LAST FALL, A PRETTY blonde
student in the large American Government class I teach came to my office. She was readily distinguishable from the other faces in the 300- seat lecture hall because she always sat close to the front, seemed interested and attentive, and occasionally asked questions in class.
"What's the problem?" I inquired, not wholly out of altruism, since not even tenured faculty benefit from making students upset and irate.
Her request was a surprising one. She wanted me to fail more students. In my class students who don't attend regularly scheduled exams can take make-ups. She felt I should give these students zeros instead.
She was open about her motives. I usually graded on a "curve," meaning I raised everyone's score enough to bring the class average to 80. More zeros would lower the average and, presumably, raise the grade of this particular diligent student.
This would be a radical change, to say the least. Many students at our large state-supported university work at part-time jobs to stay in school. Requiring students to miss work, jeopardizing their jobs to take exams, would be self-defeating in the long run, since their college attendance often depends on what they earn. And what about illnesses and deaths of relatives? Should absences due to those causes be penalized? But this young woman was adamant.
"These students are supposed to be mature adults, aren't they?" she asked. "Then they should assume the responsibility to be at regularly scheduled exams, and if they don't make it, they must be immature and should be penalized."
As I listened to this student relate the intense pressure she was under to earn sufficiently high grades to enter medical school, I realized that we had markedly different goals in the class. My goal was to increase the average student's understanding of the workings of American government and of issues in national politics. Grades were an instrument to achieve that objective. Her goal was to show that she was brighter, smarter, and quicker than her fellow classmates in order to gain a prized slot in medical school. If that meant hindering peers in their own learning objectives, then so be it.
As she left, I reflected upon the strange way we have chosen in America to instill values in young physicians-to-be, headed for what should be the most humanitarian of the professions. Yet she was just reacting to the philosophy prevailing in American education's grade-oriented system.
I believe this system is increasingly anachronistic in a technologically complex and interdependent society where cooperation and teamwork are required. It may have had a purpose once, but no more.
But what are the alternatives? Grading on the curve only encourages, or at least tolerates, poor overall performance. And as the student who visited my office made clear, grading on the curve can encourage anti- cooperative attitudes.
But what if, instead of blindly following tradition, I had adopted an alternative grading system designed to reward cooperation, such as the system Japanese companies use to encourage their employes? In major Japanese corporations only half to two-thirds of total employe compensation is based on salary. The rest comes from annual bonuses and other perks. Since the bonuses are based on corporate profits for the year, an individual's pay is directly linked to the well-being of the entire organization. Employes have an incentive to act in ways that will increase corporate profits.
By contrast, in both American corporations and educational institutions, the financial rewards of workers seldom have anything to do with the overall success of their enterprise. They do not reward team efforts; often they discourage them.
But what if I were to determine part of the grade of my government students on the basis of the whole class's performance? Wouldn't this provide strong incentives to increase the achievement of all the students? Students would be motivated to share learning and ideas, rather than keep information and interesting thoughts to themselves. The force of peer pressure would surely produce better results.
But wouldn't such a system hurt the good students, by dragging down their otherwise outstanding individual scores? Not necessarily. Under the Japanese management system, bonus payments are not equal for all employes. They represent a percentage of the salary, so the higher the salary, the bigger the bonus is bound to be. Transplanting this idea to the classroom would actually reward students with the highest individual grades, since they would be entitled to a larger share of the bonus than the poorer students when the class average improved.
I believe such a plan would unleash untapped energies for American education. Bright students would learn how to teach slow students, and in doing so, would not only develop communication and teaching skills, but would enhance their own mastery of the specific subject.
No doubt, some would argue that academic integrity would be undermined. But is integrity undermined when students are encouraged to help each other learn? Are academic standards really lowered by an incentive structure designed to raise overall performance and comprehension? Increasingly, how to cooperate and be a good team player is as important as any specific facts or details students can learn. Future managers, physicians, educators, and leaders are in dire need of these skills. As American economic productivity continues to be disappointing, the whole country could benefit from increased teamwork and attention to organization goals.