Author’s Note: A reader asked me to repost this article, which originally appeared on TownHall.com shortly after Obama was sworn into office.
Good afternoon students! I’m writing you this email to announce that I’m making some changes in the grading policies I announced two weeks ago when I sent an email with an attached course syllabus. As you know, we now have a new president and I thought it would be nice to align our class policies with some of the policies he will be implementing over the next four years. These will be changes you can believe in and, I hope, changes that will inspire hope, which is our most important American value.
Previously, I announced that I would use a ten-point grading scale, which means that 90% of 100 is an “A,” 80% is a “B,” 70% is a “C,” and 60% is enough for a passing grade of “D.” I also announced that I will refrain from using a “plus/minus” system – even though the faculty handbook gives me that option.
The new policy I am announcing today is that those who score above 90 on the first exam will have points deducted and given to students at the bottom of the grade distribution. For example, if a student gets a 99, I will then deduct nine points and give them to the person with the lowest grade. If a person scores 95 I will then deduct five points and give them to the person with the second lowest grade. If someone scores 93 I will then deduct three points and give them to the next lowest person. And so on.
My point, rather obviously, is that any points above 90 are really not needed since you have an “A” regardless of whether you score 90 or 99. Nor am I convinced that you need to “save” those points for a rainy day. Those who are failing, however, need the points – not unlike the failing banks and automakers that need money to avoid the danger of bankruptcy.
After our second examination, I intend to take a more complex approach to the practice of grade redistribution. I will not be looking at your second test scores but, instead, at the average of your first two test scores. In the process, I may well decide to start taking some points from students in the “B” range. For example, if someone has an average of 85 after two tests I may take a few points and give them away to someone who is failing or who is in danger of failing. I think this is fair because the person with an 85 average is probably unlikely to climb up to an “A” or fall down to a “C.” I may be wrong in some individual cases but, of course, my principal concern is not the individual.
By the end of the semester I will abandon any formal guidelines and just redistribute points in a way that seems just, or fair, to me. I will not rely upon any standards other than my very strong and passionate feelings concerning social justice. In the process, I will not merely seek to eliminate inequality. I will also seek to eliminate the possibility of failure.
I know some are concerned that my system may impact their lives in a very profound way. Grade redistribution will undoubtedly cause some grade point average redistribution. And this, in turn, will mean that some people will not get into the law school or medical school of their choice. Or maybe some day you will be represented by a lawyer – or operated on by a doctor – who is not of the highest quality.
These are all, of course, legitimate long-term concerns. But I believe we need to remain focused on the short term. I think my new system will immediately help the self-esteem of those failing or in danger of failing. It should also help the self-esteem of those who are not in danger of failing. After all, it just feels good to give – even if the giving is compelled and not really “giving” in the literal sense.
Finally, I want to note that a former presidential candidate named George McGovern also inspired this idea. In a debate with the late William F. Buckley, McGovern said that people who earn more money should pay more taxes. Buckley replied that the rich do pay more in taxes – and more as a percentage of their income. McGovern looked confused.
But I don’t think there’s anything confusing about our pending social responsibilities. Whether we are talking about income or grades it does not matter how much or what percentage we are giving. The question is and should always be “Can we give more?”