Monday, January 26, 2009

Where has all the Excellence Gone?

Today's post has nothing to do with chocolate; it has to do with thought and learning in America. I spend a lot of time in my car driving to speaking engagements and I adore audio books. I am such a geek that I even listen to audio books on my IPod. Some are nonfiction, some are fiction. I have always loved books.

Last week I listened to The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby and while I think she has her own political agenda, she raises some great points. The most disturbing of which is American kids are not as smart as their contemporaries in other countries. And the gap is widening.

Pair this with a talk I attended on the differences between the generations. According to the speaker, Generation Y (those born between 1980 and 2000) think they are the smartest, most wonderful people ever to walk the earth. They don't think they should have to pay their dues, they think they should be in charge. They are very technologically savvy and they think anyone who is less so is an idiot. So they think they are geniuses and they know less in many areas than those in preceding generations. For example, they might know how to text, download music and win at video games, but they have no idea where Israel is. Gr8.

Partner these tidbits with an article in the Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer concerning grades at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. The article is about grade inflation. Apparently 82% of all grades at UNC-CH in the fall were A's or B's. (This is not good.) Across the country grades are getting higher and higher. (And our kids are getting dumber and dumber.) You have to love this - in the exercise and sports science department - 94% of undergrads got As! 94%! What a joke!!! Let me guess - all the football players took those classes? Being on the Dean's List is meaningless.

This was the part of the article I found most disturbing:

Gilleskie, the economic professor who crunched the data for this new grade report, has struggles grading in an honors-level economics course that involves a great deal of tough written research. In a class of 15 honor students, the work ranges from very good to "really bad" Gilleskie said. But it's very difficult work, so should she give C's to students low on the ladder?

She gives mostly A's, she acknowledged.

"They're undertaking a task that very few others have done, and the fact that they got through it is an accomplishment," she said. "But is that right? That's what I struggle with."

This is a struggle? Attending class and doing crappy work is an accomplishment? You know what I think? Gilleskie should be fired.

(Let me also say that I graduated from the Honor's College at the University of South Carolina - I never expected any professor to give me an A - I expected to earn it. Gilleskie is saying just because you got in - you deserve an A. Lord, I hope no one who's supposed to be solving the nation's economic crises has an economics degree from UNC-Chapel Hill!)

She gives A's for really bad work. What does that teach anyone? Isn't her job to TEACH these students? Wow - guess a degree with honor's from UNC Chapel Hill is a huge joke. Hope the parents and students paying for that don't mind. Hope the students that are doing really good work don't care that their honor's degree is made meaningless by this teacher's actions.

But I probably can't blame Gilleskie. She's just a cog in an educational machine that doesn't seem to have any spine. I see public schools allocating all kinds of funds to deal with the slower kids or the abused kids, but not the smart kids. If Johnny can't read, we can't fail him, that might set off his parents or hurt his self esteem. Instead we'll hold back the rest of the class while we deal with Johnny. Or we'll just pass Johnny even though he can't read because it's just easier.

I don't have an answer for all this. I do think that if our institutions of learning refuse to reward excellence and only excellence, we will fall farther behind countries that do. If we celebrate the ability to win a video game over the understanding of a work of Shakespeare, we will get what we deserve. (And parents, this starts with you.) I'm not saying that we obliterate the former, not at all. But we cannot lose the later. The best teachers I had taught me how to think, how to learn, and they created a lifelong thirst for knowledge. There is no excuse for giving a student an A for really bad work.

And parents, next time you give Junior an award just for showing up, you are working against excellence and for mediocrity. My Dad would never give us money we didn't somehow earn. The only exception he ever made was for books. If we wanted a book, he would always buy it. Parents what are you teaching your kids? In Freakonomics success in school was equated with one thing - the number of books in the home. If your parents don't read, you probably won't either. Jacoby also equates intellectualism with reading. And reading a paragraph on a website doesn't count.

Employers, next time you hand out an award just because someone showed up and breathed for five years, you too are rewarding mediocrity. What do you do for excellence? What do you give those who showed up with a great attitude and really contributed to the bottom line?

Tomorrow, I'm going to talk about why we don't reward excellence. (Right now, I need some chocolate.)


Heidi said...

After THAT, I need some Godiva.

Well said!

Are you sure you shouldn't run for office somewhere?

KiddoKare1 said...

Well, since all three of my children were born in that age group, I hope I've taught them better. However, I definitely see your point. When I went back to college to get my associates degree a few years ago, I got so frustrated at the other students. Two things stand out in my head. One, a girl who had missed most of the astronomy classes (including walking out one day that she actually came to class when she found out we were having a test) trying to make up all of her work at the end of the semester. Another was a class I took where we were supposed to attend a child care conference and write about the classes we took. Out of a class of about a dozen people, I was the ONLY one who finished the assignment. Everyone else waited until December to try and do it and there were no child care conferences to attend. Did the professor give them a failing grade? Oh heck no. He let them do a different assignment: making up a brochure of their 'ideal' child care conference. Give me a freaking break.

diane said...

Once again, you've raised some valid points. I see some of this in the college I work in. These kids are smart at what they know, but there's A LOT that they don't know. Other points: 1-Heidi has a good question, 2-my daughter graduated from Chapel Hill, and 3-I'm sending you a couple of photos of a current display in my local Cracker Barrel ;)

whimsicism said...

The educational system in Singapore is very different -- it doesn't really tolerate failure. The moment someone doesn't do too well in a school-leaving examination, it's almost like he/she would wind up struggling through life. Unless the person happens to be a very savvy entrepreneur.

I'm pretty happy about how Singapore does reward excellence and punishes preventable failure (missing deadlines on work, etc.), although I feel that the way we define failure is questionable.

... Reading about the US is interesting...

Denise Ryan said...

Whimsicism - thanks so much for your comment and for sharing!! It's a tought thing to definie, but I really thnk we've lost sight of the role of education here. Hope you keep it there!!! Thanks again!