11/11/2011

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Killing with kindness? For as long as letter grades have been around, so too, have fears of grade inflation. As far back as the 1890s, Harvard University professors were wringing their hands about students earning “sham” grades that would “seriously cheapen” the university’s reputation if the outside world were to learn of them. That so many people could worry about the same phenomenon for so long begs the question of whether such concerns are merely successive generations of curmudgeons grumbling about the declining standards of youth or grounded in reality. As I write in my latest column in Educational Leadership, recent data suggests that such concerns today may be indeed have some basis in fact. Here are but two data points: Nearly twice as many high school students reported earning an A or A-minus average in 2006 than in 1992 (32.8 percent versus 18.3 percent). In 2007, two federal reports found that the performance of U.S. high school students on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had declined between 1992 and 2005, even as average student GPA rose from 2.68 to 2.98. Some critics dismiss these data because they rely on student self-reports of their grades, which, itself could suggest an equally troubling conclusion: that today’s students are more “truth challenged” than in the past. Test companies which collect these data, however, say their analyses suggest that self-reports are sufficiently reliable to use for research purposes. The real question, though, may well be whether today’s grades accurately assess...
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The American tradeoff: More teachers, lower salaries According to a recent analysis, compared to an average teacher, a good teacher (in the 84th percentile) generates as much as $400,000 in increased future earnings for her class of 20 students. So if we define the benefits of teachers in financial terms alone, it would appear that paying six figures to attract and retain great teachers in the classroom might be defensible given the three- to four-fold return on that investment for society. So why don’t we pay teachers more? One might assume it’s because we invest too little in public education. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. As I note in my latest column in Educational Leadership, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that in the last 40 years the United States has more than doubled its spending on K–12 education and now outspends almost every other country in the world—devoting 4 percent of GDP to K–12 education compared with, for example, Japan’s 2.6 percent. Strangely, though, while more dollars were funneled to education, average teacher salaries actually declined about 2 percent per year since 1970 when calculated in terms of per capita GDP. U.S. teacher salaries now rank fourth from the bottom among 34 competitor countries in terms of teachers’ relative spending power. It’s probably no coincidence that this decline in salaries occurred at the same time that U.S. schools went on a hiring spree. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of teachers increased by 46 percent, more than twice the rate of student...

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