evaluations results in a “dumbing down” of the curriculum and encourages grade inflation. Those teachers, like Mr. Dorval, who stick to their principles, are invariably the ones who suffer.
Granted, there are an unfortunate number of students with learning disabilities for whom our education system wisely makes accommodations. However, there is a big difference between accommodating those with legitimate special needs and removing the incentive for students to do their homework and pass their exams. The latter robs many of our students of the necessary training to ensure they can contribute to our society and the nation’s economy. The consequence is that the value of education drops precipitously.
Unless we only care about our graduates learning to share their toys.