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The Disorderly March XI

December 27, 2010

The fundamental problem with the religion of Transcriptarianism, in which every potential candidate for a job or a grant or a college admission is adjudged based on their grade point average above all else, is the same problem that any other absolutist system has – because it is not flexible, it must be gamed.  If you distribute ration cards, you create a black market.  If you ban dissent, samizdat will be generated.  Create a stifling bureaucracy, and bribery will become rampant since that’s what it takes in a third world country in order to get a phone installed or a permit issued.

And if you announce publicly that you will only hire people with 4.0 averages, as Jim Collins of “Good To Great” fame and Marissa Mayer of Google have done, then you will ensure not a “good student who’s good at everything,” but a student who will do what it takes to get an A – whether that be as blazingly dishonest as cheating on a test or buying a paper, as intellectually dishonest as saying what the professor wants to hear, or as personally (I won’t say “spiritually” but you know what I mean) corrupting as shutting out the emotional needs or crises of friends or family or even self to grind out that A.

And, as well as corrupting students, it corrupts institutions.  Yesterday’s Times had an article on how one school (UNC Chapel Hill) is dealing with grade inflation

Since 1967, when the average G.P.A. was 2.49, grade inflation at the university has been well-documented. In 2000, the faculty council heard a proposal to adopt a target average G.P.A. of 2.6 to 2.7, but the idea was dropped. A few years later, the faculty narrowly voted down an ambitious proposal for an adjusted G.P.A., called the “Achievement Index,” that would reflect not only the students’ performance in their courses, but also the rigor of those courses.

At U.N.C., the average G.P.A was 3.21 in the fall of 2008, up from 2.99 in 1995. A’s have become the most frequent grade, and together, A’s and B’s accounted for 82 percent of the 2008 grades.

It’s sad to hear that some schools are dealing with this with the sort of absurdity seen at the grade school level that sends kids packing from school to juvie because they brought a spork to school or had a pocket knife in the car:

With college grades creeping ever higher, a few universities have taken direct action against grade inflation. Most notably, Princeton adopted guidelines in 2004 providing that no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades should be A’s, a policy that remains controversial on campus.

Yeah, that’s the solution!  We won’t have to address any real problems if we just announce “zero tolerance” for the fake one!  And I wonder how well that system is working out, and what games are played on it to make sure you’re part of the elect 35%.

The lust for a “straight A average” has become so powerful that Reed College in Oregon has to actually explain their dearth of 4.0 students in letters home:

At Reed College, transcripts are accompanied by an explanatory card. Last year’s graduating class had an average G.P.A. of 3.20, it says, and only 10 percent of the class graduated with a G.P.A. of 3.67 or higher.

“We also tell them that in 26 years, only 10 students have graduated with a perfect 4.0 average — and three of them were transfers who didn’t get all those grades at Reed,” said Nora McLaughlin, the registrar at Reed. “We wanted to put the grades at Reed in context to be sure that graduate schools, particularly professional schools where G.P.A. is very much an important factor, understand how capable our students are.”

I always find the “Corner Office” column interesting in the Sunday Times.  It’s a series of interviews with executives about how they manage – and how they hire.  Yesterday’s interviewee was Robert A. Eckert of Mattel, and like all the other interviewees he was asked about how he hires (emphasis mine):

Q. Let’s talk about hiring. If you were interviewing me, how would that conversation go?

A. There are two things I look for. First, I’ll find out from you, if you’ve reached a certain level in business, whether you and I have a common acquaintance. It may take me a while to find out who it is, but I’m going to know a couple of people who you know. So before you’re hired, I’m going to call those people, and I’m going to hear them talk to me about you. That works well for me.

The second thing I do is look for values. I’ll take you back to when I was hired at Kraft in 1977. I met with Keith Ridgway, who was the C.E.O., and we’re having a chat. We’re chatting about how he was a World War II pilot, and that my father was in World War II, too, and we’re chatting about things that I found terribly irrelevant. I wasn’t convinced he had read my résumé. I worked hard and got good grades, but he didn’t seem that interested in that. I walked out of that interview and I didn’t feel good about it. It was just weird.

Then fast-forward 15 years, the kids are sitting on the couch, and I’m asking them about their families, and how they grew up, and who’s important in their life and how did they decide to do this and that. I’m looking for fit, personality, values. Is this the kind of person we want around here? Will they work well? And I don’t really care how many places you worked at or what grades you got or who your favorite teacher was or what your favorite class was. It’s about what kind of people they are.

And there was this interview a while back with hedge fund manager Meridee A. Moore:

Q. How do you hire?

A. We look at grades and scores, of course. We want the person to be competitive. Also, if the person has had a rough patch in his or her past, that’s usually good.

Q. Why?

A. Well, if you’ve ever had a setback and come back from it, I think it helps you make better decisions. There’s nothing better for sharpening your ability to predict outcomes than living through some period when things went wrong. You learn that events aren’t in your control and no matter how smart you are and how hard you work, you have to anticipate things that can go against you…

Q. What are some other screens?

A. We give people a two-hour test. We try to simulate a real office experience by giving them an investment idea and the raw material, the annual report, some documents, and then we tell them where the securities prices are. We say: “Here’s a calculator, a pencil and a sandwich. We’ll be back in two hours.” If an analyst comes in there and just attacks the project with relish, that’s a good sign.

Q. Is this one of those impossible tests, where you’re asking them to do seven hours of work in two hours?

A. Yes. But you’d be amazed at how well people do. After two hours, two of us go in and just let the person talk about what he’s done. The nice thing about my being trained as a lawyer, and never going to business school, is that I’m able to ask the basic, financially naïve questions, like: “What does the company do? How do they make money? Who are their customers? What do they make? How do they produce it?” That throws some people off.

Q. Really?

A. Often, analysts go right to the financials and forget to think about the company’s business model. If the person avoids answering the basic questions and instead changes the subject to talk about the work they did, that tells me the person is a bit rigid. Instead of trying to respond to what’s being asked, they’re trying to get an A on the test.

A system that values a perfect GPA over everything else values a student who can engineer a perfect GPA – but who quite possibly has been taught to the test too well, who can’t think creatively or do things outside the “problem set” on the Great Test in the Sky.  Colleges inflate grades because they have to, because they want to attract students, who need to buy the best grade possible, because there are too many employers who value a “perfect GPA” above and beyond the skills development that “failure” can bring, especially if that "failure” comes as a result of honesty or personal priorities. 

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