High standards are egalitarian

Do students want it easy? A reader writes:

I’m a professor of computer science at a well-regarded university, and by most accounts the toughest professor in our department. I agree with what the majority of your readers have to say about our high schools, but there are a few points I would add.

I find that students like to be challenged. The impression that students are looking for an easy ride is completely inaccurate, at least for most students. The problem, from my perspective, is a vicious cycle in which nonchallenging high school courses result in disrespect from students, which in turn gives teachers the impression that students don’t want challenge, so the courses get watered down even more, etc. The solution is for teachers to make their courses demanding and not to apologize about it. The system needs to support them in doing so.

And, we need to fail some students. Different students have different academic “pain thresholds”; some see anything less than an A as reason to buckle down and do better, while others will calmly accept a C or D and change nothing. The simple fact is that some students will not take education seriously until they fail. If we refuse to fail any students, we harm this group by allowing them to sabotage their own educations through lack of effort.

Current educational doctrine views a tough academic standard, with some students failing, as elitist, and a gentle standard, with a focus on high self-esteem, as egalitarian. In fact, exactly the reverse is true. Some students will drive themselves to learn regardless of whether they are made to or not. Others will learn only if the educational system demands it of them. A gentle standard, regardless of its intentions, is brutally elitist in that ensures that the former group become intellectual “haves” while the latter become intellectual “have-nots”. A high standard that demands excellence of all students is truly egalitarian in its outcome, and is essential to the health of a free society.

— Clinton Staley
San Luis Obispo

Some students have parents who will push them to work hard. Those who don’t need to get that from their teachers.

About Joanne


  1. Amen! As a college student myself, I wish all my professors agreed with you. Students will “feel good about themselves” when they know they have worked hard and through hours of effort earned a B or C that they know they deserve. Getting an A for doing nothing just makes me feel kinda… dirty and cheated, NOT proud of myself.

  2. Amen! Amen! I remember how proud I was to get a B in tough classes. I also found that such classes inspired me to learn more about the particular subject outside of the classroom. If only more teachers and administators realized this.

  3. slimedog says:

    Ditto! Every semester I toughen up the assignments and requirements for my undergraduate statistics courses, and the kids just eat ’em up! They positively beam when they get a tough problem solved, and keep coming back for more.

  4. M Taylor says:

    You are dead on target! If only everyone in education felt this way, our educational system would truly see the “reform” that we have been seeking.

  5. schaffman says:

    Who is this guy? Is he running for anything? He’s got my vote.

  6. A high standard of excelence forces me to work to acheive it, a low standard makes me wonder why I should bother trying. Amen.

  7. Walter Wallis says:

    When grades mean something, they mean something.
    I like San Luis Obispo, too. I took my discharge from Camp San Luis Obispo 52 years ago, and I sometimes wish I had stayed there. Poly rates.

  8. Joshua Sasmor says:

    I do have to disagree, a little. I’m a math teacher, and I teach everything from Calculus 4/Differential equations down to Algebra 1. I teach one course for the non-math, non-science, non-education major called “Contemporary Mathematics,” a liberal arts math course. The students in this course have to take exactly one math course over the four years they spend in college and this is it. They don’t like math, they see no use for math in their majors (primarily art, theater, English, etc.) and they just want a passing grade so they can graduate.

    In most upper level courses, the students want to learn the material so they challenge themselves to do as well as they can. In my opinion, this does not hold in the lower level courses for most students.

  9. Mad Scientist says:


    Well boo-hoo for them! In my college career, I had to take a total of 8 “Humanities and Social Science” courses. None were relevant to my major, I generally did not like them, and I just wanted a passing grade.

    However, I took the courses and did my level best in them because if I did not, I would not be true to my ideals.

    Conversely, in a series of courses in Thermodynamics *critical* to my major, I always got lousy grades because the material was difficult. I busted my hump to *earn* those marks.

    When it came time to pursue the PhD, one of the professors (he is known worldwide as the expert in the field) who gave me a D supported my application and convinced the rest of the Department to let me continue because “He is a hard worker, and we should give him a chance”.

    Failures of the type you describe are purely the fault of the students who only see the worth in giving 100% in subjects that interest them. Unfortunately, these are the same people who become activists in areas where they admittedly know nothing, but believe themselves to be experts.

  10. Joshua, I suspect that if those students had gotten a better mathematics education when they were younger, their attitudes would be different so higher standards when the kids are still growing would work wonders.

    For mathematics education, I think one of the things they need to do is show kids how things like algebra really do play into their lives. How many kids ask “What does algebra/trig/etc have to do with the rest of my life?” Answering this question and showing the practical applications of math and science from a young age would do a lot to improve attitudes.

  11. Linden,

    What are these applications for math?

