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Passing quotas

Via VFR comes this story of a teacher who did not get tenure because he failed too many students at a remedial college.

Steven Aird enforced a written policy at Nofolk State University according to which students can be failed if they do not attend at least 80% of the class sessions for a course. The policy was set up because Norfolk, a traditionally black school, accepts many students from difficult backgrounds. Coming to class is therefore especially important for the students. This sounds reasonable enough, but when Aird took the policy literally and began giving D's and F's to about 90% of his students, the administration gave him the old heave-ho.

The dean, one Sandra DeLoatch, has allegedly made it clear to professors that there is a passing "goal" in each class of 70% of the students. Naturally, the university denies that they have a quota (oh my, no) for passing students, but the smoking gun is in DeLoatch's own notes on her rejection of Aird's tenure bid, which was supported by his department. There really can be no question that his failing "too many" students was the reason for his not getting tenure.

DeLoatch dismisses testimonials for Aird from students who tell what a great help he was to them. Why? Wait for it: Because these were good students! They got good grades in other classes, as well as in Aird's. Well, in that case, of course their testimony to Aird's helpfulness is worthless, because DeLoatch sees in her crystal ball that they would have done well with any mentor. So when Aird's students fail, partly because they refuse to come to class the required percentage of the time, it is his fault. When they do well, he gets no credit. If you, dear readers, have any connection with academe, the illogic of this will sound to you all too familiar, and worthy of administrators you have known and loved.

The racial undertones to all of this (Aird is white) hardly need to be stressed. I would guess that a black professor who did what Aird has done would also be denied tenure by the likes of DeLoatch. She is looking for the students to be moved along on the conveyor belt and spit out the other end with a degree, and the professors must bring about that outcome no matter what. But there is no doubt in my mind that the historically black nature of the college is part of what creates this feverish demand that students be passed at any cost. A college engaged in such a good work as educating minority students from disadvantaged backgrounds must succeed, even if such "success" is ersatz and represents no actual acquisition of knowledge.

One wonders why anyone should care about a degree thus obtained. The obvious answer is that the credential will help the students get jobs, even if it was dubiously granted. But that merely points to the fact that the credential may well not be worth the paper it's printed on, which one would think employers would eventually notice and care about. I doubt that there is any solution to this problem looming on the horizon, but obviously the only possible route to a solution is this: People should care about what things really are, not merely about what they appear to be. A novel thought, but one America could use.

Comments (27)

Can these folks who fail to attend pass the class based on the papers they write or tests they take?

I guess that would be the measure I would want to see.

Well, the point is that the school apparently has this written policy that says "If you don't attend class at least 80% of the time, your teacher can fail you." Let's assume, plausibly enough, that the students know this. Then they are just blowing it off. And this teacher decided to do what the policy said he could do--fail them. But the administrators didn't want to allow him to do that. Now, you can question whether the policy is a wise one. For my part, I think in the context in question it probably is a wise one. These are students who are likely to need help, and the teacher can't help them or teach them if they aren't there. This isn't an on-line class we're talking about. It's perfectly legitimate to have an attendance policy like this. And again, speaking for myself and considering the type of school we are talking about here, I _very much doubt_ that they would have been able to "test out of" the material and just "didn't need" to come to class.

But whether you think the policy wise or unwise, whether you think that in some best possible world, students could just blow off class, never come, and get a grade based on tests alone (I myself do not think this), I think you should acknowledge that *with the policy in place and made known to the students*, the teacher was entirely justified in applying it, and the administration is in the wrong for not backing him up because they have a quota to pass at least 70% of their students to make their school look good.

I have an attendance policy which says that after 3 absences you will be warned, after a 4th you will be withdrawn, no questions asked. I think the school would back me up on it if push came to shove, but they've never had to because the students, unlike the ones in your post, take the policy seriously. Not one has ever complained. Maybe universities and colleges should not allow students to attend when they feel like it as long as they turn in all the work with passing grades. Being in class is part of the work. It's not fair to the students who do attend, and is just another way of saying that what's going on in there is unimportant, which of course is an insult to the teacher. If you don't want to be in my class, then I don't want you there, and I'll do my best to see that your wish is fulfilled.

