February 1, 2017

Education and Critical Thinking in Mississippi

Normal grade distribution
This post originally appeared on the Mississippi Atheists blog in 2013. It has been updated and expanded.

I have done my share of complaining about the state of public education in Mississippi, focusing mostly on what I see in the context of higher education. And while I am frequently appalled by what I see in this context, I would be remiss in neglecting the positive experiences that give me hope. There are students in Mississippi's public universities who have not only benefited greatly from the secular public education they have received but who have demonstrated a passion for learning and an ability to think critically. I suspect that many represent the future of skepticism (and atheism) in our state. At least, they would if most of them weren't determined to move away as soon as they can.

The biggest difference I have observed between Mississippi and a few other states in terms of what I see from college students involves how abilities are distributed. The typical grade distribution elsewhere resembles the normal, bell-shaped curve pictured here in that grades of C are most common, followed by B's and D's, with A's and F's on the tails of the distribution.

This shouldn't come as a surprise because what it shows is that most students are average. Imagine that! It also reveals that there will be exceptionally good and exceptionally poor students in the mix too. Some of those at the top will end up with very impressive GPAs; some of those at the bottom will likely drop out.

This is NOT the sort of grade distribution I typically see in Mississippi, even in upper-level courses taken mostly by juniors and seniors. Instead, I see what we call a bimodal distribution. While the details vary a bit from course-to-course, the general pattern is that I see few C grades but lots of Bs and Fs (or As and Ds in easier courses).

Bimodal distribution
The top students I encounter in Mississippi would be competitive anywhere. They are every bit as talented and hard-working as students I've seen elsewhere. They are invested in their education, they write well, and they are excellent critical thinkers. They do not blindly accept what they are told but uncover and test the assumptions upon which the information is based. They can tackle complex subjects (e.g., separation of church and state, crime and race), cut through the controversy and media hype, and get to the root of what is going on.

The challenge, from the perspective of an educator, is how to keep students interested and challenged without losing those at the bottom part of the distribution. A quick look at the figures shows why the commonly cited "teach to the average student" strategy is less viable here in Mississippi. We don't have a large number of average students here. We have some who are outstanding and many who are struggling.

I suspect there are many reasons behind the differences I have observed between Mississippi and other states. I teach far more first-generation college students here than I have encountered elsewhere. Some of their families are not terribly supportive of higher education; some try to be supportive but aren't sure how best to do so given their own lack of experience with higher education. And yes, some of the undergraduates I see are not prepared for college and probably should not have been admitted. I feel especially bad for these students. They have been told that they must complete college in order to have any sort of future but are thoroughly unprepared to do so. It is as if they have been set up to fail.

I'm not sure what the optimal solution is here. Those of us who work in higher education are under pressure to improve student retention and graduation rates. Sadly, this can easily lead to a dumbing-down of the system and graduating cohorts of students who are poorly equipped to function in their jobs. Since lack of public funding for education appears to be one of the primary factors driving this and other unfortunate trends in education, I suspect that increased funding is part of the solution; however, I am skeptical that it will solve all our problems. Maybe we would also do well to consider why we lose so many bright and talented college graduates from our state each year.