July 7, 2004: Letters

Too many A’s

Women opting out

Reunion abroad

For the Record

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Too many A’s

As a Princeton graduate, educator, and former writing instructor at Princeton, I am dismayed and offended by the University’s decision to crack down on what it calls the problem of grade inflation by limiting the number of A’s to 35 percent. (Notebook, May 12). This policy is disrespectful to teachers, students, and to the learning process.

Why is it a problem when the majority of Princeton students do outstanding work and receive A’s? Am I wrong to assume that the admission office does an excellent job selecting some of the most intelligent and highly motivated young people in the world?

Princeton’s grading policy follows a model of economics, not education, and assumes a scarcity of resources: There are not enough A’s to go around. Grade inflation is also an economic term and presumes that if there are too many A’s, an A has less worth. There is an underlying assumption that not everyone can or should be expected to do well. Rather, the student body should be stratified, like society. Instead of having high and low wage earners, we have high and low grade earners. Princeton students do not represent a cross section of the population, yet in giving A’s to no more than 35 percent, the administrators suggest that stratification is necessary and desirable.

There is an alternative model, one that is not based on economics but on learning: the model of mastery. This does not mean that in a 12-week semester a student will learn everything about a subject. It means that learning takes place on a continuum, and the teacher sets goals that he/she wishes the students to master during the duration of the course. In my writing classes, for example, there were particular skills I wanted my students to master, but I also told them that the class was just a small fragment in their lifelong journey as writers. In setting goals toward mastery, it is the role of the institution to support students on that journey. If the institution arbitrarily limits high student achievement to 35 percent, it is seriously interfering with the learning process.

What is the real role of grades in learning? Perhaps they can motivate, but they can also discourage. They may target the slackers, but they often cause students to give up on learning. Grades can cause students to think more about product than process. They can discourage creativity when students are thinking about “what the teacher wants” instead of delving into what the student really thinks.

Perhaps grades let the public know who the achievers really are, but they also create unhealthy competition and discourage cooperation. In public life, cooperation is a key characteristic of well-performing organizations. The competitive model is not only inappropriate to education, but it doesn’t adequately prepare students for the working world either.

Students need genuine feedback in order to learn. Effective models of assessment help teachers define their goals, share those goals with students, and judge students’ work accordingly. When assessment becomes part of the learning process, students are able to integrate what they have learned from the assessment and apply it. Written comments from teachers, teacher/student conferences, opportunities to revise, and chances to read and respond to other students’ work can all help students understand how to assess their progress and further their learning.

Susan Danoff ’75
Princeton, N.J.


In all of the discussion concerning “Too Many A’s” an obvious point about grade inflation has been overlooked. In espousing the notion of grades as inflated currency, the faculty has embraced an economic metaphor wholly inappropriate to its educational mission. Grades are not currency to be used to achieve an end, but rather, are a measure of intellectual mastery. Why can’t professors set objective standards that all students can achieve? Is it conceivable that computer technologies and a lot of hard work (as reflected by soaring high school grades and S.A.T. scores) have resulted in members of the Class of 2007 who are simply better students than those in the Class of 1977? Of course! So why seek to diminish their achievement by an arbitrary lowering of their college grades?

One of the most popular professors in my day, Maitland Jones, made an “A” in Organic Chemistry accessible to anyone and everyone who mastered his clearly defined syllabus. For many years, I emulated this approach while teaching epidemiology to first-year medical students at Cornell. One year, my senior instructor came to me with a “huge problem.” “Over half of the students got A’s on your final exam this year!” she moaned, and then requested my permission to “adjust the curve downward.” I dismissed her suggestion with a rhetorical question: “So our students must be punished because – evidently — they have learned too much?”

Kenneth Offit ’77
New York, N.Y.


Princeton has returned to the cutting edge of academic innovation with its initiative to reduce the number of A’s awarded to undergraduates from 46 percent to 35 percent. This is commendable, but is also perplexing and, hopefully, just a beginning. In the twilight of a successful and satisfying academic career, I still consider among my most-treasured achievements my grades as a sophomore in two superb and popular English courses. I received the only “1” in a class of 550 in the first semester and one of two “1’s” in a similar-sized class second semester. This works out to an A ratio of .0027%. Unless the student species has undergone an evolutionary transformation, the debasement of the grade currency at Princeton and elsewhere has not been inflation, but hyperinflation.

Don Hellmann ’55
Seattle, Washington

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Women opting out

I was pleased to see Professor Sara Curran’s essay (Perspective, May 12) about the tricky balance between work and family. In my own observations, a persistent obstacle to finding satisfying solutions is that women have failed to adequately bring men into the discussion. While Curran acknowledges a need to challenge societal expectations of men as well as women, she asks, “How well am I preparing the young women in my own class — future Princeton alumnae?”