Right on, Bill, about the insult to the teacher.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess (in line with my comment above) that the work of the students in question was not stellar, either, and that this just shows the importance of their coming to class. I think the article in _Inside Higher Ed_ bears this out. Aird talks about holding students to expectations and about how there is this middle portion of the students who can do well at the work if the school makes it clear to them that this is expected of them. That, together with all the talk about the disadvantaged backgrounds, says to me that these are students who are not only not coming to class but are also either not doing the work or are doing it poorly--probably in part because they aren't coming to class and hence are clueless. He teaches biology. I really doubt they just know biology from the natural light or from their wonderful high school classes in the subject. But it's an odd thing: To some extent teachers can fudge on how well the students do on the work. They can push it under the rug and just give the old courtesy C on work that is really D or F level. We've all seen it happen, especially when political issues are involved. Coming or not coming to class is an objective matter. You either are there or not.

Amen, Bill! The policy we use in our department is very similar to yours. We also count 3 tardies as the equivalent of an absence, and I've failed students for being consistently late -- so far no complaints from anyone. The college allows us to each set our own policy, and I believe we would be backed up on it without question. I especially agree with your comment that being in class is part of the work -- someone may be able to turn in adequately written essays and pass my exams with at least a C without consistent attendance, but the *point* is to learn *more* than that, which one does by participating in classroom activities.

I have not worked in the University system or any institution of higher learning. All of my work until 2 years ago when I went to work for a Christian non-profit has been in the business world. I can say without fear of contradiction that one of the clearest indicators of future success in young employees is how seriously they take their responsibility to merely show up during the work day. I am amazed how often people come to work as a new employee and immediately start coming in late or asking for time off.

This college president will successfully move these students along alright. And she will encourage the type of work ethic that will immediately communicate to everyone who succeeds through hard work that they are not serious and will not last.

Excellent point, Jay. I would add too that teaching people that rules do not apply to themselves is not going to assist them later in life.

I have been a student at 3 colleges and taught at 4. All of them have had a stated policy about class attendance. At my most current one, the teacher can decide on how much of the GRADE depends on attendance (which he must state on the first day of class), but he must track it and must report excess absences to the registrar. I have forgotten the cut-off, but if you miss more than a certain amount early in the semester you are dropped from the class.

Just as the teacher is required to state his grading policy, so also the university should be required to follow their own written policies. If they expressly state that it is up to the teacher to set attendance policy for each class, then THAT should be the standard they uphold for the class and for the teacher. If they drop the teacher, it should be for express policy violations, not for following his own standards as permitted by the rules.

We also count 3 tardies as the equivalent of an absence

With me, it's two. If a cell phone goes off in class, you're warned, the 2nd time you're absent. Same for use of the phone. Some students set it on silent and send and receive text messages. If I see the phone in your hand, it is assumed you are using it: you're absent. Same for headphones, even if the device is off. You may not have any electronic device in hand or worn on your person that I haven't personally put there myself.

Lydia, the pressure (in public institutions) to keep the bodies moving through the system is universal, but that 70% quota is the worst thing I've ever heard. A really smart dean would have kept her mouth shut.

Dovetails nicely with the earlier entry about educational romanticism.

