Thursday, February 28, 2013

Making the Grade: Self-Worth, Status, and Mini-Vans

What comes to mind when you think of grades or GPA? As someone who only finished the GPA stage of her education journey a couple of years ago, I find myself immensely relieved that I no longer have to spend numerous hours worrying about whether or not I make the grade. I would also be remiss if I did not, at least on some level, acknowledge that I do miss the bursts of motivation, all-nighter writing sessions and so on, that accompanied my desire to make the grade. My ambition, though, for wanting to make the grade may be different than my friends, neighbors, or fellow colleagues. The question follows then, what do grades symbolize? Why do certain students find their entire self-worth/intelligence defined by the letters or numerical averages on a piece of paper? Who cares more about grades/test scores? Is merit distributed equitably for all students with high GPAs?

USA Today's Mary Beth Marklein draws attention to the fact that many U.S. universities and colleges are no longer looking at GPAs for admission. Parents, however, find the GPA to be an important marker of their child's intelligence. GPA/honor-student status is also a designator of elevated social class--bumper stickers for parents' mini-vans/sedans and flair for moms' purses or rear-view mirrors.

Prior to learning the statuses associated with high GPA, I would argue particularly those of class and whiteness, would grades have any meaning to students? The importance of GPA is learned and, for this reason, we should always be cautious of how a constructed concept may influence people/students of different social, economic, and historical locations.  

Is merit distributed equitably for all students with high GPAs? Differences in a school's geographical location (i.e., inner-city, rural, or suburb), social location (i.e., public or private), and historical location (i.e., the school's federal report card or accreditation). Schools' variations influence students' merit when they get to the college's admissions board, but what about prior to that? When students from lower-socioeconomic positions achieve higher GPAs, are they granted the same level of merit as students from higher-socioeconomic positions? Even if they are, I would argue that a student from a lower-socioeconomic position might correlate self-worth/intelligence more strongly with GPA than a student from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Why? Because in addition to the countless images of college success stories in the media, their parents most probably equated academic achievement with elevated social and economic status--that is, a way to make money, to help the family, to do better than "we" did. At least that was how it was for me--a first-generation college student.

What are universities and colleges doing to address how merit is distributed during admissions? According to USA today, one method used is recalculating students' GPAs according to the challenging nature of the courses students have taken. Well, I'd be curious to know how each schools' geographical, social, historical location and possibly the number of mini-vans influence that scale.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Private schools, public money

This morning, in Metro, the free newspaper that they hand you when you go into the subway station, there was a full page ad for Québec's private schools. These schools, which are currently generously supported with public money, are worried that the new Parti Québecois government may cut their grants, and they are trying to get out in front of this possibility by mobilizing public opinion. Currently, Québec provides over $1 billion per year in funding to private schools, and students in these schools receive approximately 60% of the per-pupil funding given to private schools.

In order to convince Québec taxpayers to continue to fork out more to those who have more, the Federation of Québec Private Schools has offered us five "truths" about the public system.
For those of you who don't read French, let's take a look at each of these "truths" in turn, and offer a bit of commentary on each one:

Friday, February 22, 2013

What I Learned in Gym Class

The New York Times reports that "Gym Class Isn't Just Fun and Games Anymore."  Gym class has been encroached upon by test prep for some years now, with hours and positions cut to accommodate increased time for math and literacy instruction, but this is different.  Gym teachers are, by choice or under pressure, or, most plausibly, by pressured choice, now including math and literacy instruction in gym classes.  Children, for instance, might be required to review vocabulary words while engaging in a gym activity, or practice math skills.

Why is this a problem? Why not multitask in gym class?  After all, I watch the news sometimes while running at the gym, and I think through research while swimming -- and where's the difference?  Because the true purpose of gym class is affective.  It's all about learning to deal with other people throwing balls at your head -- in fun! -- and to tolerate the humility of being unable to climb a rope.  Or, from a different perspective, to revel in your ability to spike that volleyball higher than the smarty-pants who has no trouble in math, and to run faster and farther too.  What I really learned from gym class: that there were kids who could do things that I simply couldn't.  Also, to be a good sport about this, or at least not to cry when it was time for the annual volleyball unit.

