Schools and Culture: Dysfunctional Cultural Currents Stymie School Reform?

Summary: In Yale students and public school students alike, cultural currents surface and raise questions how these patterns influence our children in their studies.

News in the Yale Alumni Magazine that 62% of Yale undergraduates earned A or A- in their coursework in spring of 2012 first astounded me and then led me to speculate how the news may reflect cultural patterns present as well far, far away in the prosaic confines of public school, USA.

Some on the Yale campus argue that the quality of the student and the productivity of the Yale undergraduate are better than in the past, partly due to a more competitive admissions process. According to this line of thought, the current student works more intensively in a competitive atmosphere much heightened  from, say 1963, when only 10% of grades were in the A/A- range. That’s a stretch, I think, though some of the discrepancy may well be explained by those factors. Full disclosure: I was a member of the Yale class of 1967.

Others, students, claim that such democracy in grading diminishes the competitive factor, and frees students to focus on learning. Still others, some faculty, counter that the grading pattern stems from increased competition to the point of sheer grade grubbing on students’ part, focused as they are on competitive jobs and graduate and professional schools down the road.

Parenthetically, the philosophical and organizational issues involved at Yale echo a current controversy at Microsoft. A recent story in the Seattle Times announced that Microsoft will discard an evaluation schema that mandated a rank ordering of evaluations within each department. Critics claimed the raw competition the previous system engendered distorted Micosoft’s other imperatives toward creativity and collaboration, and has seriously undermined its competitiveness, ironically so.

Back to Yale. Professor Jonathan Holloway fingers a culprit more deeply within current culture, which observers of US public school students will recognize. According to Holloway, the “grade grubbing” is a “symptom of people not learning from an early age about failure. When I was playing little league soccer, you only got a trophy if you won. Nowadays, everybody’s getting trophies.” I nod in recognition, having only recently thrown out many such mementos from my kids’ early sporting days.

By implication Yale faculty members collude in this cultural imperative by choosing not to differentiate more subtly the variations in the quality of their students work. Debate is underway about alternatives, for example mandating that no more than 35% of grades can be in the A range, as Princeton did as far back as 2004, under similar circumstances.

Such debate echoes moves in public schools toward an uptick in standards as one tool in the arsenal to kick start more broadly our student academic progress. The debate at Yale, among other things, is about standards.

I often encountered a kind of entitlement in many of my high school students that spanned income levels. Regardless of family economic circumstances, many to most had cell phones, or other baubles of the culture, regardless of whether or not their progress in school merited what could have been a bauble earned. More to the point, way too high a percentage of students seemed not to appreciate that reward follows being held accountable for the quality of one’s actions or, more prosaically, that one needed to work toward goals that held individual value.

Integral to this constellation is a concern for kids’ self-esteem that judges all level of effort and quality equally good, which however may erode preparation for the reality kids will one day face, and weaken their own ability to discern quality in their own lives and around them. In some kids this cultural characteristic may ill prepare kids emotionally for the failure, and the requisite course corrections to failure, that are a normal part of any life.

It is in this last dimension that we travel full circle back to Yale’s grade inflation issue. Granted, these high quality students have well learned the lesson of accountability for their actions, and to put work and effort toward identified goals, but do they not in their grade grubbing and defense of grade inflation betray discomfit with the notion that on this rarified stage they will finally meet their match and turn out to be mediocre, even if mediocre in very fast company? How will they respond; how will they know how to respond?

Meanwhile, in the ground between elite university students and all public school students, the American College Test (ACT) people recently announced that only 26% of all students who took the ACT last school year scored at a college level on all the four measures of math, reading, English and science. Though this group includes pretenders to college level as well as legitimate candidates, it certainly includes most of those we urge toward post-secondary education, and still leaves out a significant cadre that has not yet accepted the necessity of further education or training on some level.

Despite a decade and more of school reform, these ACT figures as well as the familiar rout of our public school test takers by students in other countries might well make us wonder if we still miss some important dynamic.

While school reformers of all stripe focus appropriately on the maintenance of high expectations, the increase of school funding, instructional upgrades, refined training and recruitment of the teaching corps, attention to at risk students, and so forth, what of elusive cultural currents that undergird the behavior of our students? Collective failure to teach accountability, goal oriented behavior toward reward, and the healthy recognition without despair of one’s position in life’s race may well undermine academic progress. Successful solutions require first targeting a problem clearly, even if it means taking on powerful cultural currents more consciously, hopefully not like Sisyphus.


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