It would seem to me that a one-size-fits-all policy with regard to attendance at the college/university level is not the way to go. With regard to coming late to class--that's disruptive and punishable. Use of electronic devices is rude and possibly disruptive--and punishable. With regard to attendance, however, I think that the punishment should fit the crime. If a class is structured in such a way--e.g., small group work/collaborative projects--so that non-attendance by one student impairs the ability of other students to achieve a maximum outcome--that's punishable. It must be remembered, however, that--unlike public school students--college and university students are paying x-$$ for every credit hour. All things being equal, I think that students should be able to decide how much bang they want for their buck. If a class is boring, but required, and the student can get a decent grade just by handing in assignments and passing the exams, that should be his choice--he's paying for it, after all. To heck with the instructor's ego, which in my university experience tended towards inflation in many cases. Nobody tells you how many miles you have to drive a car that you are paying for; why should "they" be able to tell you how many hours you have to spend in any given class, again, unless there is a compelling reason for regular attendance?

Gee, Rob #2, what a juvenile and shallow view of education that comment demonstrates. I take it, by the way, that you did not notice the point made by commentators above that coming to class may be legitimately part of the required work for the class? Are you, perhaps, unfamiliar with the age-old practice of requiring students to come to class and be prepared to take unexpected quizzes on the reading, perhaps even _discuss_ what they have been reading, and to interact with the material the professor is teaching in lectures?

For heavens' sake, even on-line classes often require weekly "chat" periods and the like to simulate classroom interaction and demonstration of having done daily assignments. Not to mention watching video lectures. But apparently listening to lectures is passe with the present generation of students.

In any event, as I have said now ad nauseum, this (to my mind, wise and well-justified) policy was _already in place_. The teachers in this school are not being allowed to enforce it, let's say it out loud, in part because it is a traditionally black school and the administrators are determined to graduate a certain percentage of their underprivileged students to demonstrate their effectiveness, period, even if this means "demonstrating" something that isn't true, even if the students aren't getting an education. I think anybody sensible ought to get that.

why should "they" be able to tell you how many hours you have to spend in any given class, again, unless there is a compelling reason for regular attendance?

The compelling reason for regular attendance is that, if everyone in the class chose not to attend, there would be no class. They're paying for a product, but they don't get to decide what the product is made of. If they don't like the product, they shouldn't buy it.

Also, requiring attendance has nothing to do with my ego. It has to do with respect for the subject matter.

Rob #2 has this bizarre idea that by paying for a class you gain the right, heaven knows from where, to get a passing grade for the class without attending. Unless the teacher happens to make everybody do group work, so that your not attending would somehow harm other people's educational experience. (I guess he had to put that bit in there because it sounds like a Golden Rule thing. Or something.) The idea that by paying money for a class you get to dictate how you are to gain and demonstrate knowledge of the subject matter is...astonishingly arrogant. Laughable, in fact. I wonder how many students think this?

No, please, I take it back. I don't want to know.

I'm really glad you took that question back, Lydia -- you really don't want to know. Some of us have a good idea, to our sorrow.

That faculty members should think their classes worth attending does not strike me as arrogant -- it is, after all, our *job* to make our classes worth attending. As Bill says, it's a matter of respect for the subject matter, which, presumably, we know more about than they do and which, presumably, it is in their interest to know.

I would quibble a bit with Bill's wording. It's not exactly a "product" we are selling -- it's an opportunity. How much the student gets out of it depends as much on what *he* puts into it as on what the *instructor* puts into it. I think of it as more like music lessons than like buying a product from a store: the student pays the instructor for the opportunity to learn about something; the instructor's responsibility is to do his best to impart that "something" to the student, including evaluating the student's progress to help him along in his endeavor -- but it doesn't matter how well he knows his subject or how well he puts it across if the student doesn't put in the effort to learn it.

And "relevance" cannot be judged by the student -- how does he know if it's relevant when a) he hasn't learned it yet and b) he hasn't lived long enough to know how the knowledge might prove valuable? Not to mention the many times I've seen students sit in classes they were not intrinsically interested in and, because they had the integrity to do the work to the best of their ability, discover a new interest that will enrich their entire lives. As to boring, who said life -- or teachers -- need to be exciting to be relevant or necessary or important? Even as a student, I learned to make subject matter I didn't intrinsically care about not boring -- and not because I always had stimulating, exciting teachers, either, but because I had learned early on, before I ever began school, that learning itself is a joy as well as a benefit.

