School Grades: Helpful or harmful
By Jan Hunt, M.Sc
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
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
"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.
Reprinted with permission of the author from the Natural Child
Project website at www.naturalchild.org. Jan
is the author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart (New Society, 2001).
Jan offers telephone counseling and teleclasses worldwide on
attachment parenting, homeschooling, and personal matters. To request counseling, order her
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or call toll-free (866) 593-1547.