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Why giving grades destroys education

Students in Class


Calah Alexander - published on 06/12/17

Kids deserve better than to have their education turned into a contest.

School’s out for summer, which means I can finally be honest about something that’s been bugging me all year long: grades.

Grades are terrible for children. They’re terrible for all children, whether they struggle in math like my oldest or they excel in spelling like my youngest. They’re terrible for a million reasons, but the primary one is because they turn education into a contest.

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Scary Mommy had a post up recently that expressed the unease around grading that’s beginning to circulate among parents. Author Meredith Ethington, herself a former honor roll student, said:

“It’s not that I don’t care about the grade. I do. But I think sometimes the emphasis we are putting on our kids getting straight A’s is setting them up for lofty expectations that just aren’t realistic for some kids. Not everyone excels in all areas. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone is meant to be an honor roll student. I firmly believe that.”

This is true, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Grades are an utterly terrible way to monitor what a child has or hasn’t learned. I get that they’re convenient and simple, but like all convenient and simple things, they cause more harm than good.

Grades measure performance. Like standardized tests, grades reflect how well a student was able to perform — on tests, mostly, but also projects, homework, even class conversation.

What they don’t measure is how much a student understands. In high school, I spent countless afternoons in private tutoring for trig and pre-calculus. I did not care about those subjects — I used (and still use) my fingers to count to 10. But my valedictorian status depended on excellent grades.

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I got the grades. I never understood what I was doing, but I watched the tutor long enough to mimic her and get the results I was supposed to get. Did I mention, though, that I never understood what I was doing?

It didn’t matter to me. I didn’t care about math, I cared about winning. Nearly every single kid in my class was actually better at math than me, and a few were downright savants. One is a now a neurosurgeon. The difference between him and me is that he cared about his education, so he spent a lot of time trying to understand the subjects he didn’t innately grasp — and he spent a lot of time drawing doodles in margins because he didn’t care about winning. I cared about winning, so I spent a lot of time trying to earn grades that falsely signified mastery.

I don’t mean to be too hard on my past self — I didn’t understand what I was doing. I was conditioned to want the best grades, a conditioning that starts early.

My son went into first grade innocent of his own abilities and intellect. He’s a smart kid, but he didn’t think he was smarter than the other kids, if he even thought in terms of comparing himself at all. It wasn’t until the weekly spelling results got posted that he began to notice he was a better speller.

First, he just told us about it. Then he began to brag.

We were proud, of course. But we were also worried. When he started throwing around phrases like, “I’m the best” we shut that down hard.

That’s not how children should be educated. Of course all children will excel in some area or other and struggle elsewhere. That’s human nature. But good education will also teach them respect and cooperation — noticing when their friend is good at math, and asking for help in exchange for help with history, for example.

When adults set up a system designed to highlight that natural disparity and play off it, having the kids compete for “top” at this or “top” at that, the kids stop learning and start competing. They’re no longer motivated to understand — they’re motivated to win. And that’s not really education at all.

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