150th Post: Time for a Rant (Let’s Take a Moment to Remember the Bell Curve)

This is tradition at this point. Every 50 posts, I decide to rant about something. I’ve ranted about assigning books “reading/age levels” in schools and about the misconceptions many adults have about teenagers today. I’m not trying to be ridiculously negative or anything; these posts are some of the rare moments I blog about my day-to-day life, specifically issues that I feel affect not just me, but a larger population. I’m trying to be as PC as possible, but I also want to get my point across as honestly and powerfully as I can. 

Remember the bell curve?

It looks like this:

bell curve 1

Basically, it means that if you take a sample of a population, your results will generally look like this:

bell curve 2

It can get crazy scientific:

bell curve 4

Like, what even is this?

bell curve 3

Don’t worry–this isn’t a scientific post.

Anyway–the bell curve. Some genetic traits (eg height) work out like this.

It also works with grades (in a large class).

I’m not talking about when teachers “curve” a test to force grades to fit into a bell curve (that seems barbaric, actually). I’m just saying that, statistically, a class’s overall grades will probably fall loosely onto a bell curve-esque thing. It’s the reason that the literal definition of earning a “C” is average–it’s the middle of the bell curve.

In school, we are told to shoot for A’s. This is not an inherently bad or evil goal (as some people seem to think). Getting an A is (should be) an indication that you are above average–it’s an accomplishment, and it should be strived for and rewarded.

A fundamental part of the idea of an ‘A’ letter grade is the inclusion of B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s to fill out the rest of the spectrum. You need an average so that someone can be above it.

Recently, in my classes, I’ve been noticing that this is not how people think anymore. There seems to be a rising feeling that students are entitled to A’s–that getting an A should require nothing more than showing up and doing the minimum amount of work. In essence, being average.

*Disclaimer so that I can say this once instead of putting it in every other sentence: I’m not saying this is everyone. I’m just saying that a large majority of students I share classes with seem to have this attitude, and it offends me.*

I’m am a straight-A student in difficult classes. I’m in Honors English, Honors pre-calc, and AP European History. It is by no means the hardest course load of any of my peers, but it is enough to keep me very busy, and to truly test my abilities as a critically thinking student. I personally feel that I work harder than most of my peers and that I deserve the A’s I get.

So it pisses me off when kids routinely admit that they don’t do the work, don’t study, or procrastinate majorly on homework/studying and end up doing a half-assed job on it–and then they get annoyed when they don’t have an A in the class. They have this attitude of “I showed up to class. I put in the barest minimum of work. What more do you want from me?”

If you think I’m exaggerating this, I promise you I’m not.

*Disclaimer #2: I have attended high-ranked California public school  in a good neighborhood for my entire life. Generalizations I make are based on my experiences, as well as those of students at other schools that I talk to.*

I believe there are many reasons that this mentality has appeared.

  1. Increased pressure from parents/society to get good grades to get into good colleges. Anything less than an ‘A’ is viewed as failure by a majority of the parents of the students I have classes with, and by extension my peers. This kind of thinking has led to a shift away from the bell curve, where a C is average, to a new model where an ‘A’ encompasses any type of success with the class and any grade lower is a punishment.
  2. Low standards in elementary and middle schools. I don’t want to insult elementary or middle school teachers out there. However, there is a dramatic difference between the amount of work that is expected of students at the elementary and middle school level compared to the high school level. Essentially, the amount of work that earned an A in middle school is often much lower than that that is required to get an A in high school (even in regular classes). If people don’t realize the shift, they are left floundering in the B/C grade range, wondering why they aren’t getting A’s anymore.
  3. Tutors and after-school programs. I’ll touch more on this later, but there is a general feeling that you can quantify what amount of studying deserves what grade. People who attend tutors and afterschool programs (especially those who have attended them their whole lives as a day-care sort of thing instead of a specific effort to improve a class’s grade) tend to believe that they are superior to the class and deserve a higher grade simply because they put in more time with a “professional.” (Unfortunately, the converse is often true, as I’ve seen many instances of after-schools doing the work for the student, preventing the student from ever actually succeeding in the class. Awkward.)

Whatever the reason, this mentality needs to be squashed. Yes–we all wish we could be straight-A students. But if everyone actually was one, then the title would no longer mean anything.

A would mean average. And while that would be linguistically convenient, it remains impractical in reality.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say,

I studied for this test for five hours! I deserve an A!

That’s not how the real world works.

I could study molecular biology for hours–weeks, months, years–and I would never gain more than a memorization-level understanding of it. I have resigned myself to this fact, and science is the one subject I don’t take advanced classes in, for this reason.

My school has a large population of students for whom English is a second language. Most of them have a good understanding of the language, but still struggle with high level reading, vocabulary, and essay writing. This is completely understandable. However, I really wish that some of the students who struggle to make out the dialect in The Grapes of Wrath (let alone the Old English in Shakespeare) would realize that English Honors is not the class for them.

I respect students who take an advanced class to challenge themselves. Unfortunately, most of my classes today are dominated by people taking the class because of parental or collegiate pressure, rather than any passion or skill with the subject matter. I respect you if you take an advanced class, knowing it will be a struggle but committing yourself to the workload and accepting that a B is a serious accomplishment (which is also “above average” for heaven’s sake!).

But if you take an advanced class because you want colleges to like you, and then you disrespect the class by doing the barest minimum of the work, and then you act like you should be awarded the highest grade possiblle–well, I don’t respect you at all.

The bell curve isn’t a bad thing. It’s literally natural. We need to remind ourselves that being average is not a crime and that an ‘A’ should be reserved for people who not only worked for it but succeeded at it. There is no “x hours of studying = this grade on the test” formula. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, good weeks and bad weeks. We as a society need to embrace this fact and shift our expectations away from a nation made only of straight-A students. Support students for their personal triumphs–maybe they occur in sports or art or drama instead of the classroom. A ‘B’ is not failure, neither is a ‘C’–if you want to be technical about it, a ‘D’ isn’t either. We shouldn’t give up on being as good as we can be, but we need to remember that “our best” differs for every person, and we need to put a premium on hard work rather than a final grade.

If people realize that it is okay not to have perfect grades, then hopefully this culture of entitlement will end to make way for one of respect for individual talent and commitment.

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