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February 28, 2009

Will new grading systems really lead law schools away from traditional exams?

The National Law Journal has this piece reviewing the new grading systems that are becoming all the rage at elite law schools.  Here is how the piece begins:

Several leading law schools are retooling their grading policies, with some institutions making major revisions and others merely tweaking their systems. Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School, for example, are switching from the traditional grade and letter policies to pass/fail systems. At the same time, New York University School of Law now allows professors to give more A's. And some institutions, such as Columbia Law School, are reviewing their grading systems to see whether they need updating.

And here is a idea within the piece that really caught my attention:

Stanford Law Dean Larry Kramer said that it's too early to draw conclusions about the new system but that it seems to be working well.... "One, [the new system] conveys more accurate information to employers without diminishing student incentive to work; two, it reduces needless grading anxiety; and three, it encourages faculty to experiment more with evaluative things they do in their classes," Kramer said.  For example, the system allows faculty to use a combination of short-term papers with exams for evaluation, Kramer said.

I find the notion that new grading systems could foster a move away from the traditional law school exam both plausible and appealing.  Indeed, though I have been agnostic in my views about all these grading developments, I will get on the honors/pass/fail grading bandwagon if such a system proves to be a catalyst for moving law schools away from traditional in-class exams.

Posted by DAB

Some related LSI posts:

February 28, 2009 in Grading systems | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 22, 2009

Outcomes and hiring

I am a fan of Moneylaw, a blog which consistently parses out important issues relating to legal education.  Over the past few years, a theme has developed there:  That the staffing of law faculties is too often a haphazard, subjective, and (ultimately) unsuccessful venture. 

The name of the blog, of course, is a play on "moneyball," the term used to describe Oakland A's general manager Billy Bean's process of identifying successful baseball players.  Bean is famous for throwing out the standard statistics and instead looking to factors which most strongly correlate to a successful team.  Bean is so good at this that his team has been a winner with a relatively low payroll, a rare thing in modern sports. 

In baseball, the desired outcome is easy to define-- score more runs than the other team in a game.  The hard part is figuring out how to do that.  In legal education, though, it seems like we have the reverse-- we have a bitter debate over desired outcomes, but once an outcome is articulated most people know what it takes to get there (though it may be unattainable).

At a very basic level, the outcomes sought by upper-tier schools diverge from those articulated in recent reports and by some of the lower-tiered schools.  Under the first model, the desired outcome is to produce significant scholarship.  This is a rational goal, because it creates prestige, high rankings, and a solid student body.  We all know how to get there-- primarily by being there already.  It is possible to move into that place from the outside, but only with a lot of money and cherry-picking to hire prolific scholars who may also be great teachers (see UC-Irvine).

The MacCrate report, the Carnegie report, and many lower-tiered schools assert a different desired outcome.  They focus on teaching, bar passage rates, and positive relationships between professors and students.  The hiring done by some schools reflects this, as they are more likely to bring in former practitioners and those with significant people skills (who may or may not be good scholars).

Even with this dichotomy of outcomes, though, the baseball analogy can work.  That is, it would if the American and National leagues had fundamentally different desired outcomes in games.  For example, if the American league played traditional baseball and the National League played a cooperative form of home-run derby, we would quickly see each move towards hiring those best suited to that outcome as we have in legal education.  

It may be, of course, that this two-sphere world is a positive thing in many respects, such as in giving students very different options.   The fundamental problem beneath it all, though, is that one is valued more than the other in a rankings system which creates only one list rather than recognize this dichotomy.

Perhaps, then, it is time for U.S. News to consider two lists, one for schools that hire for scholarship, and one for schools that hire for teaching.  Schools could self-identify which they wanted to be a part of, and could change their category from year to year.  It would be a more honest, transparent, and useful ranking than what we see now, where we are essentially mixing two kinds of baseball in our standings.

-- Mark Osler     

February 22, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack