Critical ThinkingEducationPolitics

Surprise! Grades are nothing like dollars.

Everyone likes a good ideological parable, especially when it confirms what they already believe to be true about the world. I recently caught the following gem on Facebook, which seems perfectly crafted to tickle the fancy of your garden-variety “daggum socialist Obama” conservative type:

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama’s socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

The professor then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama’s plan. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an ‘A’ …” (substituting grades for dollars — something closer to home and more readily understood by all).

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a “B”. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.

As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little. The second test average was a “D”! No one was happy.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the new average was an “F”.

As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

Needless to say, this meme bugged me. Not because it’s a ridiculous parody of what the (eminently centrist) president of the US actually advocates, but because it fundamentally misunderstands what grades are and how they work. As an educator with a fair bit of experience in the grading department, let me tell you: grades are nothing like dollars! So, taking a note from our colleague Lou Doench at Grounded Parents, I thought I’d take a turn at demolishing this meme.

Let’s take it point by point.

“OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama’s plan. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an ‘A’…” (substituting grades for dollars — something closer to home and more readily understood by all).

Alright, leaving aside the the fact that Obama never has and never would advocate a strict communist total redistribution of wealth, there is something very, very wrong with the major assumption underlying this whole thought experiment: grades are not money, and they are nothing like wages in the conventional sense. Granted, there is a superficial similarity in that they are something you “earn” in exchange for something you “do,” but that’s about as far as it goes.

A classroom is not a functioning economy, and it is especially not any kind of market economy. The most you can say is that it’s something akin to a centrally planned economy in a totalitarian dictatorship: students are presented with a set of tasks by a governing authority and rewarded according to their ability to complete them in the desired manner.

Furthermore, grades are not subject to scarcity. It makes no difference to the governing authority whether everyone gets As or Fs, because they don’t cost anything to give either way. And remember, awarding grades value based on the labour that goes into them is for dirty commies, so we can’t have any of that. Not only that, but in a classroom we find something that no market economy has: a wage cap. No student can earn more than an A. No matter how much they do! No matter how good their work! Even with extra credit! It’s scandalous really.

At this point any comparison between this fictional classroom and market socialism, where higher wages are taxed to help meet the needs of those with less, is completely out the window. In a classroom economy there is simply no need for redistribution, because there is no unemployment and everyone already has exactly the same job with the same potential for reward. All hail the glorious Professor!

Of course, as everyone knows, this equality of opportunity in the classroom economy doesn’t usually result in equality of outcome. Some students do better than others, either because they work harder or just because the material comes to them more easily (not to mention a number of other variables that crop up in real life). So the meme continues.

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a “B”. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.

This is probably the only part of the meme that is (mostly) accurate. Generally speaking, most profs these days design tests with an average grade of B (or B+) in mind. And it is certainly true that those students who put less effort in might be happier with the higher grade, and the keener contingent would be upset with their B (which, for them, is an F).

As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little. The second test average was a “D”! No one was happy.

Here is where things really break down. Real-world students do not behave like this. After the first test, the keener contingent would have been all over the rest of the class because med school is at stake. Unlike a national economy, the classroom economy is small. Everyone knows each other (or close to it). There would be significant social pressure to ensure the grades of the class as a whole were kept up. Students blowing it for everyone would be singled out and made to answer for their laziness. Keener-led study groups would ensue.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the new average was an “F”.

Nope. For this to happen in most classrooms, a majority of the class would have to do literally nothing (including not showing up for lectures). Considering they are operating with the knowledge that their grades affect everyone else’s, this is vanishingly unlikely.

Three-way head-on collision of a red, yellow, and green car at a demolition derby.

Boom. Image credit: Flickr user a4gpa.

Alright, all that being said–how might we re-tool this classroom exercise to be more reflective of socialism in a real-world market economy?

First, we’d probably have to blind the students to one another’s grades and to the class averages for the duration of the course in order to eliminate collusion (aka cooperation). In practice this doesn’t really seem possible, since students with any sense would share their grades to get an idea of what was going on.

Second, we would have to institute a redistribution system that actually resembled socialism and not some cartoon parody. In practice, this would mean creating a bracketed taxation system based on total points earned rather than simply averaging grades. To that end, the professor could take the cohort of students who earned a B or higher and put their excess points into a common pot for redistribution to those who are close to passing. For example, if 90 points is an A, then a student with 96 points would lose those extra six points and they might go to six students with a 59.

Third, if we really want to simulate a market economy, we need to figure out a way to give the top student a ton of extra credit. Like, enough points to bring everyone in the class up to a B. And if they’re getting their A anyway, why not ask them to share?

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Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

2 Comments

  1. February 11, 2016 at 8:31 am —

    If that had happened, the only real conclusion we could draw from this would be that nothing in hat class was of any interest to any of the students. Nobody thought that whatever the instructor had to say was worth listening to and important for their future studies independent of their grades.

    I’d consider that a great big fat red F for the instructor….

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