A favorite teacher phrase of mine is “I’m determining your grade directly, so you’re not competing with the other students.” This is a blatant falsehood.
1. If a teacher gives out too few A’s, say, less than 10%, he or she is definitely going to get into trouble with the department, and asked to give out more A’s. If a teacher gives out too many A’s, say, more than 60%, he or she will run into a bit of trouble with the department. Schools are in the business of making students, parents, and future employers happy. Giving out too many A’s cheapens the value of an A grade.
2. So the teacher can give A’s to anywhere between 15 and 60 percent of the class. Make the strongest possible assumption: that the number of A’s a teacher gives out varies in this range, depending on the student quality (an assumption which I doubt). This still means that in a class of 20 students, the top six will get an A, and the bottom eight will get a B. One could argue that the eight students in the middle are competing directly with the teacher for those marginal A’s. But even then, the teacher is going to compare whether their work is closer to the A students or the B students. And they could possibly study harder, or write a better essay, and pass up one of the top six students for the A.
3. A’s and B’s are relative grades; an A means that you did better than all the B students, a B means that your work was not as good as the A students, and a C (at my school, anyway) means you probably were too busy drinking, tanning, sleeping or flirting to show up for class and do the work. The grade you get is in relation to the other students; thus you’re competing with them, like it or not.
The answer to the question, “How can I get an A on the next essay?” is always, “Turn in work that’s better than all of the other students’.” Suggesting that students don’t compete for grades probably helps boost self esteem. But while American students have the highest self-esteem they’ve ever had, they’re not achieving any more than they were in the past.
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