Under pressure – the jugular dance

By Thursday, April 23, 2015 No tags 0

Increasing old age and an inherent disposition towards cynicism caused me at one point the other week to fell the following pithy comment to one of the heads here at school: “Final grades are like sausage. You may or may not like the final product but, whatever the case, you probably don’t want to see the underlying process.” Yes, that went down a treat as you can imagine.

I’ve just had a visit from family from what is the closest thing I have to a home country, Sweden, and had a chance to get the inside info on what Swedish school is like these days. (I grew up in Sweden during teenagerdom and went to high school and university there.) Over the past decade ‘abroad’ I have followed, with a degree of morbid fascination, how Sweden has fallen in the PISA rankings to 38th place. (See here.) There are a goodly many reasons why this has taken place, and while this is not the place to enumerate them, one in particular stands out; the lack of externally given or moderated grades in the Swedish school system. Instead, grades are set by teachers, and this of course has led to an almost institutionalised form of grade inflation – in economics parlance, a form of “The tragedy of the commons” where teachers realise that if they don’t inflate grades to advantage their own students, the expectation that other teachers and schools will inflate grades creates a built-in incentive to inflate grades.

Externally set and graded exams deal (e.g. the IB and IGCSE systems) with the problem of inflated grades quite well – right up to the point where teachers are to set predicted grades to be used by universities for acceptance. The system of setting predicted grades varies from school to school but there is always an element of ‘guestimation’ on teachers’ part and professional face often leads us to err on the side of caution here: we really don’t want to see that our average predicted is lower than our average de facto grade average!

It is here that I have noticed increasing pressure on IB teachers in international school settings in South East Asia. The pressure that many of our students here are under is quite horrific. For example, a goodly number of Asian students will have private tutors, go to afternoon and weekend classes – and spend the brunt of holidays in what sounds like the educational version of officer training camp. We’ve all heard the stories about the staggering level of competition in SEA for university seats but trust me, the newspaper stories don’t do reality justice! When you see kids coming in with bags under their eyes you can hang your umbrella on and then falling asleep in class because they’ve only managed 5 hours of sleep per day over the past week; when kids break down in tears because they get a grade 5 rather than 7 on a test; when parents call/mail to tell teachers to increase the workload and be more demanding and stricter (e.g. negative reinforcement as a teaching method)… you know something is wrong.

And then we get to December/January. This is where it becomes ‘interesting’ in that very wide English use of the word – somewhere between “Oh, the Titanic is going down!” to “Ehm, the scones are a bit dry.”

You colleagues will surely recognise the story. University applications are being compiled and grade transcripts/grade reports are being filed by teachers for predicted grades. All of a sudden we find that parents wish to have a meeting to discuss progress – yet in fact the main subject is about whether a given predicted grade is too low. OK, fair enough, it’s part the system I suppose. Parents also realise that the ‘Tragedy of the commons’ effect is in place and that teachers are sitting down with other teachers at other schools all over the world. I surely wouldn’t want to unfairly advantage my students – but nor would I wish to disadvantage them!

Yet there are several elements herein that seriously yank my chain. One is that the same parents coming to me for inflationary grade discussion wouldn’t even consider sitting down for a discrete chat with the inspector who gave their car a ‘Fail’ on the yearly vehicle inspection (MOT or EPA for example) to convince him/her that as long as the car gets a ‘Pass’, the catalytic converter will be fixed very soon. Basically I’ve never understood why IB teachers cannot be granted the same consideration and basic respect in setting grades as a doctor issuing a diagnosis. I’ve been to a number of parties where everyone seems to have expert advice for education…but for some reason I’ve never heard any layperson, index finger in air, argue pebble reactor core temperatures with a nuclear physicist…

Then there is the issue of where the receiving university is and what counts as entry grades. A goodly number of my students go on to universities where grade transcripts are used to glean qualified students – rather than final IB grades. Yes, spot the flaw here. This systemic malfunction basically means that there is a strong incentive for ambitious students and parents to hold a series of talks about grades. Frequently one gets “…this is so important for Johnny’s university application and future…” the emotional blackmail argument equivalent of a sledgehammer.

But the real issue arises if one has the misfortune to have a weak leadership and/or ownership structure at school! Luckily, I do not – in fact, I have been fortunate enough to have massive support in my efforts to dam up attempts at grade coercion. However, I do have colleagues who have basically been ordered to inflate grades. I have colleagues who refused to do so and discovered that the head had then done it him-/herself. This appears to be a problem that is built-in to many private schools that send a large portion of the student body to universities which accept grade transcripts rather than final IB examination results. I call it the ‘jugular dance’; five people are dancing in a circle, each holding the next person by the jugular. Nobody wants to squeeze because this sets of a chain reaction where the fright causes the next person to squeeze…and then the next..etc, and all of a sudden the first person is getting throttled.

Who are these five people? Students, teachers, heads, parents and board/owners. Each one has strong self-interest in not rocking the boat, e.g. not pointing out inflated grades. Students are obviously happier than a pig in swill to have a rate of return far beyond their labour input; teachers have the incentive to look good towards colleagues/board; heads have happy kids to put in the colour glossy photographs for marketing purposes and don’t have to deal with angry parents; parents see their kids getting high grades and since they have no idea what transpires to actually get those grades they are highly unlikely to rock the boat, and; the board/owners see and hear only what happy heads convey upwards in the chain of command.

I often reflect on the fact that the strength of an external grade system (IB, IGCSE, A levels) is only as good as the next step in the chain; university acceptance procedures. As long as universities continue to accept high school students on the iffy merits of grade transcripts or predicted grades, schools have an incentive to inflate grades.

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