Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Moron Grades

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. "This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. "This porridge is too cold," she said So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. "Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily and she ate it all up.


In Taiwan's educational system, the catchword is quality, but the outcome is mediocrity. Why? Let's take a look......

Lately lots of words have been coming down to me from Those at the Top. At the beginning of the semester I was informed that I hadn't failed enough students. As several of us have noted before, the grading system in Taiwan is fraught with land mines that preclude the possibility of quality emerging from the system. This year my failure to fail was basically bad luck. I usually fail quite a few students in my writing classes but last year the word finally seemed to penetrate that I will fail kids who don't do the work, and so everyone did the work and passed.

But let's imagine that I had actually failed everyone who probably deserved it. I'd be getting the lecture that many foreign teachers have received over the years -- you can't fail too many either. At some universities it is understood that only a limited number of students will fail, and so many students simply do not perform, knowing they will get a grade anyway.

One result of this problem is the ferocious graduate entrance exams that Taiwan universities have. Two related factors are at work. First, students may have been passed through the system without doing any work, and so must be screened out somehow, since their grades at College X will only loosely correlate with their abilities and performance (more on that in a moment). Second, since failing out of a grad degree is unthinkable, there is an unwritten agreement that everyone entering a program will receive a degree. Hence the ferocity of the exam serves to include students who already know something.

Now a new problem with me has emerged. In addition to not failing enough people, apparently I gave two classes an average grade over 90. Not only can you not fail too few or too many, you cannot give grades that are too high, either. One class was the teaching internship class, for which students worked extremely hard; the other I was not told.

The upshot is that I am safest keeping grades within a certain range, between 80 and 89, failing a few to look good, and managing my average grades so that they do not stand out from those of other teachers. In Taiwan, where positive feedback is practically unknown, I am never going to receive any accolades for publishing more serious papers in the last two years than the whole rest of my department combined. However, any negative deviance from the norm will be noted, and pressure applied.

The result is, of course, a regression to mediocrity as teachers throughout the system adjust their grading and failing habits to reflect pressure from above, and an ever loosening correlation between student achievement and student grades. Furthermore, students know that they cannot be rewarded with high grades for good work, so they will refrain from putting effort into their work, merely doing enough to justify the mediocre score they will get anyway. And so the system continues to churn out mediocrity, and wring its hands about quality....


taiwantiger said...

One thing that complicates the problem, too, is the utter inability to accept criticism. I made the horrific mistake of submitting a paper to a national conference with ...gasp... original theory and which began with a criticism of the Taiwanese tradition of copying (DVDs, exams, coffee shop logos, etc.) that leads to some classroom problems. Not surprisingly, my paper was panned by the judges, who apparently could not stomach either orginal theory or a critical view of the culture of unoriginality here in Taiwan.

My own experience is echoed by other foreign teachers that I have talked to, who often express surprise at the rigidness of the academic community and the dedication to creating an atmosphere conducive to learning nothing whatsoever.

James said...

Can you use publishing capital to get out of the grading problem? Isn't that supposed to be all-important at all Taiwanese universities now?

Michael Turton said...

Taiwantiger -- same here.

James -- I am curious to see whether publishing has any effect...I'll post here when I know.


nostalgiphile said...

At my institution I've heard nothing about grade quotas, but I can easily see this happening in the future. This apparently depends on who the Academic Affairs dean happens to be, and whether they are really into statistics. Personally, I'd like to know why they even care--i.e., are they reporting this information to the MOE and if so, do they get censured for having grades that are too high?

About the idea that publishing will help you avoid teaching criticisms, I think the answer is no. I have a friend here who is very well published and last year, when the shitstorm came down about changing grades, he was severely criticized by the President (for about half an hour) for mucking things up. I've published a good bit recently, but so far no one has bothered criticizing my grades (darnit)--perhaps because my grades always tend to span a fairly large spectrum and concentrate in the C+/75 area for some reason. Probably because I'm a pretty harsh grader, even when I am pleased with and like my students. (I mainly use grades to encourage students).

Anyway, if your school is gonna play hard and fast with statistics, I'd suggest you just resort to the Stairwell Method of grading--toss them all down there, and then the only question will be 'did the papers that reached the bottom get A's, or the ones that stayed near the top?'

Clyde Warden said...

There is no official position on grades at any school in Taiwan, and Michael is, I suspect, picking up on signals from a department that has been criticized by other departments for ridiculously high grades. Departments with high standards find it annoying that their students seem to pass English classes with high 90s yet these same students cannot write a sentence. Thus, some informal pressure to do something. Do what, well, nothing really. There is nothing to be done because grades are totally up to the teacher.

As to research, Nostalgiphile got two totally different tracks mixed together from his friend's example. Publishing and errors made at school are unrelated. Any publishing that contributes to promotion in rank is judged on the research track, sent for outside blind review and then to the MOE for the same treatment. Within the department, however, research means nothing, with the most important things being teaching and service, both subjectively judged by your colleagues. Thus, no one considers cutting someone slack because of publications, if anything, just the opposite, because publications are independent of the school and act as currency used for getting other opportunities (like jumping ship).

And the last point is just how publications are defined these days. Basically "well published" now means 5-10 SSCI with impact factors over 0.5 or 20-30 SCI with impact factor over 1. All that within the last five years (anything before that stops counting). Conferences and un-ranked journals (including all domestic journals and even TSSCI have ceased being counted by reviewers at all). I know from experience with close friends, nostalgiphile, for anthropology even getting into a top journal like Cultural Anthropology will buy you nothing at the department.

At the school/department level what does buy you some room is NSC grants. The larger the grant, the better. Universities not only are ranked on this, but they also receive a management fee cut from the grant. Grants over .5 million are very good and anything over 1 million, in the social sciences, is fantastic and gets one very good treatment.

STOP_George said...

Heads up!

I've got a Daily Kos diary slated for posting soon.

It is entitled, "Hu Jintao: Today's White House Guest". I will try to bring focus to Taiwan at the DKos community (as impossible a feat as that is) by piggy-backing on this high-profile visit by Hu in Washington.

Wish me luck! And please -- feel free to post (especially you, Michael!)

And thank you for allowing me to post off-topic.

Echo said...

In a society like that of Taiwan, "keeping face" is probably far more important than anything else. I've heard too much from my teachers who were trying to do right toward a "higher than average" performance but finally gave up. People don't want to see anyone else having better performance, because that reveals their own impotence and laziness and certanly makes them look bad.

So, in response to an outstanding performance from others, they put all their effort not on "working harder to catch up," but on "trying all they can to drag him down to the same level as their are."

In the end, in order to survive, any genius would learn to mediocritize him/herself such that everybody can live happily and --- keep their faces.

nostalgiphile said...

In reply to Clyde: wtf? Obviously you didn't read the post just before mine, which was a question about whether "publishing capital" will get you "out of the grading problem." The answer was in the negative in case you failed to catch that. And yeah, thanks, I already knew the stuff about Taiwan's screwed up journal rankings system. Didn't know it applied to made-up subjects like "marketing" though.

Anyway, Clyde, before offering long-winded tangents about my comments (and miscellaneous other stuff), please refer to the comments to which they refer. Read them a bit more carefully, and try not to get so carried away.

Michael Turton said...

Didn't know it applied to made-up subjects like "marketing" though.

That is a ridiculous and completely unwarranted comment.


Clyde Warden said...

I will try to do all you request nostalgiphile, as well as finding a non-made-up subject to study. Thanks for that input.