Grading At Lake Wobegon University

There is an incoming talk for new students at Lake Wobegon University, where Dean Keiller welcomes them to campus:

Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

And why not, Alfie Kohn asks?

The standards-and-accountability movement is not about leaving no child behind. To the contrary, it is an elaborate sorting device, intended to separate wheat from chaff. The fact that students of color, students from low-income families and students whose first language isn’t English are disproportionately defined as chaff makes the whole enterprise even more insidious.

The tacit connection is that sorting is insidious, because sorting means someone doesn’t get a red balloon. Why aren’t there enough red balloons for everyone?

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose that next year virtually every student passed the tests. What would the reaction be from politicians, businesspeople, the media? Would these people shake their heads in admiration and say, “Damn, those teachers must be good!”?

Of course not. Such remarkable success would be cited as evidence that the tests were too easy. In the real world, when scores have improved sharply, this has indeed been the reaction.

There are two approaches to the merits of testing, one being mastery and the other being sorting. If a test asked students to solve ten equations and they all got them correct, then all would get that elusive A. That can happen, especially in second grade, but as the subject matter becomes more challenging, differences between students become more manifest. It may be lousy teaching. It may be lack of effort. It may be that a wonderful writer sucks at math, or a lousy writer sucks at math. And the teacher wasn’t good either.

There is a big universe of reasons why one student does better than another, and but that’s not the universe in which Kohn resides.

The inescapable, and deeply disturbing, implication is that “high standards” really means “standards that all students will never be able to meet.” If everyone did meet them, the standards would just be ratcheted up again — as high as necessary to ensure that some students failed.

By definition, every student cannot be above average. This isn’t a bug, but a feature, even though Kohn finds it “deeply disturbing.” But the crux of his concern, whether opportunity for every student to be anything she wants to be or that no student, particularly his color of vulnerable, be denied their right to unwarranted self-esteem, has a certain appeal to the lowest common denominator. Why shouldn’t every mediocre student be entitled to a set of standards he can achieve?

The point that Kohn studiously ignores is that the ceiling of mastery of subject matter is the floor for the next level of subject matter. One would hope every student can graduate high school with the ability to read, write and do simple mathematics. But some will have the ability to write Sonnets and others quadratic equations, while others will be lucky to conjugate verbs. As students master the basics, testing for mastery makes sense. But there comes a time, perhaps freshman year of high school, where some students show an affinity, a capacity, to do better than their peers in certain subjects.

Is it fair? Of course it is, whether it’s because of the effort a student puts into his work or whether innate ability allows the student to breeze through his studies. It’s unfair that students with the ability to do more are denied the opportunity by incompetent teachers, but those don’t exist in Kohn Universe, where unions would never allow bad teachers to deprive the marginalized their opportunity to shine.

His point, however, that there will be students who could do better, should do better, but don’t do better, isn’t without some merit. The student whose parents, whose peers, push him to avoid education, to disdain such bougie notions as hard work or good grades, will be left behind, even if the student’s innate abilities would allow her to go to the top of the class.

Kohn’s solution isn’t to raise that student up, but to hold all others down.

The goal, in other words, isn’t to do well but to defeat other people who are also trying to do well. Grades in this view should be used to announce who’s beating whom. And if the students in question have already been sorted by the admissions process, well, they ought to be sorted again. A school’s ultimate mission, apparently, is not to help everyone learn but to rig the game so that there will always be losers.

Of course some will game the system to achieve undeserved success, just as some will eschew opportunity, like studying hard in public school. Others will use whatever tools they can, like paying for SAT tutors, to do their best, while yet others will lack the financial ability to compete on a level playing field.

But there are two ways to confront this inherent unfairness, one of which is perfect while the other will invariably be flawed. The perfect is to deny advantage, bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator, and the flawed is to offer the opportunity to those who choose to take advantage of it. Many won’t, and will fail to achieve as much success as they might otherwise. There are strong excuses for why this happens, but they are unavailing.

As the 2019 Valedictorian at Lake Wobegon University said at commencement, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Not every student can be Einstein, but the question is whether that reality means no student should be Einstein. It’s unfair to the student of modest intellect to demand he be tested by Einstein’s standards, but it’s unfair to Einstein to deprive him of the opportunity to achieve as well.

Most of all, it encourages the false belief that excellence is a zero-sum game. It would be both more sensible and more democratic to rescue the essence of the concept: Everyone may not succeed, but at least in theory all of us could.

Kohn’s quite right that excellence isn’t a zero-sum game. If all the students at LWU are above average, why not give each of them an A? But then, there is no LWU. The problem isn’t that excellence is a zero-sum game, but that life is. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

24 thoughts on “Grading At Lake Wobegon University

  1. Dan

    Excellence isn’t a zero-sum game, exactly, but it is, by definition, exclusive. You can mess with the numbers to a degree (does it mean the top 10%? top 5%? top 1%?), but by definition only a fairly small minority of a population can be “excellent” in a given field. Kohn has to know better–why would he want us to believe otherwise?

    1. SHG Post author

      No one wants to confront the unpleasant reality that the reason they failed where someone else succeeded isn’t because society has conspired against them, but they just aren’t that smart. Kohn provides them with the facile rationalization to avoid such unpleasantness, and the NYT provides Kohn with the real estate to sell his wares.

      1. Raccoon Strait

        Why is it fail? Why is it about smart or not? I see the problem as why we shame those who do not score high as compared with others, rather than finding ways to help them succeed. Which might not be in academics. We still need plumbers, and bakers, and auto mechanics, and etc., so why are we pushing everyone into college where everyone can achieve a doctorate in gender studies instead of finding out what their real interests and aptitudes are and then helping them to succeed at those?

