Bearing False Witness in Education: the Problem with Grade Inflation – part 4

One of the consequences of grade inflation in the U.S. is low performance on standardized tests.  When teachers give students easy grades in the classroom they do not prepare students well for standardized tests that are referenced to objective criteria because these high grades leave students with the false impression that they know more than they actually do.  Because of their objectivity, standardized tests are the most frequently used metric for measuring student progress and are thus what education researchers often look at when evaluating the effectiveness of proposed educational reforms.

One such reform that has received much coverage lately is offering students financial incentives for learning.  The cover story of this week’s edition of Time magazine is about new research on this idea (“Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” April 8th, 2010).  The study shows that it some situations these financial incentives, such as paying 2nd graders $2 for every book they read, really work.  What “works” is judged according to improvement on standardized test scores versus control groups, i.e. groups of students who do not participate in the incentive program.

My first thought about this article was “so what if it works?”  Just because an educational program increases students’ test scores does not mean that the program should be implemented.  Even though the goal or the end is valuable, the means may not be appropriate.  Inappropriate means have long-term, unintended negative consequences that are not worth the short-term gains. In this case, the long-term adverse consequences may be in the character and mindset of children raised with such incentives.

Making good choices only in response to external incentives is a mark of immature character.  Many of my high school students (who are soon to be adults) will not do their homework unless they know it will be collected and graded.  I typically do not collect every single homework assignment and do not announce when I will collect it.  I constantly urge my students to do their homework not because they will get a bad grade if they do not, but because their homework is necessary to their learning.  I want them to make simple causal links between doing their homework, learning the curriculum, and making a good grade in the course.  When they complain about not getting a grade for something, I have at times shared with them about using stickers with my young children as rewards for going to the restroom while we were potty training. I ask them if their parents still give them rewards for using the bathroom on their own.   Then I ask rhetorically why then do they use the bathroom.  I want them to see that they do not need a reward for using the bathroom because they have learned that doing so is in their best interest (and the interest of the people they live with – the common good!).  In the same way they should be motivated to do their homework: not for an immediate reward because it is in their and their family’s best interest to learn as much as they can.

Learning what behaviors are in one’s long-term self-interest and in harmony with the common good, and developing the self-discipline to practice these behaviors, is an essential aspect of growing in virtue, which is “the quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong” (  In biblical terms, virtue is being conformed into the likeness of Christ, so that our lives are increasingly lived according to God’s standards of righteousness.  A virtuous person’s heart is trained to do what is right, and shun what is wrong, for righteousness sake, even if doing so results not in pleasurable rewards but in suffering.

One of the major deficiencies in public education is the absence of any kind of coherent, stable view of morality by which to teach students virtue.  Consequently, schools must rely solely on systems of punishments and rewards to control student behavior.  Sadly, with the decline of the family in our culture, the teaching of virtue is absent from many homes.  I believe it is the decline of the family that is the heart of the problem with education in the U.S.  In my next education post I will expound this claim.

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