Are Public Schools Discouraging Excellence?


My son is in first grade and this is the standards-based grading system his school uses. Do you see anything that bothers you? We got his report card last week and it took me a few days to really put my finger on it, but I finally figured out what wasn’t sitting right.

You can fail but you can’t excel.

Does that seem inadvisable and fatalistic to anyone else? Right from the start — before they even take their first test — the message is “you can fall short of the standards but it’s impossible to exceed them.” The very best mark you can get is to meet expectations consistently, which I think is very, very wrong.

To be clear, I don’t blame teachers. They’re given a system and told to operate within it, and I know for a fact many of them don’t like grading systems like this one. The explanation I was given in my son’s case is “Well if they’re exceeding expectations they already know everything and should be in the next level.” Sorry, but that makes no sense. You can have a student who exceeds expectations but isn’t quite ready for the next level of work. And conversely, if someone receives an “N” for not meeting the standard, does that mean they should be automatically dropped down to a lower level? No, of course not.

From my brief time as a parent of a school-age kid combined with my years of covering area school systems for the newspaper, there seems to be a concerted effort to raise low performers into the middle. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. However, it seems to be coming at the expense of high-performing students.

Gone are the days of academically talented and gifted programs at elementary schools. But more troubling than a lack of resources is a lack of recognition. The grading system in place at my son’s school doesn’t even provide a classification if you’re an advanced student, essentially making excellence an impossibility. So while some kids are told they’re not making the grade, the ones on the other end of the spectrum will never hear they’re exceeding expectations.

That’s not right, because it’s counterproductive to make excellence the enemy while raising the bar on mediocrity.

I know some of you are thinking I’m some blowhard parent longing for the days of traditional report cards, but that’s not totally the case. I like some of the changes that have been made, specifically the emphasis on observation with continuous feedback. I think that is much more helpful at accurately gauging progress than a traditional letter grade based off a mash-up of homework, attendance, and test scores at the end of the year.

I’d like to find a way to dovetail the standards-based system with traditional grades and come up with some kind of common sense solution with set guidelines that determine grades. And I’d also like to stop discouraging advanced students — however unintentionally — by recognizing their achievements instead of focusing on getting everyone to the middle of the pack.

It’s the same reason I’m disappointed there are no longer 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes for the annual Science Fair, how we don’t keep score at athletic events until kids reach double digits, and how my son told me he doesn’t need to try hard at sports because all the games end in a tie and everyone gets a trophy. Instead of letting kids explore the thrill of success and learn from the mild pangs of disappointment, we tell them all they’re the same. Everyone is tied. Competition is bad and success will come just from being there.

We’re doing kids a disservice with that mindset.

Let’s continue to work with the kids who need extra help, but let’s not be hesitant to point out excellence. In fact, let’s do more to foster it and let it bloom.

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6 thoughts on “Are Public Schools Discouraging Excellence?

  1. I have run into this same problem. Last year at parent teacher conference I was told not to worry if my daughter is below standard that she won’t be able to meet standard till the end of year. Doesn’t make sense to me.

  2. I have a somewhat fatalistic view about my ability to change the way the school system works, but I think there are things we can do outside of that system to make sure my kids still have a chance to excel and do things they can be proud of.

  3. When it comes to education standards, I think it varies from state to state nowadays. For instance, my state has Common Core. While some students/teachers/parents hate it, I don’t really seem to have a problem with it. I think it challenges kids to think outside the box. While some Common Core stuff does seem ridiculous, it’s fairly new and they are still probably working out the kinks. My son’s particular school strives for excellence and has the awards to prove it. I would go crazy if I had to deal with the type of report card Will brought home. I’d have your exact same reaction.
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