Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Yesterday's post has inspired quite a bit of traffic here and elsewhere. Over on Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, Michael Simkovic asks whether conditional scholarships are good for law students.
Deborah Merritt responds on the Law School Cafe and answers the question in the negative. She thinks conditional scholarships mostly help law schools, and they hurt students by creating a stressful competitive environment.
Michael Simkovic (again on Leiter) disagrees. He argues that conditional scholarships motivate students to work hard in law school and cites to studies linking motivation and academic performance.
Deborah Merritt shoots back on the Law School Cafe.
And Michael Simkovic again responds on Leiter.
It is hard for me to keep up with the pace at which these people blog.
I have only a few quick points to make in response to Professor Merritt, whose remarks are largely critical of the position I have taken here:
- It seems we are all agreed that the disclosure problems related to conditional scholarships have largely been addressed through the ABA website that enables students to comparison shop among scholarship offers from various schools and know their chances of retaining their conditional scholarships. Some law schools routinely offer a lot of merit scholarships in the first year knowing that most students will not retain them thereafter. But that information is now easily available, and we will see if students vote with their feet against such a model.
- Professor Merritt properly chastises me for treating Wikipedia's listing of normalization curves as authoritative. I think Wikipedia is a good place to start, but my main point is that information about normalization curves should be readily available for each school a student is considering attending.
- I find the absence of curves in undergraduate grading perplexing, and I find it astonishing that anybody would think non-curves are better than curves. I could easily design an exam that all my students would ace (above 90% correct) and an exam that all my students would fail (below 60% correct). But there is nothing holy about base ten, and my aim should not be to design a test so perfectly calibrated that the difference between a 91% and an 89% is meaningful but the difference between 86% and 84% is not. My aim in assessment is, among other things, to have a tool that helps me distinguish within a group of students who have had the same educational experience. A curve helps me do that better than random divisions at every point at which the score passes a 0.
- Professor Merritt points to a study in which the J.D. placed only sixth in a ranking of the best graduate degrees. As if that were a bad thing! Three of the degrees that ranked more highly are Ph.D. programs likely to take twice as long as the J.D. and the others likely require higher math or computer programming skills. This extremely high ranking for the J.D. is terrific news. By the way, the MBA, a frequent alternative to the J.D., ranked 14th.
- Professor Merritt tells an anecdote about a student who decided not to pursue a J.D. when she learned of conditional scholarships. She decided to take her graduate tuition dollars elsewhere, but where? Unless she earned a Ph.D. in statistics, computer science or physics, or a Masters Degree in human computer interaction or biostatistics, according to the study cited by Professor Merritt, she made a poor choice.
Professor Merritt's second post turns on an anecdote about teaching the same course (torts) the same way to different students and getting very different results. As a consequence, she had to give students in the "smart section" who did better on the exam worse grades than some students who did worse on the exam in the weaker section. Three thoughts:
First, one cannot step into the same river twice. One semester when I taught history at the College of Charleston in the 1990s, I had four sections of Western Civ., all on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule (they were long days!). Same readings, same outside materials, same assignments, same lecture notes. Each section developed its own identity. They were four different courses.
Second, in fifteen years of teaching at both the college and law school level, I have never had a similar problem. An anecdote is not an argument. No system of grading is perfect, and I can live with small injustices around the edges of grade normalization. Whether or not a student retains a conditional scholarship is not determined by her performance in any one course.
Third, consider the insight of Professor Merritt's plucky college student who decided against a J.D. Knowing only undergraduate education, the student remarked, “It’s not like there’s a quota on the number of A’s or anything.” In that world, the undergraduate professor gives A's to all of the students in the "smart section" who "earned" them according to some mysterious but fixed standard. Outside of the STEM courses, the undergraduate professor can also give As to the best students in the weaker section, even though the same performance would have earned them a B in the "smart section." Within the STEM courses, imagine the stampede of angry pre-med students from the weaker section who will decry the injustice that there were no A's in their section but eight in the other. I pity the department chair who has to sort out that mess.
Links to Related Posts:
The Current Series
XI:Another Transparency Issue: Conditional Merit-Based Scholarships
X: Siloing: The Next Unneeded Import from Undergraduate Education
IX: Legal Education in the News and on the Blogosphere
VIII: Myanna Dellinger, Caveat Emptor and Law School Transparency
VII: Myanna Dellinger, On Issue-Spotting and Hiding the Ball
VI: Issue Spotting: A Response to a Comment
V: Did Legal Education Take a Wrong Turn in Separating Skills and Doctrine?
IV: What Is the Place of Core Doctrinal Teaching and Scholarship in the New Curriculum?
III: My Advice to Law School Transparency: Declare Victory and Move On
II: SLOs and Why I Hide the Ball (and Why You Don't Have To)
I: Why Is the Legal Academy Incapable of Standing Up for Itself?
Related Posts form 2012:
Thoughts on Curricular Reform VI: Preparing the Academically Adrift for Practice
Thoughts on Curricular Reform V: A Coordinated Curriculum and Academic Freedom
Thoughts on Curricular Reform IV: The Place of Scholarship in the 21st Century Legal Academy
Thoughts On Curricular Reform III: The Costs of Change
Thoughts on Curricular Reform II: Teaching Materials
Thoughts on Curricular Reform I: The Problem