Focus on learning, not grades

As we head into conferences and mid-trimester testing season, I want to caution about over obsessing about grades. Students worry about them. Parents worry about them. Teachers worry about them. This obsession is one of the downsides of American education. While some innovative schools are considering alternative grading systems that provide helpful feedback to a student rather than a letter grade, there’s no denying that traditional grading systems are pretty entrenched. Good grades matter—if nothing else, to get into college and into graduate school.

Recently, an 84-year-old chemistry professor at New York University was fired after his students filed a petition saying his class was too hard. The class in question was organic chemistry, a course critical for admission to medical school. This firing has ignited the culture wars. Some say the students are being whiny, and NYU is caving to entitled students. Others see it as a sign that standards are falling in the American education system. Others, more sympathetic to the students, note that this generation of students was impacted by the pandemic and possibly doesn’t have as solid a foundation. There is a very good article in The New York Times by a professor who observes that this is really about economics and that the high tuition of NYU necessitates keeping the students and their parents happy. 

When colleges look at grades, they do so in the context of an individual school. In other words, they don’t look at a Colorado Academy student’s GPA and compare it directly to the GPA of a student from another school. They look at the distribution of grades in any given school and make some estimates about where that student falls among their peers. Thus, and counterintuitively for many, having a broader distribution of grades can actually make everyone more competitive. If few A’s are given, then the student with the B- will look stronger to a college, as it will indicate rigor.

As we go into mid-trimester, do your child a favor. Embrace the feedback, and do not overreact to a grade that isn’t an A. I write this as a parent who has been through the college process with three children. We want your child to be ambitious and have high standards. This is a rigorous school that is working to prepare our students for college and beyond. Remember that we all learn from our mistakes and failures. Applying pressure will not improve performance and might teach the wrong lesson.

We don’t want students to believe that learning is solely about the pursuit of a grade, rather than something that should be a lifelong pursuit. Help your child learn to overcome a challenge by reaching out to the teacher for extra help or by changing study habits. Some of my best learning experiences were with teachers who gave me lower grades. I wasn’t happy at the time, but I look back to certain teachers who pushed me and helped me learn to work hard. They ultimately allowed me to see that learning was not just a transactional relationship with getting a grade, but was truly seeking to understand a subject.