What about preparing the men to question the societal pressures on them?

Curran notes that in her spring-term course, Sex, Sexuality, and Gender, only two of the 28 students are male, suggesting a lack of male interest in the subject. Is this because the word “gender” is perceived as a euphemism for “women’s studies” or even “male-bashing?” If so, how can we help our alma mater change this perception and turn the classroom into a forum for both women and men to discuss and become active in these life decisions?

Academics and activists alike need to continue working to treat gender not as a women’s concern, but to make the balancing of work and family (among other problems) a salient issue for us all.

Katherine Lee ’99
Cambridge, Mass.


It was a little after 9 p.m. on a weeknight, just after getting my two little ones to bed, that I finally sat down to relax and picked up the May 12 edition of PAW. Of course, the article on “Opting Out” immediately caught my eye. I was interested to learn that Princeton women undergraduates are so concerned about this trend and that some view it as a betrayal by alumnae of their own gender, as somehow “irresponsible.”

Perhaps it is just the opposite. Perhaps the choice to “opt out” is just the type of choice women ought to have as liberated individuals. Going to work after having children because you have to, not because you want to, is certainly not liberation. By and large, the women discussed in Lisa Belkin ’82’s New York Times Magazine article [October 26, 2003] that caused such a stir were able to choose to opt out — for the time being — because they had the financial backing and the confidence to do so.

It is probably hard for many young women without children to imagine wanting to be with your children more than wanting to achieve something important in the world through your career, but this is, in fact, what many women feel. We should be happy because we have advanced to the point where women can make this choice with some degree of certainty that they will have options in the career world when they decide to opt back in.

Another way to think about it that might give Princeton undergraduate women more hope for their futures is that opting out does not have to be opting out of work entirely. Opting out may also be defined as opting out of the work structure that the currently male-oriented workplace has defined, which Professor Curran so deftly describes. If the current model of professional achievement of an “all-or-nothing commitment to work” requires one to put all other aspects of life second to one’s job, then we should rejoice that talented women have the courage to opt out and ask for something better for themselves, their children, and their husbands.

Since giving birth to my first child in 1999, I have opted out of the traditional work structure and worked a flexible schedule (three days a week) as a research analyst in investment management. While prior to having children, my average workweek was 60 hours with frequent travel, today I average 30 hours with limited travel. I may not be on the fast track to the corner office, but I enjoy work that is stimulating and still have enough time to enjoy raising my children, building a family, and participating in community service.

While I do not deny that the workplace has a long way to go before we are at the point where achieving balance in work and family care is a realistic goal for all, I am encouraged to see many of my women friends from Princeton and law school asking for such accommodation and getting it. These women have been able to control their workweeks to achieve greater balance and more satisfaction in their lives (e.g., a doctor who works two days a week, a lawyer who works a part-time schedule for a government agency, a J.D./M.B.A. who works two days for a healthcare agency, an M.B.A. who runs a nonprofit three days a week, an M.Ed. who stays at home with her children and tutors on the side). These women are laying the groundwork for future men and women who also would like to build more balance into their work and family lives, especially when raising small children.

Let us also be careful not to deride the choices of any woman. I know many extremely talented Princeton women who have opted to raise their children full-time, with no short-term plans to reenter the workforce, who are enjoying the satisfaction and stimulation of motherhood, which, despite the idealization of motherhood in the media, is low-status, exhausting work with no pay. Still others choose to work full-time, yet still participate in the P.T.A., volunteer at church, and plan birthday parties to beat the band.

Women today have more choices than ever before. These options should be open to all, and we should not vilify any woman (or man) for choosing any one of them. The new models of work that today’s women are carving out — opting out and back in, flexible work schedules, starting their own businesses and running them from home, staying at home with their kids because that’s where they get the greatest satisfaction — are building the foundations for the women and men of tomorrow to have much better options than they have today.

Lisa Baird ’89
Darien, Conn.
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From left, Matt Scherrer ’01, Pat Horn ’99, and Christian Diegel ’01 at an undisclosed location.

Reunion abroad

I am currently on active duty in the Army. On a recent combat deployment, I ran into Pat Horn ’99 and Christian Diegel ’01, both in the Air Force. I am the first one to make it back from overseas, and the group wanted me to pass along the attached picture of our reunion. We found it ironic, as the real Reunions were approaching, that we had the opportunity for a mini-reunion in a very faraway place, under very different circumstances. We enjoyed seeing each other and catching up; a familiar face goes a long way in such a distant land, under the most severe of conditions.

Matt Scherrer ’01
Tacoma, Wash.

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For the Record

A Notebook item in our May 12 issue mistakenly identified Professor of Art and Archaeology John Wilmerding as emeritus. He has not moved to emeritus status.
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