This could be said about the elementary and secondary school curriculum as a whole, I think: that when schools narrow the realms in which students can shine, they stunt children's nascent appreciation of the diversity of human talents.  Shining and limitations alike need to be broadly distributed -- because it's important for every child to find some things she's good at, and equally important for children to appreciate others' differing abilities.

And, last but not least, it's important for children to learn to persist in activities that they themselves are not very good at but that are, for good reason, worth doing.  When I was in middle school, I decided to join the cross-country team.  It was an odd choice, as I'm not especially fast.  I suspect I did so out of the realization that if I did not take action, I was destined to spend my whole life as the person who couldn't do a single sit-up, while around me stronger, more adept athletes played games that looked like fun, if only you had sufficient abilities to play.  For six years I was not only the worst runner on the team but one of the worst runners in the entire county, but I kept at it and made a lot of friends I wouldn't have had otherwise.  If I had been able to show off my vocabulary and my math skills in gym class, I'm not sure I would have bothered.

Of course, I knew I was no star athlete based on recess and pick-up games around the neighborhood, but it means something different when the New York States Board of Regents is counting the number of sit-ups you can (or in my case cannot) do.  I am not advocating humiliation as a general teaching tool; the point, rather, is that when schools provide a variety of domains in which children are encouraged to succeed, children come to recognize that people's talents are diverse and that respect, therefore, is to be distributed as broadly as difference.

Gym class, in sum, has never been all fun and games.  For some people it wasn't fun.  For others, it was too important to count as a game.  I'm all in favor of making it more fun, and even for including health information, but keep the test prep out it.  (Incidentally, one teacher in the article remarks that she includes health information because "during a 30-minute class, it would be difficult for the children to keep moving constantly."  Seriously?  During a 30-minute class, it would seem difficult to prevent children from moving constantly.)  Glad though I am never to have to play it again, long live volleyball.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Academic Capitalism Meets Volunteer Work: Why I Hate the Co-Curricular Record

A few years ago, I read Denise Clark Pope's book Doing School, an ethnography of high-achieving high school students in Silicon Valley. One of the more memorable anecdotes concerned one of the high-achieving students, Eve Lin, who was very careful to conceal the fact that she had been volunteering at a hospital from her friends. It was not out of modesty that she did this--her primary concern was that her friends would start to volunteer at the hospital as well, thereby robbing her of any edge that she would have in the college application resumé arms race. After all, if everyone's got "hospital volunteer" on their resumé, the exchange value of this designation would go down significantly.

Although I found Eve's story pretty interesting, I figured that it was at the safely at the margins of student life. One expects to hear about these sorts of things happening in places like Silicon Valley and New York City. However, I was recently surprised to hear that the same sort of thing, which we might call "resumé building charity capitalism," (if I'm in a good mood) is now being given substantial institutional support at several Canadian universities. At Dalhousie University, for example, the student services office now offers a document called the "Co-Curricular Record," which is basically an official transcript of your volunteer service. If you've done hospital volunteering, student services now wants you to "get accredited" so that this activity will appear on an official "co-curricular" transcript issued by the university.

Just check out this handy little video that Dalhousie University (a much longer version of the video can be found here) made in order to justify the existence of this ridiculous document:

Med school wants to know whether people have done volunteer work, and this must surely mean that there is a pressing need for accreditation of this type of work. Otherwise, how shall we separate the real hospital volunteers from the fake ones? In addition, if we don't monitor and accredit all of this goodness and selflessness, how can it possibly be turned into academic capital? I mean, don't the students who pile up the most volunteer hours in the most places deserve to be rewarded in terms of some serious exchange value? That's surely what the spirit of volunteerism is all about. I mean, folks like Jesus and the disciples may not have been very strong in terms of their academic transcripts, but imagine their outstanding performance on their co-curricular records! We'd definitely give them lots of points for an outstanding effort as President and Executive Officers of the Loaves and Fishes Club, but we might have to avoid certifying their leadership roles in the Anti-Usury League. Employers might not like all that moneylenders-out-of-the-temple stuff, after all.