Skip to comments.NSU professor loses job in dispute over grades
Posted on 05/05/2008 6:18:42 PM PDT by brwnsuga
At the end of this semester, Steven Aird will lose his job as an associate professor of biology at Norfolk State University for giving out too many F's.
He is not going quietly.
Aird says his termination is part of a dumbing-down of academic standards at NSU - a move by administrators to intimidate faculty members into passing undeserving students and rewarding inferior work.
Other faculty members in NSU's School of Science and Technology say they, too, have experienced pressure to bend their standards to pass more students, and more than a dozen current and former students in the school back up Aird's claim.
Because it is a personnel issue, NSU administrators declined to comment directly about Aird's case. But Sharon Hoggard, a university spokeswoman, flatly rejected Aird's accusation that the school has dumbed down its standards.
"It goes against our very mission, which is to provide an affordable high-quality education for an ethnically and culturally diverse student population," Hoggard said in an e-mail response. She pointed out that NSU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, for which it must meet stringent standards.
Aird says he understands, and believes in, NSU's mission. But he insists that too many of the university's students are ill-prepared for college-level work. "I really care about my students," he said. "That's why I refuse to lower the bar. The objective should be competence, not grades."
For more than four years, Aird has carried on a running battle in which NSU administrators repeatedly pressed him to raise his pass rate and he steadfastly refused.
Twice, he was denied tenure and issued a one-year terminal contract, meaning he would have to leave at the end of the year. After the first denial, he filed a grievance. A faculty grievance committee found in his favor, ruling that the tenure decision was flawed by procedural violations and retaliatory actions by administrators.
He reapplied and was turned down again, despite a favorable recommendation by a departmental tenure review committee. Citing seven classes in which 83 to 95 percent of his students got a D or F, Sandra DeLoatch, dean of the School of Science and Technology, wrote that Aird's "core problem" was "the overwhelming failure of the vast majority of the students he teaches."
His bosses say it's the teacher's responsibility to make sure the lessons are getting through. Carol Simpson, provost at Old Dominion University, agreed that a professor's high failure rate would be an appropriate matter for some type of intervention.
"It would send a flag that something is amiss," she said. "What that something is - it could be all kinds of things, depending on the class and the students and the professor. But it does say that all is not well. You would expect a reasonable bell-shaped curve where the top part of the bell is maybe a middle C. You wouldn't expect to have huge numbers failing."
The problem could be the difficulty of the material, the students' level of preparation or the way the material is being presented, Simpson said.
"Not every professor is an expert in the classroom," she said, "although they may be terrific researchers or scholars."
Hoggard, the NSU spokeswoman, said the university uses a multifaceted assessment of teaching effectiveness based on faculty portfolios, student ratings, peer evaluations and comments from the department chair and dean.
This semester, his last, Aird has been removed from the classroom. He spends his time doing research and job-hunting. At 55, he faces the possible end of his academic career.
Aird grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and earned a doctorate in zoology from Colorado State University. A published researcher, he specializes in the chemistry of poisonous snake venoms.
After four years as a university teacher and researcher in Brazil, he came to NSU in 2002 and was assigned to the chemistry department. His first semester, 22 of the 24 students in his biochemistry course got Ds, Fs or dropped the class. In a November 2003 memo, Associate Dean Larry Mattix warned him: "This low level of student success is unacceptable."
In 2004, Aird was reassigned to the biology department.
The issue surfaced again quickly. In a December 2004 memo, Camellia Okpodu, the biology department chair, expressed alarm about the grades in lab sections of the freshman-level biology course. Dean DeLoatch, in rejecting Aird's application for tenure in March 2007, reiterated the theme again.
Each time, Aird's response was unbending. "I believe that we serve our students and our country best when we help our students to discover and develop their abilities, and when we help them develop the intellectual tools and the strength of character to overcome the obstacles they will encounter in life," he wrote in reply to Okpodu. "That cannot be accomplished, as so many at NSU have tried, by pandering to them and to their parents with inflated grades and pass rates."
To support his allegations of grade inflation, Aird performed a statistical analysis of two common exams that were given to all students taking the freshman-level biology course in the fall of 2005. The median grade in all sections on both exams - taught by five different professors - was F.
His final grades were an accurate reflection of students' performance on those two exams, Aird wrote the dean.
Hoggard said attributing the discrepancy between exam results and final grades to grade inflation is too simplistic.
"Every student doesn't learn in the same way," she said. "It becomes the duty of the faculty member to find ways to ensure that his or her students are understanding the material."
Student testimonials to Aird cite his passion for biology, his enthusiasm in the classroom and his willingness to help students who are struggling.
Natalie James, a senior biology major, took Aird's zoology class in 2006. "He told us at the beginning of the semester, 'It's going to hurt, and I'm going to really push you.'
"I was up at 2 o'clock many mornings e-mailing him with questions. It was a challenge the whole time."
James said Aird had a pleasant attitude and she learned more than she could have imagined in one semester. At the end of the course, she said, "I came out with an A by the skin of my teeth."
