In fall 2009, the College of Letters and Science pushed further with a study of grading practices in five introductory courses. Its title was revealing: “Grade Gap/Future Gap: Addressing Racial Disparities in L&S [Letters & Science] Introductory Courses.” Departments were instructed to implement strategic action plans to “eliminate racial grade gaps by 2014.”Perhaps not. But I refer to Vince Lombardi as in teaching chemistry, physics, and Latin at St. Cecilia High School, introducing the essential elements in such a way that even the dullest or least-engaged student can grasp them. Likewise, there are essential elements to communication and to figuring, and probably to psychology. But you have to let the professors have the presence in the classroom that Mr Lombardi had at St. Cecilia. Missing from Madison: the crusty senior non-coms, graying chief check pilots, and grumpy old Road Foreman of Engines.
This targeted five introductory courses: Chemistry 103, Communication Arts 100, English 100, Mathematics 112, and Psychology 202.
Putting an even sharper point on the administration’s desires, the report explained, ". . . these courses have something in common, sharp disparities in grade outcomes by race. In all courses targeted minority students achieve lower grades than non-targeted students at similar preparation levels. In each course, targeted minority students receive more of the low grades and fewer of the high grades."
No, that doesn’t explicitly demand grade quotas, but the unsubtle point can’t be missed.
The people who teach those introductory courses, mostly teaching assistants and instructional academic staff, are quite vulnerable to administrative pressure because they are on limited-term contracts. They are apt to decide that giving each individual the grade he or she earned is less important than assigning grades so that there is little or no gap between groups.That's probably the wrong approach, but to hire Professors of the Practice and allow them to develop the presence of Mr Lombardi at St. Cecilia is so hopelessly old school.
Rather than adjusting grades, however, the university suggests that faculty members who teach those courses should “discover pedagogical strategies that reach targeted and non-targeted students with equal effectiveness" to reduce the achievement gap.
Resorting to faddish education-speak, the university suggests that the faculty use “proactive multicultural competence” to make their teaching more effective for the targeted students.
Those ideas about “pedagogical strategies” may sound nice, but they’re utopian. Professors teaching those introductory courses (or any others) can’t wave a magic wand to come up with a teaching method that enables the “targeted” students in, say, chemistry, to learn the subject just as well as the non-targeted students. There simply isn’t some different, more effective way of teaching chemistry to minority students than teaching it to white and Asian students.Perhaps so, and if the university's personnel decisions are going to be based on semesterly evaluations of contingent faculty and graduate assistants, that is the most likely outcome. There is no magic wand necessary: only the disciplined development of the fundamental concepts, and building upon them methodically. But that's work, and it's going to be harder work when the admissions office is filling your classroom with Distressed Material.
Faculty members might attempt or at least say they’ve attempted to discover and use methods that make all student groups learn the material equally well. In the end, however, they will do the safe thing and adjust grades so that the gap disappears. That, after all, is the one thing the university can measure.
Students need accurate feedback on how they’re doing, not inflated grades that boost their egos.That last sentence might be an indictment of preferential policies, or it might scan as well simply as "some admitted students are less well prepared." And, I'd suggest, there are differences in motivation.
I would also argue that the university’s reputation will be diminished by these efforts at equalizing grades between groups. Pressures to eliminate grading gaps will lead to the “dumbing down” of courses and, even more likely, grade inflation for targeted minority students. This pretend solution won’t make the university better for anyone.
UW-Madison is going through all these contortions because the administration can’t or won’t acknowledge a simple fact: some groups of admitted students are significantly less well prepared for college work.
Econ Log's David Henderson suggests that readers take Professor Hansen's warning seriously.
This is not a criticism by just anyone. W. Lee Hansen is one of the most accomplished economists who has taught at the the University of Wisconsin in the last half century. One of his critics on the site that published his article casually referred to him as a "conservative." I'm guessing that Professor Hansen got a good laugh out of that one.Indeed so. Professor Hansen is also the author of a set of proficiencies in economics that are, yes, desirable in graduating seniors, or in aspiring professors now waiting for their job meeting callbacks. But in order to assess or interpret or apply existing economic knowledge, the practitioner must first be a master of exchange, arbitrage, opportunity cost, and indifference at the margin.
Thus, we're full circle: the retention and completion problems beginning students encounter, circumstances of their admission notwithstanding, might be aggravated by introductory classes offered by inexperienced presenters without the confidence or the presence to develop the fundamentals.