If a potential student doesn't want to learn what college offers, he shouldn't waste his money -- or the time and energy of faculty members who genuinely want to see him learn (which is why they put into place and enforce policies that will help him to do so if he follows them with a mature attitude). And I've seen a good number of students who did not have the kinds of advantages I had embrace learning for its own sake and come to love it -- precisely because they were held to a standard and found, by following it, the satisfactions of a job well done.

If the student in question gets the syllabus, does the assigned readings, conducts the necessary research to write the papers, and shows up to successfully take the quizzes and examinations, there is no reason why he should have to sit through what are often the excruciatingly boring presentations of an ungifted instructor's lectures. If he has passed the examinations and written intelligently on the subject, he has demonstrated that he has sufficiently mastered it to earn the credits. Some academics are pure gold as teachers, and their classes are attended avidly. Others are without talent for teaching and should be kept around for their writing and research abilities, if at all. Why should a self-motivated learner pay good money to be verbally waterboarded in a class that he is capable of passing without undergoing the agony?
As a student, I personally chose to attend all of my classes. As a liberal arts major, I was always assigned more reading than it was humanly possible to do. I found that I could figure out what would be on the examinations by going to the classes, and reading only the necessary. This tactic got me on the Dean's List, and and eventual honors degree. But I don't claim that my way was the best way for every student.

It would serve students who take Rob's attitude--and especially those who act on it, as he tells us he did not--right if all the assignments and exam dates were given in class only, if all quizzes were unscheduled, and if every student's grade were based in part on classroom interaction and on reading summaries that had to be turned in during class.

What a ridiculous idea to think that because some lecturers are boring the entire nature of education has undergone a shift such that all students have a right never to come to class and still to get a good grade.

When I was in undergrad, I registered for a intro course in sociology. I needed the course and could not change my schedule once the semester began, but my first glance at the syllabus showed me that I was in for something awful. There was a great deal of discussion of "sexual norms," how religion is just brainwashing, etc., and the general idea of the class was that, by learning the "science" of sociology, we could learn how to "get other people to do what we wanted." (this was similar to the title of the required text that the prof has written). It was bad, and would have done nothing to further my education other than further solidify my distrust of sociologists (and take time away from studying English and Latin, which is what I was at college to do!) I was also quite young and I knew I was impressionable, and I didn't want to let this professor's view of sex anywhere near my own developing ideas. I don't know if he was conducting an experiment or what, but the prof offered an out-- if you thought that coming to class would not be worthwhile to you, you could tell the professor, meet with him individually, read his books, write a paper, and then tell him at the end of the semester what grade you thought you deserved. As far as I know, no one else in the 100+ lecture took him up on this, but I did, and I honestly believe that I am better off for it. I still read his books and went through some really excruciating meetings with him (I think I called his bluff, honestly), but I did not waste my time (or fill my mind with even more drivel) by sitting through his lectures.
Now, it would have been better if I had researched the class first and registered for something else worthwile.... but since I failed to do so, I am really glad he offered this "option." It is unfortunate, but at many public universities it is hard to get a degree without sitting through at least one worthless class; if a student can minimize the damage, I don't see why he shouldn't.
I teach and have a faily stringent attendance policy, but I also try to structure my lectures/tests/quizzes so that the "requirement" is built in. If my lectures are so redundant that the students can get an A without coming, then I think that is a sign that I need to reevaluate my teaching and make it more worthwhile.

Educational positivism: the notion that if one can formally express results against certain explicit criteria, without ever actually showing up, one has 'learned'.


But of course . . . Rob#2 has reminded me of the real purpose of college: to get a piece of paper for a credential with as little trouble as possible, preferably while being entertained, which is of course a basic human right.