In contrast, James said, she easily received an A in another class. "Yes, it looks nice when you get out with a 4.0 GPA, but then you go to medical school and you know nothing."
Tiana Stephenson, a junior journalism major, took Aird's freshman biology class in 2005 and found it difficult, despite Aird's out-of-class assistance.
"I got a D - the only one I've ever gotten," she said. "If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have taken his course. I was still in a high-school mindset, and he's not a high-school teacher."
Some of Aird's colleagues agree that professors feel pressure to pass more students.
At the School of Science and Technology, said Joseph Hall, a chemistry professor and president of the Faculty Senate, "faculty are - I'll use a nice word - encouraged to try and pass 70 percent of their students." If the rate drops below 70 percent, he said, "faculty are called in and asked to explain what they're going to do about it."
Aird thinks the phenomenon is due in part to the evolution of a "consumer culture" in higher education. He argues that administrators are tempted to placate students and parents with good grades to keep the tuition dollars flowing.
The financial pressure is particularly acute at NSU. Alone among Virginia state schools, most of which are experiencing significant growth, NSU's enrollment has declined by more than one-third over the past 15 years.
Hall echoed Aird's view that many NSU students come poorly prepared for college work.
Because so many have deficient study habits and poor writing skills, he said, "if you adhere to a certain standard, you would flunk a significant number of them, and you have to do something to try to get them to catch up." For instance, Hall said, he gives optional bonus quizzes to help students pull up their grades.
Hall said he counseled Aird to be more flexible, to no avail.
"I think what Steve decided was that the university should put programs in place to build up the background of the students, or admit better students. And he stuck to those guns."
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, an NSU history professor and vice president of the Faculty Senate, chaired the faculty committee that upheld Aird's grievance. She said there's always room for improving one's teaching technique, but she felt Aird deserved a chance to be mentored. "He didn't get the fair shake he should have had an opportunity to get."
If one student got an “A”....as cited here...then I think we’ve got a problem....I really don’t want any of the D and F students to be MY DOCTOR.
“high-quality education for an ethnically and culturally diverse student population,”
Sigh. Quotas in grades based upon race and/or ethnicity.
My take, anyhow.
I’m all for a professor who isn’t afraid to flunk a lousy student, but this is ridiculous: “Citing seven classes in which 83 to 95 percent of his students got a D or F...”
He’s not teaching at MIT.
Posted just before this:
“Success Is Built On Work Ethic, Not Grievances (SOWELL)”
Dr. Sowell gets it.
Actually go look at the school work that failed? I doubt it. It's all the teachers fault.
That colleges actually offer remedial math and English AND accept students who need those classes still astounds me.
>> For instance, Hall said, he gives optional bonus quizzes to help students pull up their grades. <<
Flunking 9 out of 10 students isn’t the answer. Bonus quizzes aren’t. Remedial instruction, maybe? Nah, that might COST something.
I feel for the guy, having gone through the same thing when I taught in an inner city public school in Dallas several years ago. The first 6 weeks I first taught ended and I had to prepare my grades—not a single one of my 30 or so students passed! (Bear in mind that many of them were illegal immigrants.)
I went to my mentor who totally freaked out—turns out I was required by DISTRICT POLICY to pass EVERY single student. I was totally shocked!! I was to substitute their real grade if they weren’t passing with a 70, which was passing. This was even for students who came into my classroom (4th graders) with no school supplies (although many had Air Jordan sneakers and lovely Raiders coats) and would stick their feet up on the desk and not do a darn thing the whole day (except for get in trouble) and never turned in a single piece of work—to this day it still galls me that those children were cheated like that. It just reinforced their ‘entitlements’ mindset. :-(
There is something wrong when the majority of students flunk a course. Either the professor stinks, or more stringent prerequisites should be applied so that only students who are likely to pass enroll in the first place, or the material of the course needs to be split up into two or more courses. Or some combination of the above
Or the students got this far without learning very much.
A likely scenario, imo.
Goes back to “teaching the test” so your graduation rates look good, and to hell with actually learning the subjects.
When these students get to higher level schools, they are screwed. They haven’t got a clue.
Wait until they get into the work force...
I just read your post about the opinions on ratemyprofessors.com. Is it just me or do these students need grammar lessons too?
“”..To support his allegations of grade inflation, Aird performed a statistical analysis of two common exams that were given to all students taking the freshman-level biology course in the fall of 2005. The median grade in all sections on both exams - taught by five different professors - was F...””
If true this part here seems to support the inflated grade part.
I took a notoriously difficult first-semester chemistry course in the UVA engineering school. The highest scores on tests were routinely in the 30 to 40 percent range.
The professor used some sort of curve system, though, so everyone didn't necessarily fail. I did learn a lot, despite the low test scores. I guess a lot of the problems were simply very hard to solve -- correctly, that is.
Go read more reviews at the Web site. Words will fail you.
My mother is a college comp sci professor. This is spot on. Schools are graduating students who I wouldn’t let clean my pool, let alone write code.
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