Kerry Hart: Reality TV and grade inflation
December 30, 2007
In Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show, Keillor signs off with the news from Lake Wobegon with a summary of the Midwest small-town stereotype and includes the remark, “Where the children are all above average.” During the past couple of decades, I have seen students increasingly feel entitled to grades of ‘A’ or ‘B’ simply because they believe they are above average and incapable of doing average work. But an undeserved high grade doesn’t really give the student a fair assessment of his or her work. When grades are higher than what is deserved, it is called grade inflation.
A number of educators at all levels have felt disenfranchised by the pressures of grade inflation – primarily because it doesn’t really let students know how they’re doing in relation to their peers. For example, several years ago a professor at Yale University felt he needed to give in to grade inflation as he lamented over the detrimental affects grade inflation was having on graduates from Yale and other Ivy League universities. The problem was that some students from Yale could not get accepted into graduate programs because Yale was holding to its high standards and a grade of ‘C’ still meant a good grade. Unfortunately, the Yale students were competing for spots in graduate school where the average grades from other university students were all ‘A’s and ‘B’s.
If reality TV is a reflection of societal attitudes, then the day may be coming when grade inflation stops and teachers feel comfortable to call it as they see it. In the television series, The Apprentice, the audience expected Donald Trump to call it for what it was, and the verdict, “You’re fired,” came with an accurate (albeit blunt) performance evaluation.
There have been a number of reality shows that allow an audience to see someone’s talent judged by experts. These shows demonstrate a conflict between those who have a (right or wrong) sense of being “above average,” and the authority figures that are expected to make an accurate performance evaluation. Although the audience is allowed to vote in some of these shows, there appears to be a hunger for genuine and accurate judgments from those with expertise and authority.
If the need to hear the evaluation of the experts in reality television demonstrates a trend in societal values that can be applied to education, it will put the teachers back on center stage for those who want a fair answer to the question, “How am I doing?”