Monday, June 2, 2014

The Decline of Standards in Higher Education

By Professor Doom

     “I don’t understand. My students almost all turned in blank papers for their tests. It wasn’t like this at the previous school.”

--one state university had standards fall very quickly for a few years, leading to severe shocks when new faculty came in and saw that the school was basically bogus. The turnover was heavy for a few years, as the legitimate faculty fled, to be replaced by either wholly unqualified people, or educationists (at the risk of repeating myself).

      I know it’s pointless to attempt to identify the exact moment that higher education went from respectable to questionable. Much like the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling water, it’s hard to notice when you’re in the system. I had my early suspicions, but I honestly believed that the problem was with me. I’m teaching the same material year after year, so I thought perhaps it wasn’t the students were getting weaker, I was just getting so much better that the material just seemed that much easier to me.

     Or so I thought, but then I chanced upon a box containing my tests and notes from ten years earlier. I looked at those tests, and immediately thought “if I gave those tests today, I’d fail the whole class.”

"I've been teaching the same material in pretty much the same way for years.  In the past most exam results neatly divided themselves into a few A's, a couple of well deserved F's, with the bulk of the grades in between.

"Now, if I used those same questions I would end up flunking more than half the class. And that would hurt the university's retention rate, not to mention their PR."

--from an essay by Nom De Plume, Ph.D. I’m hardly the only one to notice that “college level material” has been defined down over the last few decades. How much academic freedom could there be if most faculty in higher education know that if they’re going to criticize things, they MUST use a pseudonym?

      In the “old days” I asked students to memorize things, know formulas, and I’d cover new material right before the test. Now? I pass out “sample tests” and review the material the class before, so that it’s at least possible that the student might know how to answer at least a few questions. Many students realized that all they had to do to pass was just show up on “review day” and they could get by.

      “You need to understand: a C at this institution is a straight up F anywhere else.”
--part of the orientation for new faculty at the state school.

      I need to emphasize, not all institutions are bogus, even though they all have the same accreditation. See, accreditation, at theoretical best, makes sure that the school *could* offer legitimate education if it wanted to. Once that’s established, the school has a free pass to be as fraudulent as it wants to be (and that’s very, very, fraudulent, for many schools). That said, there are still some legit schools out there, but their legitimacy is dropping as administrations from the bogus, “successful” schools transfer in to “grow” the legitimate institutions by whatever means possible…and the only means for growth is to lower standards.

“Techniques to improve grades:
1.     Drop lowest test.
2.     Let students re-take a test for a higher grade.
3.     Give students precise information (questions AND answers) for what will be on test.
4.     Remove material students in prior courses found difficult.
5.     Let 20% of course credit be for things anyone can do (e.g., come to class).”

--Each one of the above tricks basically improves a student’s grade by one letter. One of the more “successful” programs for college algebra I know of uses all of them. Yes, all. Students are literally incapable of calculating their grade for the course (I saw a great demonstration of this for a whole class), yet still pass the college algebra course because it’s all but impossible to fail. Because this program is “successful”, the above grading “standards” will be copied and adopted, spreading throughout the country.

     As near as I can tell, the “Big Change” for higher education was around 1995. That’s when my tests went from “most of the class can pass” to “everyone will fail if I don’t explicitly tell them the answers in advance.” That’s when I started changing my grading policies to give “sample” questions that were identical to test questions…to dropping the lowest test grade…to handing out letter grades for attendance…to removing material that students had trouble with. 

      And still I was told repeatedly by admin that I needed to pass more students in any way possible. That was 20 years ago, and finding faculty that remembers what higher education used to be is getting hard. That’s probably why when I started taking courses again recently, to see with my own eyes why administrators and educationists were often so clueless even in their own specialization, I was surprised at the material these captains of industry had “mastered.” No, not surprised, but shocked, stunned, appalled even, by how simplistic, how little was asked or required of me in administrative/educationist courses. Read a few chapters, write a paper over the course of an afternoon or two…get an A for a 14 week semester. Both reading and writing are optional, of course. And those were the graduate courses!
     “…very little math was required of first-year community college students, and what was required was mostly middle school math.”

--anyone who bothers to look can see that community colleges are a joke. There’s almost no higher education there, it’s just a straight money-suck of federal funds into administrative pockets. Not to put to fine a point on how bogus it is, middle school math is pre-high school.

          Community colleges don’t “do” higher education. But they also don’t do job training, either—if you’ve got the job skills to teach, you’d take a 70% or more pay cut to teach at the community college. Many of these schools blatantly exist simply to extract money from suckers.

While it is true many instructors at the community college level do not have the required math knowledge to teach math, it is misleading to say the blame lies with the training of education majors or graduates.

--from the comments section of the previous article. Again, everyone in the business knows there’s a problem here. It’s not so much in the training of education majors…they shouldn’t be hired at all.

      So, today I ramble. My point is, more or less, if there’s going to be a change, a reversion of higher education to legitimacy, it’ll need to be soon. The big change to higher education being primarily fraud happened around 20 years ago, and it won’t be too much longer until there just aren’t enough people left who even remember that it’s supposed to be legitimate.


  1. I experienced some of that myself. When I began my teaching position nearly 25 years ago, many of my exams were closed-book. I gauged the level of difficulty by writing them myself and multiplying the time I needed by 3. At that time, it was a reasonable estimate on how much time my students required to either finishing those exams or close to it.

    When I quit a dozen years ago, there were no closed-book exams and the factor had increased to 1:5. In other words, if it took me half an hour to write one of my exams, the students I had then wouldn't have had enough time to finish it. But, even after attenuating the amount of difficulty, many of them still complained that my exams were "too hard".

    I got into a lot of trouble with administrators at that institution because of that. I refused to "drink the kool-aid" and fought efforts to dumb things down. I conceded to some extent by resorting to "creative" marking but that wasn't good enough for them. Insisting that, say, 2 + 2 = 4 was considered unacceptable. If the students answered 3 or 5, that was good enough because industry will teach them what they really needed to know. (If that was a case, why did our institution even exist?)

    Ultimately, they won because I got fed up with fighting for a hopeless cause. I quit before I was fired, but I dictated the terms under which I left.

  2. That's funny, I use a 10:1 ratio--if it takes me 5 minutes, then I figure the class can do it in 50 minutes. There are always a few folks that sit there with the test for the whole hour, ask for an extra few minutes, and then finally return a blank sheet of paper...I'll never understand what goes on there.