Want a 3.8 GPA? Major in Education

There are perennial concerns about the rigor and quality of teacher preparation. These have become so familiar that ed programs have taken to shrugging off the critiques as uninformed or anecdotal. Well, University of Missouri economist Cory Koedel has provided some new, clear, and pretty troubling evidence about the lack of rigor in teacher preparation. In “Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade,” he compares grade distribution in education departments to that in twelve other university departments. Turns out that ed faculty are much more generous when it comes to grading (full disclosure: my shop at AEI published this “Outlook”).

Koedel compares the distribution of course grades at two state flagship universities, Indiana University and the University of Missouri. At both universities, the average GPAs for the other twelve majors were roughly similar, while education stood as a stark outlier. Indeed, the average education GPA was 3.66 at Indiana University and 3.8 at U. Missouri. At Missouri, he reports that “every single student received an A (that is, 4.0) in one out of every five undergraduate education classes.” One possible explanation is that all of the most accomplished students are majoring in education. However, rendering that explanation somewhat less likely, Koedel notes that ed majors “score considerably lower than students in other academic departments on college entrance exams.”

In other recent work, Koedel has made it clear that these findings are not unique but actually appear to be pretty typical. How much does all this matter? Koedel suggests the answer is “a lot.” First, he argues that grade inflation leads to reduced effort in college. A recent study by Philip Babcock, an economist at UC-Santa Barbara, shows that, for each one point increase in a student’s expected grade, a student will typically reduce study time by 20 percent. Cory calculates that aligning grading in education departments to those in the other majors he looked at would boost student effort by more than 10 percent.

He also argues that education departments are contributing to the culture of low standards for educators. He cites a 2008 study by Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren that asked principals to evaluate their teachers on a 10-point scale (with 1 representing “inadequate” and a 10 representing “exceptional”). Jacob and Lefgren found that a majority of teachers received an 8 or better. Such results echo the tendency of principals to evaluate less than 1 percent of their teachers as unsatisfactory, a routine brought to national attention in The New Teacher Project’s The Widget Effect. Koedel remarks, “Undergraduate education majors become teachers, teachers become principals, and principals become district-level administrators. Ultimately, a sizable fraction of the workforce in the education sector is trained in education departments where evaluation standards are astonishingly low. Should we be surprised that low standards persist in K-12 schools?”

This phenomenon isn’t new. Koedel notes that, more than fifty years ago, Robert Weiss and Glen Rasmussen documented that undergraduates taking education classes were twice as likely to receive an A as students taking classes in business or liberal arts departments. It’s a familiar, endemic problem. For all the fanciful talk about clinical preparation, it’d be nice to see the nation’s teacher prep programs finally decide to get serious about simple things like insisting on some minimal rigor. A half-century of tolerating mediocrity really should be enough.

-Frederick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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