Friday, May 1, 2015

Grades - Lies your high school may not know they told you

Making good grades is all about playing the game.

When I was in school, I understood that. My teachers made the rules, and I followed them. I turned in their assignments and told them what they wanted to hear on exams. In return, they gave me good grades, which I was able to cash in for college scholarship money.

It worked for me. I succeeded because I worked hard, and the teachers wanted me to win because they cared.

In today's America, the game has changed. Big time.

The teachers don't make the rules anymore; somebody else makes the rules for them. And generally, those "somebodies" know little about kids or how to educate them.

Even worse, the somebodies have given teachers a stake in the outcome. Teachers now need students to win (in part) because the teachers have a financial motivation for kids to succeed.

Too many people have skin in the game. Students, their parents, teachers, principals, schools, school systems, and government officials. This is a huge burden to place on a child's shoulders.

Just look at the news, like those teachers and administrators in Atlanta who gamed the system. It's egregious that they changed test scores. It's equally egregious that their state government tempted them into viewing personal gain as more important than an individual student's learning.

When I attended school eons ago:
  1. My efforts were directly correlated to the grades I earned. 
  2. My parents never helped me. Never. Any assignment or project I turned in was entirely my work.
  3. Lessons made sense and usually advanced learning.
  4. The teachers held all of the power. The vast majority of them deserved that power and did not abuse it.
  5. There were no high-stakes tests. My transcript reflected skills I acquired steadily and organically. A single bad day or week had no impact.

By the time my kids hit the public school system:
  1. Their grades were a complex mix of teacher quality, school quality, legislative insistence on metrics, and--yes, finally--my kids' efforts.
  2. Other parents "helped" their kids. A lot. The more affluent or determined, the more they helped. We resisted until we realized that...
  3. Lessons were as much about appearances as they were about education. Homework was required but often ineffective.
  4. The teachers held a fraction of the power to make the rules. And, frighteningly, in our experience, only about half of our daughters' teachers deserved their authority or used it well.
  5. High-stakes testing occurred often. A single bad day or week could be devastating.
We ultimately pulled our kids out of public schools and sent them to an online high school (via a proper, state-recognized homeschool.) And once we did, we abandoned our concern about grades. Yes, indeed. We phased out the question "what did you make?" and replaced it with "what did you learn?". It was lovely and liberating. The parent/child fights practically ended. The stress faded. Our girls could focus on understanding the material.

Older Kid ended up at a college where there were no letter grades. Just Pass/Fail. Or, really, just pass--because she had to redo all assignments and exams as often as it took to get them completely correct. In other words, she had to prove mastery (what you would call a B or higher) on all classes. The very fact that she has her degree means that she mastered all college-level material in her major.

Bottom line: Don't expect the rules to be fair. Grades reflect more than your own effort; they also reflect how well you understand the game and how equipped you are to play it. Some institutions are turning to a different system--where your transcript is about what you learned instead of how much the rules favored you.

Other posts in this series:


Online school 

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