By Sarah Vander Schaaff

Imagine you had a child in high school who faced this choice: take a history class taught by a school legend, the kind who challenges her students to be deeper thinkers and better writers and is known for being a tough grader. Or, take the same class taught by a competent teacher who just happens to be known for giving a lot of A’s.

Any seasoned parent would stop me there.

“How do we know the first teacher is a tough grader?”

That’s a good question because it speaks to the very nature of grades: they are personal. But as we all know, in practice, they cease to be. Grades may or may not accurately reflect a student’s ability, but they most certainly influence a student’s class rank and part of their competitiveness within a pool of college or job applicants. And maybe that’s why students and parents talk about grades so much. There is a curiosity, and sometimes urgency, to know where one stands.

But let’s go back to the deeper issue at stake in the scenario above. It relates to the value we place on education and if our goals are internal or external, or intrinsic or extrinsic. Despite the hype, not all parents of bright kids are focused solely on grades.

An article published by Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth debunked the common generalization of parents of high achieving kids.

“These parents, in general, do not focus exclusively on high academic performance such as grades and test scores. Even when they do, almost one-half of these parents also focus on understanding of material and personal improvement in performance. Such a balance, especially when accompanied with support and guidance, is unlikely to foster feelings of pressure.”

The study looked at 800 families of students who were “at or above the 97th percentile on a grade-level achievement test in school and participated in the CTY (Center for Talented Youth) talent search when they were in fifth grade.”

The Center for Talented Youth also reported that 99% of the students felt confident in their academic abilities.

That’s not to say that these very bright kids were immune to feelings of parental pressure. But when did those come into play? According CTY’s “Parents’ Achievement Goals and Perfectionism in Their Academically Talented Children”, it happened when both parents had performance goals instead of a learning goal, combination of goals, or neither.

I don’t have a fifth grader testing in the top 97th percentile. I have a second-grader who recently brought home a report card filled with written comments and a system of letter grades, modified for her age, that evaluated social development and study skills. The written comments described her intrinsic love of learning; the grades served as placeholders, or carrots, to be moved along towards a finish line in June.

No grading system is perfect, but this one forced me to evaluate my priorities. Did I care more about the comments or the grades? Ultimately, I decided, I cared most about my kid. And I care about her love of learning.

I turned to my friend and colleague, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rhodes College, Katherine White, and asked her how I might maintain that as a priority, not only for my daughter but myself as her parent.

“I think parents just need to continue to emphasize that the goal is learning and the learning process, and not just the grade. They need to “model” a love of learning so kids see that parents love to learn. They need to emphasize that learning is fun, that learning is powerful. I think when kids focus on grades, that they do lose sight of why we are learning in the first place, how it makes us not just “smarter” but well-rounded individuals. …I get comments all the time about, ‘do I need to know this for the test?’ as though knowledge for knowledge’s sake isn’t worth anything.”

Professor White continued, “There is a classic study done with little kids. Most kids that age love to do artwork. So they randomly assigned kids to one of three groups: a control group; a ‘reward’ group that was presented with a reward after drawing–a certificate or something like that; and I think the third group also got the reward but knew it was coming. Then they observed how much time the kids spent drawing after the reward activity. They found that the kids who got the reward-extrinsic motivator-drew less than the control group, suggesting that once they are rewarded for something they originally loved intrinsically, and then the reward is removed, they are less intrinsically motivated to draw. The point is that we need to keep focus on the intrinsic motivation. Most kids are naturally really interested in learning so when we start assigning grades, we start to see those as the reason they work hard- the extrinsic motivator.”

Heading back to the first question—one that I think I might face in about ten years—I turned to a history teacher who actually does have a reputation for being a tough grader. He’s taught in an independent high school for ten years. Students, he says, try to switch out of his class for the very purpose of getting a higher grade with a different teacher, the key to getting into AP classes the following year.

“Today’s honor student is what you and I would call a “good student” in general,” he told me via email. “They complete their homework and are engaged. About eight of my sixteen would qualify as being truly excellent students…if one compares them to a standard history student.”

“In my experience, especially recently, students are motivated to get good grades and generally do not care if they are actually learning anything in the process. The small percentage of students who are motivated and possess critical thinking skills are usually motivated by a combination of parent-pressure and an intrinsic desire to succeed. But for the most part, I would call the majority of my students “extrinsically” motivated and not “intrinsically” motivated to get good grades or learn anything. They just want to tweet something witty.”

Perhaps the secret trait of parents of the top 3 percent shouldn’t be so secret.

What are your views on this? If you are a parent, a student, or a teacher, we’d love to hear your opinion.
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