    (I have a degree in Math from a top University and prove things because I enjoy it, but I can’t say I’ve ever used trig in my everyday life, except when being purposely nerdy…)

  12. I was thinking of the creation of video games, technology like computers, computer programs, tv, radio, Ipods, etc. Show what can be created with that knowledge. Without _______, no Grand Theft Auto. etc.

  13. From what I see, the reason so much gets dumbed down to the common denominator in a class is twofold: Lack of administrative support (as mentioned) and capitulating to irrate parents who can’t believe their child earned a poor grade.

    After a time, some teachers who fight the good fight to keep up the high standards are tired of doing so. It wears on you mentally, physically, and spiritually. At some point you just decide it isn’t worth it and look for ways to just get by.

  14. Laura (southernxyl) says:

    The best thing I can say for forcing everyone to take algebra and geometry in high school is that most people don’t know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I didn’t know I would major in chemistry until my senior year in high school, and frankly, if I’d known how much math I’d have to take in college, I probably wouldn’t have. Fortunately, once I got into calculus it got a lot better. I’d hate to see kids get to the point of pinpointing what they want to do and then find that they can’t do it because they didn’t have the high school math. College math is a different story, though. There probably isn’t a practical application for most people, for anything past HS Algebra I. If that.

    Also, I think Joshua’s observation is fairly accurate. Mad Scientist would have been an exception, probably, but then Joshua was talking about *most* students, not *every* student.

  15. Steve LaBonne says:

    Actually there is a lot to be said for a large number of people comprehending probability and statistics much better than they do now, and in turn, proper understanding of these subjects requires a considerable amount of algebra and calculus (attempts to teach a watered-down version of statistics to students without such a foundation are unlikely to produce real understanding, in my experience.)

  16. Wacky Hermit says:

    I have to agree with Steve on the statistics thing. I’ve been doing some work with my state standards, and I gotta tell you there’s some real ridiculous crap in there when it comes to statistics. Kindergarteners are expected to learn statistics and probability concepts when they barely know their numbers. You can teach averages to kids who can do the Basic Four (+-x/) with decimals, and a couple of very basic probability concepts to kids who can do fractions, but that’s about it. Kids who still think there are real monsters under their beds just don’t have adequate life experience or mental sophistication to understand what it means for one event to be more probable than another.

    On the subject of high standards, I find that my college students rise to whatever level of expectations I have of them. As long as I make my expectations clear, my students will do what it takes to get the grade they want; and if they are not willing to do so, they drop out of my section early. I have a little speech that I give at the beginning of every semester. I make it very clear that while as a human being I have compassion for their individual needs and situations, I base my grades solely on their own performance.

  17. Dan G, the last time I saw trig being used was yesterday when a guy in the park was deciding how much cable to use and how far back to put the tractor he was pulling out a large tree with.

  18. Robert Schwartz says:

    We have a book titled “When Are We Ever Gonna Have To Use This?” Hal Saunders, Dale Seymour Publications, ISBN 0-9604812-0-6.

    I agree with the posters above who think that probability and statistics should be more emphasized in high school math ciricula. Geometry is a hangover from the era when Euclid was one of the 7 liberal arts and spending a year on it is a waste of time. OTOH, math is a seemless web, in statistics a correlation coefficent is a cosine of an angle between vecors in an n-dimensional space. But I did not learn that until grad school.

  19. Marcus,
    although your answer is cute, I was wondering did the tractor driver pull out a calculator or slide rule or did he/she eyeball the distance? I have used algebra in jobs I have had, I was an electronics repair tech and a sonar tech and did need these skills. I have also taught math and social science at the high school. It is difficult for some students to see the beauty of mathematics in its form and many will not require more than a working knowledge of it on the job. While I see algebra education as a good thing, I don’t think we should have them do it just to do it if they don’t have a grasp of basic math, or if they are unwilling to put in more than a show of trying to understanding of these basic mathematic concepts. Further, I finished high school Trig and couldn’t solve percents but when I had to figure them on another of the many jobs that I did have my basic math skills were enough to teach me to do percents in a day or two of one on one instruction and countless applications of the concept. Finally even when I ahve used higher math concepts and skills on the job they were usually limited to just what I needed for that job, for example decibel computations are logrithmic, and I understand how they work in regards to sonar, yet I never have completly understood logrithms as a pure math. Maybe everyone doesn’t need algebra or higher.

  20. I know this is an old-fashioned answer, but maybe the fact that I’m in my mid-twenties will make it more palatable. I was a liberal arts major who took upper level math in college for a graduation requirement, with a demanding teacher, and I think it was essential to my education. I could have taken the math-for-liberal-arts class with its low expectations, and I now see that it would have been a mistake.

    At times I resented this guy demanding that liberal-artsy me study his subject as intensely as I studied my own. I had hated math from elementary school on. He was the first math teacher I had that demanded I master difficult concepts, and who seemed willing to fail me if I did not, and in the end that was what it took to get me to like math! Why? Because he was the first teacher to present math to me as something that could be mastered, rather than a weird scary subject that I shouldn’t expect to understand!

