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School Grades: Helpful or Harmful?

A school in my town has offered families the option of having their children's grades given only to the parents, or to no one, on request. The children in these families would not see any grades at all. This seems to be a step in the right direction. However, an editorial in our local newspaper accused the parents who accepted these options of "overprotecting" their children, and preventing them from facing important "consequences." While it may be "overprotection" to hide truths from children, low grades are not "truths." Poor grades can be due to many factors beyond the child's control, such as a teacher's negative subjective impressions, the school's failure to account for individual differences, distracting family situations, misleading test questions, and false assumptions about what constitutes meaningful subject matter. Besides, if, as the editor himself suggested, children "know when they are doing well and when they are struggling," there is no need for grades. The only function a grade should have is informative. The most useful information is whether the educational approach being used by the teacher is the most appropriate one for that particular child's current interests and learning style.

Every teaching situation involves the school, the teacher, the student, the student's parents, and the student's personal situation, among many other factors; it is unfair and unrealistic to present low grades as a measure of the child's actions alone. Schools try to have it both ways, by taking credit when things are going well, and blaming the child, or the child's parents, when they are not.

A child's self-esteem is a very precious commodity. Parents who attempt to maintain their child's self-esteem by avoiding the potential hazards of an imperfect, misleading, and harmful grading system should be commended, not criticized. Using grades as a threatened punishment poses a danger, not just to a child's self-esteem and motivation, but to the child's opportunity to learn in a climate that enhances learning. As the educator John Holt warned, "When we make children afraid, we stop learning dead in its tracks." Tragically, the indignity of low grades, which are notoriously subjective anyway, can effectively stop a child's learning by destroying his motivation and his belief in his own worth and abilities. School vandalism is often related to the anger and humiliation a child feels after receiving low grades. Even "good" grades give children the false message that extrinsic rewards are more important than the intrinsic value of learning itself.

In any case, it is ultimately the parents' right to decide whether grades are helpful or harmful for their child; after all, it is a legal option for children to learn at home and avoid grades entirely. For those parents considering this alternative, and for all those interested in the nature of learning, I highly recommend John Holt's insightful book, How Children Learn.

"The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret." For those families who have learned to trust and respect their children, Ralph Waldo Emerson's words still ring true.

Portuguese translation

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.