Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Who's to Blame When Students Fail?

Remember my post from last week, "Blaming Teachers? Educational Accountability and Student Performance?"

I noted in that entry how I'm hesitant to base tenure decision on student perfermance indicators, such as testing results and percentages of students mastering course curriculum.

Well, check out this piece from Inside Higher Education, "
Students Fail — and Professor Loses Job," which chronicles the story of Steven Aird at Norfolk State University:
Who is to blame when students fail? If many students fail — a majority even — does that demonstrate faculty incompetence, or could it point to a problem with standards?

These are the questions at the center of a dispute that cost Steven D. Aird his job teaching biology at Norfolk State University. Today is his last day of work, but on his way out, he has started to tell his story — one that he suggests points to large educational problems at the university and in society. The university isn’t talking publicly about his case, but because Aird has released numerous documents prepared by the university about his performance — including the key negative tenure decisions by administrators — it is clear that he was denied tenure for one reason: failing too many students. The university documents portray Aird as unwilling to compromise to pass more students.

A subtext of the discussion is that Norfolk State is a historically black university with a mission that includes educating many students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The university suggests that Aird — who is white — has failed to embrace the mission of educating those who aren’t well prepared. But Aird — who had backing from his department and has some very loyal students as well — maintains that the university is hurting the very students it says it wants to help. Aird believes most of his students could succeed, but have no incentive to work as hard as they need to when the administration makes clear they can pass regardless.

“Show me how lowering the bar has ever helped anyone,” Aird said in an interview. Continuing the metaphor, he said that officials at Norfolk State have the attitude of “a track coach who tells the team ‘I really want to win this season but I really like you guys, so you can decide whether to come to practice and when.’ ” Such a team wouldn’t win, Aird said, and a university based on such a principle would not be helping its students.

Sharon R. Hoggard, a spokeswoman for Norfolk State, said that she could not comment at all on Aird’s case. But she did say this, generally, on the issues raised by Aird: “Something is wrong when you cannot impart your knowledge onto students. We are a university of opportunity, so we take students who are underprepared, but we have a history of whipping them into shape. That’s our niche.”
Now, think about that: Something's wrong WITH THE PROFESSOR, who's being portrayed as unable to impart knowledge. He has "failed to embrace the mission of educating those who aren’t well prepared. "

I guess that answers the question on "who's to blame when students fail?"

Aird was in a catch-22 situation, for even when students did well in classes, he wasn't credited as being a successful teacher:

Some of the students writing on his behalf received grades as low as C, although others received higher grades.

But although DeLoatch held Aird responsible for his failures, she wrote that he did not deserve any credit for his success stories and these students, by virtue of their strong academic performance, shouldn’t influence the tenure decision. “With the exception of one of these students, it appears that all have either excelled or are presently performing well at NSU. Given their records, it is likely that that would be the case no matter who their advisors or teachers were.”
Sounds a bit double-standard-ish, no?

Note Aird's explanation of the situation:

“I think most of the students have the intellectual capacity to succeed, but they have been so poorly trained, and given all the wrong messages by the university,” he said.

The problem at Norfolk State, he said, isn’t his low grades, but the way the university lowers expectations. He noted that in the dean’s negative review of his tenure bid, nowhere did she cite specific students who should have received higher grades, or subject matter that shouldn’t have been in his courses or on his tests. The emphasis is simply on passing students, he said.

“If everyone here would tell students that ‘you are either going to work or get out,’ they would work, and they would blossom,” he said. “We’ve got to present a united front — high academic standards in all classes across the institution. Some students will bail, and we can’t help those, but the ones who stay will realize that they aren’t going to be given a diploma for nothing, and that their diploma means something.”
I feel the same way sometimes, when I have students complaining about my policies on late work, or something, when they say, "well, professor so-and-so lets me turn my stuff in late..."

He sounds like a crusader, but he's going to have to battle like Syssiphus to change the system.

See also,
Paul Trout, "Student Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University."