"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
May 30, 2012
Grades Are (Not) the Answer
by Emily S. Jorgensen

There was once an old Ziggy cartoon where Ziggy walks past a giant placard that says, "GOD IS THE ANSWER." In the next panel, Ziggy's little thought cloud says, "I wonder what the questions was?"

In today's middle class mad-dash to secure a future for our children, I often observe parents who seem to think GRADES ARE THE ANSWER.

In my children's school, letter grades (A-E) are giving beginning in first grade. Of course, grades are one reflection of how much a child is learning. But they are only one measure, and it's a rather myopic measure at that.

Many famous case studies demonstrate how little grades in school necessarily correlate to success in life. Albert Einstein struggled miserably in elementary school; Bill Gates dropped out of college.

Studies in educational psychology have found merely a weak or nonexistent link between grades and later success in life. In fact, Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking bestseller Emotional Intelligence, believes the strongest predictor of success in life has absolutely nothing to do with grades. Goleman calls it the "master aptitude."

The master aptitude is the ability and willingness to doggedly keep trying no matter what. This says to me that the child who earns B's, but worked hard for those B's, is more likely to achieve success in life than the child who sails through life easily earning A's.

I'll bet we all know someone who was born with talents and intelligence to spare - someone for whom most things they tried in childhood and adolescence were easy. Quite often, those someones have achieved precious little in adulthood. Why? Because the struggle is where the most important learning takes place.

When I have students who get to some point -- maybe their first AP class, or a really tough English teacher in 7th grade -- that really stretches their abilities, they inevitably complain. Loudly. And long. To anyone who will listen, which often includes me.

Outside I nod sympathetically, and I listen respectfully. But inside I am cheering, because, finally! This child will learn how to work.

So much is done for our children today, and I wouldn't change most of it. Children deserve to feel safe, loved, and have their bellies full. But, the side effect is that sometimes they are so unfamiliar with trial and difficultly that when they inevitably face it at some point in their life, they freeze up or even run away from it, rather than work through the problem.

Grades may tell us how our children are doing on assignments in relation to a certain standard of excellence. But grades don't necessarily tell us how challenged our children are, how hard they work, or whether they know how to overcome obstacles.

So, when my third grade daughter brings her grades home, I look it over, then I say, "I'm proud of the things you have learned this semester. I know math sometimes frustrates you, and this shows me you have been working hard at it anyway. Good for you, sweetie."

I never tell her I am proud of her A's. I never take her to Krispy Kreme to get donuts for them. That puts the value on the wrong thing. The A is of no value. The concepts and skills she has learned are of value. The work ethic is of value.

I remember in 8th grade bringing home a report card full of A's except one -- math had a B. It is telling that I remember this nearly 25 years later. My father's response was, I think, quite typical. He said "why are you getting a B in math?"

He didn't say he was proud of my A's. They were expected. I was crushed. I worked harder for that B than I had for any of the A's on that report card.

I found vindication five years later. Though math was always a struggle for me, I persisted in taking the challenging math classes through high school. I would go in early to school or stay late to get help on concepts I did not understand. I would do my math homework first each night to make sure I had the time to put into it.

When senior awards night came around I got only one. It was a tiny bit of scholarship money from the math department, naming me "Most Likely to Be a Math Teacher."

I was completely gobsmacked when they called my name. Me? I hate math. I struggle with math. But what the teachers had seen is that I worked harder at it than most ever tried. And that is what they valued.

That is what we should all value in our children's learning endeavors.

Maybe my dad did me a favor, calling out that B in eighth grade. It certainly made me work harder to please him. But, I have a driven personality. My mom says I was driven from the womb.

What about the child that would more likely respond by giving up? After all, if he tried his best, and it still wasn't good enough. Why try again?

My third grader is getting to the age where she now knows what an A is, and what it means. She hears parents talking about grades. She hears fellow students bemoaning their grades.

This is frustrating to me, because a child doesn't learn that GRADES ARE THE ANSWER by magic. Someone in his life taught him that. Someone in his life told him the grade is the most important thing, the measure of his success at school.

That someone may be robbing his child of the more important lesson -- that HARD WORK IS THE ANSWER. Hard work is what will carry that child through an adulthood riddled with potholes, lost jobs, failed relationships, and disappointments -- not grade school report cards.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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