Silly me. I keep holding onto this notion that education has to do with learning, which involves a good deal of hard work, and especially with learning what it means to be fully human . . . At least I'm in good company with John Henry Newman in this misunderstanding . . . :)

Bethany, I am in complete agreement that you were right to take that option. Moreover, I'm in complete agreement that there are classes that students would be better off not taking, classes where the lectures are worse than a waste of time--brainwashing and such. But the point I would make is that these are _bad classes_, classes that certainly students should not be required to take, and moreover classes that students should be able to drop during a (short) drop-add period at the beginning of the semester.

None of this changes the fact that there is no universal educational right to receive a passing grade without attending class. There really is no possible argument for the existence of such a general right.

I'm not sure why you all insist that the time not spent in a generally sub-par and uninteresting class will be time misspent on worthless pursuits. That seems to me cynical, at best. Must one impute the worst possible motives to anyone who sees things differently than one sees them? I thought that Bethany C's presentation of her experience with a class in which she found little merit was both reasonable and respectful of the process of learning in general. She probably agrees with me on very little, overall; but she nontheless chose to be objective about the topic at hand.

Bethany C's experience cannot be universalized. Every professor cannot offer to teach a class and conduct separate meetings for students who don't like the class. She was simply lucky that the option was offered.

she nontheless chose to be objective about the topic at hand

This kind of insult reminds me of someone.

Bethany C's experience cannot be universalized.

Yes, I appreciate that. My whole point here is being made against the concept of a one-size-fits-all, strictly regimented, approach to higher education.

Then you're arguing against a concept we're not promoting.

"Bethany C's experience cannot be universalized. Every professor cannot offer to teach a class and conduct separate meetings for students who don't like the class. She was simply lucky that the option was offered."

I certainly never suggested that it should. If the option had not been *officially* offered, however, but I still could have gotten an A in class without attending classes which would have been at least useless if not damaging to my education (if not in their content then at least in taking away time from other classes), then I don't see why I should not have done so. There seems to be an implication here that students are not competent to identify which classes are useless and which are not; I hope that, among good students, this is not the case.I have learned much from classes which I did not initially enjoy, and I have learned a great deal in class when I would rather have been elsewhere; the Socy class was the only class I ever chose not to attend. I am not suggesting in any way that students should have an attendance free-for-all based on their feelings at the time. On the other hand, I think the response to Rob 2 has been pretty strange coming from a group of people who have been at times very critical of the education being offerred at many colleges these days. It is highly probable that a student will end up in one or more classes being offered by incomepent or vicious people, or in classes which are "required" for the sake of the offering dept rather than the students-- for me, that only happened twice, and I dealt with those situations as well as I could while enjoying and learning a great deal from the rest of my college experience. (judging from my peers and my students, this is not a universal experience, either). I also know that I am off-topic here and that this was *not* the situation in the case of the Bio. professor in the original post.

The ideal situation-- the situtation which I hope my children find when they attend college, though I doubt it-- would be a course of entirely useful, rigorous classes, taught by talented professors, which all students attend consistently.

From Lydia:
"None of this changes the fact that there is no universal educational right to receive a passing grade without attending class. There really is no possible argument for the existence of such a general right."

I agree, and I didn't mean to suggest that such a *right* exists.


I don't really think the issue of bad classes is relevant to our refutation of Rob 2's silly statements, anymore than the issue of bad parents is relevant to the question of custody policy or of whether kids should get to choose whether to live at home. Rob 2 has made sweeping statements to the effect that students ought to be able to get a grade just for showing up to take tests and for writing papers, and that their attending class should be at their option and analogous to "choosing to drive a car one has bought." This is ridiculous and is a question about the nature of education. If a teacher teaches bad classes--as unfortunately many do--and tries to indoctrinate his students in crazy ideas (as unfortunately many do), I'm going to criticize him for _that_, not for asking students to come to class. Whether a class is worthwhile is just a different question from whether it's legitimate to count attendance as part of the grade.

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