Bar and Zussman take data on student grades, student SAT scores, and professor political affiliation, and find that:
...student grades are linked to the political orientation of professors: relative to their Democratic colleagues, Republican professors are associated with a less egalitarian distribution of grades and with lower grades
There are some problems with the study - it is based on just one university, only 44 percent of professors at that university could be identified on local voter registration lists, and of those, just 27 were Republicans, so two or three curmudgeonly professors teaching large undergraduate classes could skew the results. Also, political affiliations were correlated with subject taught, with more Republicans being found in the natural sciences, but there were too few Republicans to completely control for subject/grade distribution interactions.
What I find remarkable, though, is how few people have picked up on the study's conclusion:
To the extent that the application of objective standards is an important university goal, policy makers should consider limiting the discretion professors enjoy when it comes to grading and making it more difficult for them to use student characteristics as factors in the grading process.
But if control over grading is taken out of the hands of professors, it will be put into the hands of someone else. And that someone else will also have political leanings.
Consider, for example, standardized exams.
Those aiming to boost student achievement can set easy standardized exams. Those aiming to separate out students will set an exam with a high variance. (That can be done by having questions at several different levels of difficulty - some questions only A students could be expected to answer right, some questions for B students, and so on.) "Back to basics" rhetoric has no substance. The past does not provide us with absolute standards we can use to design exams, because what students need to know shifts as the world changes.
Another way of limiting professorial discretion is to impose grading norms, such as 20% As, 30% Bs, etc.
Again, the person who sets those norms will be either liberal or conservative, and - if Bar and Zussman are right - their views will be reflected in the grading norms that they set.
(Grading norms also introduce opportunities for collusion. If all students can implicitly agree to ratchet back their work effort, they can achieve the same grades with less work.)
Another serious objection to fixed grading norms is that we don't know what the optimal distribution of grades looks like.
Human capital - a theory advocated and developed by conservative thinkers such as Gary Becker - argues that education teaches people useful skills. Educated people are more productive because of what they learned in school. Driver training is an example of a good example of human capital type education: students take the class, and become better drivers.
Now, if a driving school taught all its students to be excellent drivers, and each one achieved a perfect score on their driving test, the school would be doing a good job.
University is not driving school, and grades lower than an A are useful in creating incentives for students to learn the material - to invest in their human capital - and to mark out students who have not fully acquired the human capital the course was designed to impart.
But, according to human capital theory, as long as every student has complete command over the course material, there is nothing wrong with giving every student an A.
So why has Bar and Zussman's work had such resonance in the blogsophere?
Last month the New York magazine wrote "The notion that a college degree is essentially worthless has become one of the year’s most fashionable ideas". People are talking about the book Academically Adrift (technical version downloadable here), which argues students critical reasoning and other skills are improved little by university studies. And then there's Charles Koch's arrangement with Florida State University, that will allow his representatives to screen hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise."
It doesn't matter whether or not Bar and Zussman's findings are robust or generalizable. Right now, they fit the zeitgeist.
(Tuesday's Economy Lab post looks at Bar and Zussman's findings in the Ontario context).