Guest Opinion: Should instructors be fired for awarding high grades?

BY GUEST OPINION | MAY 08, 2015 5:00 AM

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As the time for final exams and final grades approaches, students’ anxiety about GPAs and jobs starts to ratchet up.

Surprisingly, instructors can also become anxious about final grades at semester’s end. Untenured faculty — instructors, lecturers, adjuncts — have good reason to fear the fall-out from the grades they assign.

I am not talking here about instructors having to face the anger or scorn of disappointed students who thought they deserved better grades.

Instead I am referring to instructors being fired by department heads and deans because they awarded too many high grades.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, for example, suggests specific percentages for the distribution of final grades. In elementary courses liberal-arts deans want to see 15 percent As, 34 percent Bs, 40 percent Cs, 8 percent Ds, and 3 percent Fs — making for a course GPA of 2.50.

They expect advanced courses in liberal arts to result in 22 percent As, 38 percent Bs, 36 percent Cs, 3 percent Ds, and 1 percent Fs — making for a course GPA of 2.77.

The liberal-arts deans state that their “guidelines are intended for courses with representative enrollments and pedagogical approaches. Adjustments are expected for sections and courses of different sizes, formats, or levels of ability.”

And the deans publicly call their guidelines “suggestions” or “recommendations” because they know that if they call them “requirements,” they would blatantly violate instructors’ academic freedom.

But neither a legitimate adjustment for size, format and level, nor a duty to respect academic freedom, stopped the head of the Spanish and Portuguese Department and the liberal-arts deans from terminating a lecturer in Portuguese last year. They fired her alleging that she awarded too many high grades.

The firing of the Portuguese lecturer reveals the liberal-arts grade-distribution policy to be a pretense. In practice, the policy is far from a “suggestion” or “recommendation.”

If you can be fired for deviating from it, the grade-distribution policy is in fact a “requirement,” and using it against faculty is an act that endangers academic freedom.

Students and faculty at UI should ask ourselves: Would an instructor like Sarah Hagan — who teaches algebra at Drumright High in Drumright, Oklahoma, and was featured March 9 on NPR’s “All Things Considered” as part of its “50 Great Teachers” series — survive at UI?

In addition to using different textbook materials from those recommended by the Drumright School Board, Hagan implements her own grading policy.

She believes that all of her students can eventually reach state-mandated proficiency levels. So, on assignments and tests, students receive grades of A, B, or Not Yet.

As NPR reported, “Hagan’s no pushover. If a student bombs a quiz or an assignment, he has to do it again. And again. Until he gets an A or a B. But he’s not struggling alone. Hagan is always there to help.”

The Portuguese lecturer whom UI fired followed a teaching philosophy similar to Hagan’s and resisted the liberal-arts deans’ grade-distribution diktats.

Many students still on campus remember their experience with the Portuguese lecturer, and they will recognize her professional behavior in this last quotation from NPR concerning algebra teacher Sarah Hagan.

“She’ll stay after school really, really late with you and help you with it. … I’ve had to do that numerous times,’ [one student] says.

“That explains why, at lunch, students come to Hagan’s empty classroom just to hang out or ask her for help with an assignment — even if it’s for another teacher’s class.”

Tom Lewis is professor of Spanish and international studies and collegiate fellow in Liberal Arts and Sciences. His wife was fired as a lecturer in Portuguese at the end of spring 2014. She has since accepted a tenure-track position as assistant professor at a major research and teaching university.

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