What do grades really mean? What can they tell us about our children?
In piano, gymnastics, swimming, and school, my six-year-old daughter carefully watches and listens, then matches her responses to whatever models the teacher or coach has provided. If she doesn't quite succeed, she tries again and again until she nails it. As you might guess, she is every teacher's darling, and her preschool and kindergarten records reflect this.My oldest son, on the other hand, while getting respectable grades, never quite attains the perfect record necessary for the Principal's List. Why not? In short, he doesn't follow the damn directions, and his agenda frequently clashes with the teacher's. On homework or quizzes, for instance, he somehow misses the part that says "Use complete sentences" or "Explain your reasoning" (not coincidentally, he despises both). As the song says, he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
I consider my kids' respective gifts to be fairly evenly distributed. But who do you think is going to sail through school more easily?
My daughter reminds me of a girl from my past (I'll call her "Lisa"). While undoubtedly very bright and talented, Lisa had an additional gift. More than anyone I've known before or since, Lisa could regurgitate information in precisely the form that the teacher wanted. Whether in academics, the arts, or athletics, she was able to spin her performance in a way that somehow flattered the teacher. In other words, Lisa never implied that a teacher was wrong or had incomplete information. Rather, Lisa provided the teacher with affirmation that he or she had played an instrumental role in her progress.
Lisa's style certainly reaped rewards – very high grades, many prizes and awards, and good feelings all around. Was she brilliant? I honestly don’t know. I do think she possessed a very keen ear, one that received a frequency rarely accessible to most mortals, tuning directly into teachers' brains.
When I was much younger, I used to believe that grades and intellectual mastery correlated perfectly. This belief changed forever once I started teaching as a graduate assistant. Wracked with nervousness and insecurity, I was thrilled to find some Lisas in my classes. I was so grateful for their presence that I had to resist the urge to upgrade them simply because they made my life easier. As time went on and I became a more effective teacher, I was better able to separate the personalities from the performance.
My theory now is that grades and actual learning do correlate, but much more so with good teachers. If you show that you've learned material well, you will please a good teacher, regardless of his or her personal biases, insecurities, or ego. Likewise, if you don't do the work and subsequently perform poorly, the good teacher will be displeased and lower your grade.
With less competent teachers, there exists a much more slippery relationship between grades and actual learning, with personal issues playing an important moderating role. (I remember being downgraded on a fairly good college paper simply because the professor did not like the poet I profiled. How do I know this? He told the class as he handed my paper back).
No matter the setting (public or private, co-ed or single-sex, prestigious or not), your child's school experience will likely feature a few phenomenal teachers, many very good ones, some merely adequate, and a few who are inexperienced, insecure, or simply in the wrong field. So my advice is to view grades as a starting point for assessing your child's progress. Then, probe deeper:
- Ask your children what they have learned about the topics in question. Have them explain in their own words.
- Talk to your child's teachers. Get a sense of exactly how they evaluate performance.
- In general, how respectful is your child? Especially if your child is very bright, your child's intelligence may threaten more novice or insecure teachers. Do some role-playing. Help your child figure out how to stand his or her intellectual ground while not denigrating someone else. (Not an easy skill, by the way. Many adults struggle with this as well). Mastering this will serve your children well in all facets of life.