Voices in Education

Can All the Children Really Be Above Average?
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 10, number 2). Copyright 1994 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

The following case is based on actual incidents. It is presented here as a conversation starter, designed to provoke discussion. HEL subscribers have one-time permission to reproduce this page for that purpose. Names and other identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

George Larson, principal of Lake Wobegon High School, winced as he paused outside the band room on his daily morning stroll around the building. The wind ensemble was rehearsing. Something was very wrong, he knew, and it wasn't just the intonation of the saxophone section. Every term, more than 90 percent of the music grades were A or B. All the children in Lake Wobegon might be above average, but George knew in his gut that this wind ensemble was a lot closer to mediocrity than to excellence. "Are these kids really being challenged to do their best?" he asked himself.

Back in his office, George studied the computer-generated grade summaries from the most recent report cards. He looked up band director Fred Morton, longtime head of the music department. The numbers confirmed what George already knew: almost all of Fred's students had A;s and B's; more than 70 percent of the grades were A's. The figures for Mrs. Biddle, the other music teacher, were much the same.

George and Fred had been having a friendly but frustrating argument about grading for two years now: "Your grades are too high," George would say. "You're too soft-hearted. You want to praise everybody all the time."

"Yes, I do," Fred would reply with defiant pride. They would both laugh.

But George wasn't laughing now. He was grinding his teeth. He recalled last June's band concert. The band wasn't that bad, but it wasn't great. Given the talent, energy, and drive that Lake Wobegon kids typically showed in every kind of performance, George suspected that the music program could produce better results.

He also knew that Fred wouldn't change easily. Fred was as tenacious in sticking up for his program and methods as he was soft-hearted at report-card time. "George," he would argue, "how can you say that my students aren't working hard enough? Just look at all they've accomplished."

"Fred, you know how I value your program," George would reply. "Don't I come to every single performance? But can you honestly say that three-fourths of your students are producing absolutely superior work?"

"You're probably right," Fred would say dismissively. "But I'm not willing to grade that way."

George's style as principal was soft-spoken and reflective. He believed in making decisions by consensus, and he hated the idea of issuing directives. He had always strongly defended teachers' autonomy, and the faculty was fiercely loyal to him in return. But years of gentle prodding about Fred Morton's grades hadn't had any effect, and George was losing patience.

After all, there was the question of equity. Arts courses at Lake Wobegon High were given equal weight with math, science and other academic courses in calculating grade-point averages and class rank. But while the arts teachers' grades were 85 to 90 percent A's and B's, only 56 percent of the math department's grades were A's and B'[s. It wasn't fair. George decided to call a meeting of the arts department heads.

"I've been looking at the grades from first term," George began, with the music, art, and theatre department heads assembled in his office the following week. "I'm concerned that some kids may be taking arts courses simply to get an easy A or B in order to raise their class ranking. We've always given arts courses equal weight with academic courses because we believe in their importance. But we are being unfair to students who take a lot of math and science courses."

"No," said Fred Morton heatedly. "It's not right to compare what we do with math and science. We work with kids who often have never tried these things before--never risked being on a stage or singing in a choir."

"I agree," said Dana Oliver, the theatre arts teacher. "What I'm trying to foster is courage and risk-taking. I'm trying to bolster self-confidence. Suddenly, a kid comes offstage and I'm supposed to say, 'Good job--C'? That's a mixed message."

"I grade on the basis of individual progress," said Bill Pillsbury, the art teacher. "if I see a kid has gotten somewhere during the term, if there is a little bit of growth, I reward that. To me, a C is a negative reinforcement. It says, 'You're not that good.' And that kid isn't going to try."

"It sounds like you want us to grade the product," continued Dana. "But the arts don't work that way. We're encouraging process. What's the point of education, anyway? Is it to make sure the kids 'get it right'? Or is it to motivate kids to try?"

George had heard enough. "I'm sorry," he said, "but it's clear that grades in your courses are highly inflated compared with the rest of the school. That is simply going to have to change."

Some Questions Raised By This Case:

   1. Who else needs to part of this conversation?
   2. What is the purpose of grades and class rankings at Lake Wobegon High?
   3. Is "grading the product" really such a bad idea?

This case is an abridged version of "Lake Wobegon West High School," published by the MacDougall Center for Case Development, 451 Gutman Library, Cambridge, MA 02138.

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