        For one thing, those aptitude tests are atrocious. I had an acquaintance once, a guy who grew up on an Indian reservation up in Canada who took one of those tests. The results said he should be an urban chicken farmer. How many urban areas allow chicken raising, at a volume that would support an individual or family? End anecdotes.

        For another, we teach, not just the student, but also the parents, that success lies in college, rather than career. College doesn’t pay anything, it costs. Careers pay, and they pay better if you are good at them, and that might lead to an apprenticeship or specialty school (where other problems lay), or it might be college and then grad school and then a lifetime of learning after that, during the career.

        The goal should not be education, it should be the right education for the needs of the individual, whose needs might not be determined until after all the education is done. At least the way we go about it now. What’s wrong with THAT picture?

        1. DaveL

          Either way, that still leaves it to somebody to pull those 1Ls who are “totally not failing at becoming lawyers” and tell them about their upcoming success as paralegals, or even as waiters. Or introduce them to the team of specialized tutors who will help them struggle through things their “totally not smarter” classmates breeze through alone. I think they’re still going to catch on to what’s happening.

  2. wilbur

    Mr. Kohn tells us in one of his books: “The real alternative to being Number One is not being Number Two; it is dispensing with rankings altogether ”

    How do his book publishers choose which authors to publish? They rank them, necessarily, regardless of what label they attach to the process. They must discriminate, necessarily, or face the choice of publishing everyone or no one.

    Kohn denies the universal reality of competition. But he can’t fool Mother Nature.

    1. SHG Post author

      If Kohn panders to the ignorant loser masses, he will sell more books and his publisher will be able to buy that new car he’s been eyeing. Why do you hate new cars?

  3. Richard Kopf


    At the risk of having my skull fractured should I ever attend a Charles Murray lecture at Middlebury, there is something immutable. It’s called a normal distribution, otherwise known as the bell curve. Grading on that curve is not cruel. It is an important way teaching children that life is not “fair.” Perhaps that is the most important lesson of all.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      Only an intellectual elitist would push to the extreme ends of education and knowledge such that the bell curve would be invoked. If testing was limited to third grade spelling tests, everyone could ace it and we would achieve universal success. And as I recall, it was Allison Stanger who got her head bashed, because the patriarchy.

      1. Richard Kopf

        Everyone’s a critic. Your compulsion to promote the #MeToo movement is revolting and, worse, distracting.

        After all, it was Charles, not some insignificant female economics prof who was drafting on Charles’ superlative ability to provoke outrage, who the ultra woke were after. She was merely accidental and collateral damage.

        Just stop focusing your insipid attention on women or I’ll turn your skull to mush. That’s what real men do. At least those like me who are two standard deviations from the mean. The tail end of the curve is where all the fun (and stupid) may be found!

        All the best.


          1. Richard Kopf


            If the hypothesis (IQ >94%) is greater than 95%, you fall into the far right end of the tail. And that is not fair, shitlord!

  4. Jim Tyre

    Why shouldn’t every mediocre student be entitled to a set of standards he can achieve?

    Roman Hruska would likely agree, if only he still lived.
    (Ducking and running from the wrath of one of Hruska’s fellow Nebraskans.)

    1. Richard Kopf

      Dear Jim,

      There was a time when if you wanted to be an Article III judge it would be good if you had the opportunity to lunch with the Senator with no one else present. That was true even after he had long since retired from the Senate.

      It is was impossible to know whether one passed the Senator’s gentle but incisive testing. After all, he had a lot of experience judging prospective judges due to his long tenure as the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. By the way, I have no recollection of what I had for lunch but I evidently passed.

      It is unfortunate that the Senator is known for an off the cuff remark. Judge Robert Bork knew the Senator well. When he was Solicitor General and, before the word “Bork” became a verb, this how he described the Senator:

      There was a time when the stimulation provided by the Washington environment seemed a bit more than I found strictly necessary. And it was then that I had a glimpse of Roman Hruska, not as a Senator, but as a man and as a friend. He drew me aside after a committee hearing and spoke words of personal encouragement that buoyed my spirits and which I have never forgotten. They were not words that were owed or necessary in any sense; they simply came out of a sympathetic feel for another’s position. Those words did not come merely because he was a conscientious Senator or because he was a student of the law; they were spoken because he is also something better, a good and humane man.

      Robert Bork, Dedication: Senator Roman L. Hruska, 10 Creighton Law Review ix (1976).

      All the best.


      1. SHG Post author

        I appreciate that Tyre graduated third in his class at Trump School of Impulse Control, but I’m pretty sure Sen. Hruska has no bearing on this post and you don’t have to take the bait.

  5. LocoYokel

    Rabbit hole alert:

    You realize that Einstein’s teachers thought he was to stupid to ever learn anything and he was kicked out of school don’t you?

  6. delurking

    Point 1:
    ” The problem isn’t that excellence is a zero-sum game, but that life is.” No, a thousand time no. We all benefit when the most capable among us are allowed to achieve to their highest potential

    Point 2:
    I haven’t been around primary education, but at the college level the faculty I have interacted with explicitly intend grades to be a sorting mechanism. When designing tests, the try to make the test generate as broad a distribution of grades as they can. The most careful among them statistically analyze the scores of individual problems, so that on future tests they can select problems more likely to generate a wider distribution. It would take a hell of a cultural shift to change that. Sometimes, from reading the news, I fear that cultural shift is happening, but I haven’t seen it in the sciences, including the social sciences that have a least a little bit of experimental work in them.

    1. SHG Post author

      Your first point may misapprehend the quote. I hate when that happens.

      Your second point echoes what I wrote, that at the early stage of education, we test for mastery, while at the top end we test for sorting to distinguish the few who will elevate knowledge beyond its current status. Honing the sorting process is a continual effort, both because we can always do better, but also because when done well, the peak should always be a little higher.

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