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Report Card Day

It’s report card day here in Jefferson County, and that means several things:

  • free ice cream, donuts, and game tokens at local eateries for kids who get As;
  • mounds of Facebook bragging by parents of the same.
  • me complaining again about how much I hate the report card song-and dance.

What began as suspicion and progressed to disapproval has turned into heart-felt, visceral hatred. I hate it so much that I filled out a JCPS parent questionnaire last spring in support of reducing the number of grading periods per year based solely on my desire to cut down on the number of free ice cream trips and social media bragging cycles.

For the record, this is not sour grapes. Simon does well in school, and his own academic performance has nothing to do with my unease.

Instead, I’m motivated for three reasons: in its current incarnation, the report card ritual discourages risk, potentially rewards the wrong things, and unintentionally makes good people feed bad about themselves.

Let’s start with the risk issue. Simon asked me last week if I’d be proud of him if he brought home some Os on this report card (an O is an A in the K-3 years). I flatly told him no.

“Huh?” Simon asked. “You won’t be proud if I make good grades?”

“I don’t care what your grades are,” I replied. “What I care about is that you work hard and do your best. If you do that, you can get straight Ss (satisfactory) and NIs (needs improvement) for all I care.”

OK, strictly speaking, that last bit is not completely true. But my general point stands. Rewarding good grades and only good grades increases risk aversion. If Simon decides that only an O will do, he’s not going to try things where an O isn’t a good bet. Just today he told me that he didn’t like the paper mache project they were doing in art class because “I’m not very good at it” and “so many in my class are better.”

“That’s awesome!” I told him. That means you will learn a lot, can expect to get better, and can get help from some of your friends.”

This was a new line of thinking for him, but I meant it quite sincerely. I wasted too many years not trying things I wasn’t naturally good at, and the single most wonderful part of being over 40 for me is liberating myself from those constraints. I have since found much joy—and great improvement!—in areas where I am not a natural and will never be great, but have worked hard to become adequate or good enough.

At a certain point in time, we all become specialists and follow our strengths. But surely we don’t have to start clipping the wings of elementary school students.

Then there’s a matter of reward. I’ve said (and typed) it before, and I’ll say (and type) it again: The kid who struggles in math but busts his or her tail every day to get better and pulls off a B deserves as much or more praise than the kid who earns the A with little or no effort.  The B (or C) student might not deserve entry into MIT—I believe in the meritocracy—but in the elementary years at least we should be encouraging and rewarding the effort.

Besides this approach being kinder, I also think it sets children up to be more resilient the first time they encounter something truly challenging. It’s much better to believe you can work your way out of a tough spot than simply thinking you automatically are good or no good at a given task.

Finally, I can’t help but think about all the parents out there whose children won’t be bringing home As. Some kids simply aren’t that academically able, and I don’t see why they should be made to feel second-class. (And where do all these As come from anyway? I smell rampant grade inflation going on.) Some kids struggle with health, psychological, or learning issues, and I don’t think they or their parents deserve to have these struggles highlighted.

Some kids have difficult home situations that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Do they need also have free ice cream withheld from them? And then there are all the worried parents of kids who make poor decisions. I assume they feel bad enough without the disparity between them and others broadcast all over their Facebook feeds.

I’m fighting a losing battle here, and I know it. But if it were up to me, report cards would be an occasion for private discussion and praise.


One Response to “Report Card Day”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    I think it’s terrible that businesses give out free anything for A’s. At least I did not have this to deal with when you guys were young. I only rewarded for things that did not come easy. Steve complained all the time that his friends got paid for A’s and he did not. The difference being that A’s were not hard for him. ( He really did work hard though).

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