    Do I use what I learned every day? No. Could I ever conceive of needing it for the field I studied? Absoluely not. But although the skills I learned were not essential to my future, comfort and competency with advanced mathematical concepts was. Among other things, I am now: a competent manager of funds at work who understands returns on investments (in my liberal arts job), an informed voter who understands the statistics and budget forecasts reported in the news and can smell the BS, and a knowledgeable consumer who can spot the advantages and disadvantages of various loans and financing options offered to me. Obviously you don’t need calculus for that, but I think you do need a basic comfort and competency with numbers that you will not get from a soft class with low expectations. Presenting math as a hard, scary subject that is too confusing to expect a teen to learn is a sure way to grow adults who are suckers for bad information.

  21. Steve LaBonne says:

    It’s just like the Shakespeare discussion above. For any particular skll you can always make reasonable arguments both for and against the importance of teaching it. But when the bias is _always_ on the side of dumbing things down, the cumulative effect is deadly.

  22. I used trigonometry and logarithms for several years in the Army. I used it to kill people. It worked. My job title was computer. They probably use a digital computer to do my job now. When they lack fuel and electrical power someone must have to do it the way I did.

    Very few people understand logarithms as pure math. Most understand them only as computational aids.

  23. Clinton Staley says:

    As the author of the article that started this thread, I thought I might add another comment or two. Joshua’s point is well stated and worth noting. High standards are surely a harder sell with a group of remedial students than with advanced students, and the particulars of what constitutes a high standard must obviously differ between a remedial math class and an AP calculus course. But the underlying principle is the same. Everyone benefits from, and most people appreciate, being pushed past their limits and made stronger as a result. Also, when I said “the system” must support teachers who hold high standards for their students, that includes not merely the schools, but our society in general and parents in particular.

    Regarding the value of math instruction, I don’t tell my students that they’ll actually use all of the math they learn, since this isn’t true, even for myself. I tell them instead that math is the weight lifting of the intellectual world. Few people lift weights as their principal sport, but almost all athletes benefit from the increased strength that comes from weight lifting and almost all coaches include it as part of their training regimen. Mastering math concepts (not just rote methods) builds reasoning ability and insight in general. That’s its most important value.

  24. This professor is right on. I definitely prefer harder classes. When I have a semester full of easy classes, I get bored and do other things, and my grades suffer. I’m not particularly concerned about my grades, I get more satisfaction when I feel I’ve learned things in a class than when I get a good grade, but I enjoy working hard and earning something.

  25. Steve LaBonne says:

    In reponse to the anonymous author of the last comment- my experience from my college-teaching days was that the majority of students saw things more or less your way; unfortunately, college administrations tend to pay attention only to the minority of whiners. This is very frustrating both to professors who want to challenge their students and to the many students who really want to learn. Sad.

  26. Greg Hamerly says:

    I was a student of Clint Staley’s (the author of this article) at San Luis Obispo. I had him for several classes, and he was my favorite professor in college, for the reasons he gave in his editorial: he has high expectations.

    Clint is one of the few teachers I had in life who were “tough enough” to make the course really interesting, which in turn enabled me to learn a lot. I recall many students feeling frustrated, but at the same time appreciating the pressure. In addition, Clint’s reputation was such that if you got into the class and could not make it, it was not because you were not forewarned by other students (or by Clint himself).

    I am about to become a professor of computer science this fall, and I will be employing approaches to teaching that are similar to what Clint used with me. I believe in them.

  27. I know that i am now taking math in collage that i was NOT ready for due to the lack of “pushing” in high school. If i got a D in high school that was fine with them. Now That i am in collage 20 years later and wating to better my life. I have to say that Math is HARD for me. I don’t want to be handed the grade i want to earn it on my own. I got out of high school without even knowing my times tables. That is a sad fact that I have had to change. I am now relearing what I should have learned then.I beleave that if the school and the teachers would have been harder on me that I would have learned.
    I am now taking collage math 1 and loving it. the teacher pushes me all the time and shows me that if i work hard i can solve the hardest equations. I have learned my times tables on my own now and am looking forward to math 2 !! Thanks to all the teachers out there who care enough to be tuff on the students !!


  1. Fairness

    Joanne Jacobs has a post today entitled High standards are egalitarian. I wholeheartedly agree with about three sentences of the email and 100 % with Joanne.

  2. “Stop teaching my kid?” Stop whining!

    The Irascible Professor has a recent guest commentary by a teacher, which was picked up by Joanne Jacobs and Number 2 Pencil, so we figured we’d chime in. The turgid piece, “Stop Teaching My Kid” has to be the worst abuse of superlatives and absolutes …