The Shrinking Educational Middle Class

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • May
  • 07
  • 2007

After a conversation with a colleague today, I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized that I’m not the only one. I wonder if you’re like me too, reader.

Several tangents later, our conversation veered onto the subject of grades. This colleague visits different schools as a mentor. Because of this, he sees a lot of different grades. He mentioned that the bell curve of grades (large numbers of students will earn Cs and fewer students will earn anything below or above that, forming a slight bell when graphed) is going away. What he’s seeing all across the schools he visits are grade reports that show high distributions of As and Fs, very few Bs or Cs. It’s the bell inverted.

He’s seeing this in all subject areas. As soon as he pointed this out, that sigh came out. You see, I’ve been noticing this same thing over the last 4 or 5 years and always thought it was just my crappy teaching to blame. While there is still my crappy teaching to contend with, at least I know I’m not alone. But what the heck is going on?

I worry that public school still tracks kids, that our classes are becoming those that only instruct the kids who get it, without lifting up those that don’t. I certainly worry that’s my case. Seeing the middle ground shrink away each year makes me feel that way.

Are your classes becoming more and more filled with educational “have”s and “have not”s? Are you seeing a decrease in the number of Cs? An increase in the number of Fs? What would you do if your average grades included far more As and Fs than Cs? As a profession, what does this tell us? How should this impact the instruction we deliver? Does this say anything about the structure of the public education system or just about individual teachers?

Next: Frightening news about what my district is taking away from the class of 2011 because of missing our API mark.


1. Betty says:

[5/12/2007 - 2:59 pm]

Could it be that kids that try today are getting better grades than C’s because teachers are so impressed with the fact that they are actually trying? There are also the parents that push teachers for grades, so grades are inflated. I once had a parent that freaked out when her child made a 78 because she had never made a C. Then, there are the students who seldom do work, so they fall in the F category.

2. dy/dan » Blog Archive » Assessment Part Deux Redux says:

[5/22/2007 - 6:08 pm]

[…] Third, Todd wrote an extraordinary post awhile back called “The Shrinking Educational Middle Class” which I’ve been meaning to pick up. […]

3. Larry says:

[9/17/2007 - 12:14 pm]

I’ve noticed the bimodal distribution for years in my classes, particularly my math classes. I have finally put an end to it by recording only summative assessments rather than formative assessments (such as homework). The bimodal distribution shows what happens when we mark work rather than learning.

Take four students in a course that has 50% for homework (assignments or whatever) and 50% on tests. Student A is a 90% student but lazy so does no work. Student B is also a 90% student and does all the work. Student C is a 40% and is lazy, so does no work. Student D is a 40% student and does all the work.

A quick summary of their marks reveals:
Homework (50%) Tests (50%) Total (100%)
Student A 0 45 45
Student B 50 45 90
Student C 0 20 20
Student D 50 20 70

Only two students pass, one of whom doesn’t know the material. Of the two that fail, one knows as much as the top student.

By marking formative work we are unwittingly rewarding and punishing behaviours that are not necessarily tied to what desired outcomes a student is expected to know. In classrooms, the “lazy” students often know just how much to do to earn a 50%, while those interested in high marks do more to get their A’s. Both are equally smart and achieve their goal, but their goals are different from each others, and both are different from the goals most educators want. We want independant learners who know when they need to do work (when they have not yet learned a concept) and don’t waste time on unecessary work (for concepts they know well.) It is our job to use appropriate assessment so that our goal can be seen rather than their goals. Not counting formative assessments is a first step.

4. Todd says:

[9/28/2007 - 11:23 am]

But doesn’t that mean that there’s no reason to do anything other than summative assessments? The work given that leads up to, in my case, an essay prepares students to write a better essay. Read the text, answer some questions, work with a partner, complete this graphic organizer, etc. If they don’t see a reason to do that work (if it doesn’t count for anything in the gradebook), they won’t and the final product will be terrible. Also, if you don’t see any scores from the students along the way, you have no way of knowing where they or you went wrong. If you only look at the summative, you have no chance to redirect and reteach until after the completion of the unit.

If you don’t grade formative assessments, do you not assign them either? So you only give tests in your class?

In your hypothetical, you’re assuming that Student D should get full credit for the homework. If he’s a 40% student, why would he get 100% on homework? If you’re grading all homework on completion, sure. If you grade homework on quality, even some of it if not all of it, this is not the case.

And get student A on a grade contract ASAP. If that kid can pass anything you throw, any aspect of your subject area you can create, that kid deserves to pass the class. If s/he stumbles, a reminder of the importance of the formative as practice for the summative is in order.

5. Julie Here says:

[10/16/2008 - 9:31 pm]

Okay, I have studied in both the US and Germany. I’m currently writing a speech about education reform in the US, but there’s so much data on the subject that it’s impossible to express every detail and opinion. Here are some general things I have noted: it is almost impossible to get rid of tenure teachers, most European schools separate students based on their performance (unlike American schools), it is difficult to weed out bad teachers without creating some kind of national (yes, national, don’t be frightened) test assessment that would reward good teachers, teachers should be better paid, excelling students should be given the opportunity to move up into more difficult classes around the 7th grade when they first begin switching classes, and education overall should be more valued in the US. Now I believe that advanced courses for well performing students would help fix this “inverted bell” graph so that advanced students could tackle harder materials and failing students could receive more help from the teachers to “lift” them up, but I’m not sure if I’m correct in this assumption. Although Germany has a spectacular education system in my opinion, not everyone receives the same quality of education. Those that scored well and went to a Gymnasium got a great education, while those that did poorly were branded as unintelligent for life. I’m afraid that charter schools are creating a similar problem by leaving struggling students behind to pick up the tab for No Child Left Behind. Advanced courses would bridge this gap seen in Germany by allowing students to still attend the same school and take electives with their peers, but also give excelling students the opportunity to study harder materials. I would appreciate any and all feed back on this suggestion. I only want to make my speech as informative and accurate as possible.

Thanks, Ju

6. Lucas says:

[10/15/2011 - 1:15 pm]

I’ve found the same inverted bell shaped grade distribution in my classes here in Miami. BTW this is for one test only but it highlights the problem. At the end of the video I speculate why this is and suggest that maybe I made the test too easy. Here are my rather unscientific findings: