Failing Our Students in a Crisis

John McGinnis:

The technology for teaching remotely had been nearly perfected by the time the coronavirus hit us. Zoom, an online networking service, has allowed me to call on a student in my administrative law class just as I could when I was in a physical classroom. While answering the question, the student then goes to the center of the screen, commanding everyone’s attention. Indeed, students can now be more easily understood by their classmates than if they were in a distant part of a physical classroom. When I lecture, the focus returns to me. And all this can be accomplished with complete social distancing.

But the crisis has also shown why such technological progress does not maximize learning if our educational institutions are mired in an ideology that prevents full use of these tools to adapt to a crisis. Many professional schools, like mine, as well as colleges and K-12 schools, have made decisions that frustrate the continuation of deep learning. They have done so from self-defeating egalitarian ideals and a sentimentality that encourages learned helplessness in our students.

Let’s begin with the institutions I know best. Law schools have almost uniformly decided to utilize a “pass-fail” grading system even though most of them only had a few weeks left in the semester. Pass-fail has many costs. It reduces the incentives to master the material. It impedes signaling the quality of students to employers. While some professors would like to go pass-fail all the time, the advantages of grading are so obvious that all law schools grade (although some of the super-elite schools, like Yale and Harvard, have such wide bands as to limit the meaning of their assessments). But beyond the utilitarian arguments for grading, justice militates against discontinuing the practice mid-semester. Students who have worked long and hard lose the expected reward for their labors.

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

In addition, Madison recently expanded its least diverse schools.