Study: Grade Inflation Rampant in Teacher Education Programs

Published October 11, 2011

Pervasive grade inflation in U.S. university education departments contributes to low standards for educators and the nation’s K-12 education decline, says a new study.

University education departments consistently award higher grades than all other academic departments, and K-12 teachers receive overwhelmingly positive evaluations despite mediocre test scores by their students, said report author Cory Koedel, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri.

“The data consistently show that education departments award exceptionally favorable grades to virtually all their students in all their classes,” Koedel said. “Education majors score considerably lower than students in other academic departments on college entrance exams.”

This trend has held nationwide since the 1960s, the study notes. 

Regarding the trend’s underlying causes, the American Enterprise Institute report states, “There is not a competitive market forcing schools and districts to be efficient. If a school hires mediocre teachers and produces mediocre outputs year after year, there is no mechanism to meaningfully penalize the school or its workers.” 

‘Pervasive Problem’
“I know lots of professors in education who give nothing but A’s,” said George Cunningham, a retired University of Louisville education professor. “Grade inflation is a pervasive problem throughout education, but it’s worse in higher-education schools.”

Education students commonly graduate with a 3.7 or 3.8 GPA, Cunningham said, a perception confirmed by the report’s comparison of education-major GPAs at the University of Indiana and the University of Missouri. Those averages were 3.7 and 3.8, respectively, in 2007-2008.

“I’m hopeful this trend can change, but it will be politically challenging from the outside,”

Koedel said. “It would be easiest for it to happen from the inside, but education professors don’t see this as a problem.”

Inflationary Pressures
To gain tenure, professors must excel in research, service, and teaching. Research and service contributions are objective, but student evaluations weigh heavily in the teaching score.

“Teachers don’t want to do anything to lower these scores,” Cunningham said, noting several of his professor friends were denied tenure for receiving poor student evaluations in retribution for handing out low grades. “It’s very tempting to give good grades.”

Students who receive B’s or C’s often complain to the dean and make professors defend their grading decisions.

“Giving A’s equals ease and comfort,” Cunningham said. “My advice to a new professor would be to give A’s. That’s my pragmatic advice.”

Self-Esteem vs. Standards
Universities are businesses that exist to make money, Cunningham noted, and they therefore want to attract students to increase profits. Lower grades can mean fewer students. 

“College leaders must value education more than revenue,” said George Leef, president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Leef said he felt administrators’ pressure to inflate grades when teaching at the university level in the 1980s. 

When all the other professors give high grades for average work, those who deviate often end up punishing students because Cs no longer denote average, but failing, work, Koedel said.

“I try to maintain standards, but it’s hard as an individual professor to deviate from the rest of the department,” Koedel said. “There is some wiggle room, but otherwise you just punish the students in your class.”

Students fed with self-esteem efforts over the years expect and demand higher grades, and professors usually take the path of least resistance, Koedel said. One solution is for universities to adopt standard grading policies, he said.

Effects on Education
Students in classes that grant “easy A’s” do not work as hard, the study says, so inflated grades mean students do not learn they may be unsuited for a particular career or course of study. 

“The education sector is notoriously ineffective at identifying high- and low-quality workers, making it difficult for the labor market to penalize students from education departments that produce low-quality teachers,” the report states. This “dramatically” harms the nation’s K-12 education system by causing it to retain poor teachers.

“The fundamental problem is simple: there is no pressure from competitive markets in education,” it says.

‘Manic Push’ for Enrollees
Many U.S. education schools have adopted watered-down curricula to comply with national goals of increasing college graduation rates, Leef said.

“The United States has this manic push, starting with the president, to get students enrolled in college,” Leef said. “We’ve already scraped the bottom of the barrel for kids with the talent or inclination to go to school. There is less interest in serious academic work. To keep students enrolled, schools water down their expectations.”

Leef said the solution is to “separate school and state” so schools can pursue policies that best fit their students and respect academic integrity, instead of complying with foolish external mandates in exchange for taxpayer dollars. 

Potential for Change
There is no external advocacy group for higher teaching standards and too many self-interested parties involved, so Koedel says he doubts teaching quality will improve soon.

The report recommends two “external forces” “meaningfully intervene”: university administrators instituting strict grading criteria, and K-12 administrators  implementing accountability by measuring the effectiveness of teachers each training institution graduates. 

“In the absence of administrative action, external accountability in K-12 schools will likely lead to higher standards in education departments over time, although the pace of change will be slower,” the report concludes.  

Internet Info
“Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers,” by Cory Koedel, American Enterprise Institute:

Image by Tulane Public Relations.