The Blog

Do Grades Keep Children From Learning?

The grades our children bring home are one of the few measures we get -- or so it can sometime seem -- of how we parents are doing. That explains why too many of us become too invested.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

"If his grades start to slip then we take away that Xbox."

"She's a good student, she keeps her grades up, I trust her."

"He got straight A's. I never would have guessed he was struggling so."

Grades serve many purposes. They give teachers a way to tell students how they are doing, and policymakers a way to see how a swath of students are progressing, and colleges to see whether a student is worthy. They cause stress, too, and have been shown to actually squelch a love of learning. And they play a complicated role in any parent/child relationship.

Author and behavioral expert Alfie Kohn talks about the stress and squelching in this month's journal "Educational Leadership" in an article titled "The Case Against Grades."

I want to talk about the parenting.

You may know Kohn from the other ways he has tried to upend other key assumptions of child rearing. Among his books are Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes, in which he argues that praising and rewarding children causes them to turn to extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, factors for motivation throughout their lives, and Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, which take similar issue with punishment as a way of influencing a child's behavior.

He has long argued against tests and grades, too. That this latest article appears in so prestigious an educational journal is not a sign of new thoughts, but, possibly, broader acceptance in school administrative circles.

Kohn begins that article by arguing forcefully that grades harm students -- diminishing rather than sparking their interest in the subject matter being learned; sending the message that the goal should be "the easiest possible task," and motivating them to focus on "what they need to know" for the test.

In other words, the goal of the student becomes the grade, not the knowledge, and reading his arguments I was struck by how often that becomes the goal of parents, too. The grades our children bring home are one of the few measures we get -- or so it can sometime seem -- of how we are doing. That explains why too many of us become too invested. We do the best we can every day, and worry that maybe it isn't our best or isn't enough. That report card seems to tell us where they, and therefore we, are doing just fine, or falling short.

The idea of eliminating grades -- de-grading, get it? -- has been raised periodically for decades, and it is in practice in dozens of schools around the country. (You can read about several compelling examples here.) The academic literature about replacing letter and number grades with narrative assessments and conferences goes into detail on how to prepare faculty and students, but far less on how to readjust the worldview of parents. (Though care does seem to be taken to reassure parents that yes, children in De-graded schools do get into college.)

In many ways, this paralells the push and pull over Preschool that we discussed on Parentlode earlier this month. In an post titled "Is Preschool Dead?" I highlighted Paul Tullis' excellent Scientific American article in which he looks at how the demand by parents for a measure that their child is learning conflicts with the certainty of educators that freeplay, not academic rigor, is how young children learn.

As a parent, I would, on the one hand embrace the elimination of grades, if in fact the researchers are right and this would allow my kids the freedom to pursue knowledge instead. I would certainly embrace the reduction of stress that this would bring. But I also confess I would be a little lost. How to measure who they are, what they know, what they can do -- and whether I am doing right by them?