Part 3: Stuck in a Myth

Schools tell their students that if they work hard and get good grades, they will be successful in college and their careers. It’s one of the fundamental philosophies of our society. Parents motivate their kids with this very idea. What if it’s a myth? 

At some point in the recent past, academic grades lost their meaning. While grades have been traditionally seen as a measurement of a student’s success, or lack thereof, they are, if used properly, a very important measurement of a student’s actual knowledge, skill development, foundational soundness, and all of the other components of preparing students to have a successful career. Yet, grades have come to reflect an institutional effort to make everyone happy. Subjective and nebulous ideas such as effort, grit, tenacity, growth mindset, or whatever education fads are dominant at the moment have allowed schools to deemphasize the primacy of traditional grading. This probably has some benefits, but traditional grading was not replaced with an equally sound measure of tracking competency and weakness. 

This can manifest itself in many ways. First, and probably most common, a student earns very good grades, but they, and their families, have a nagging sense that something is wrong. Standardized tests scores aren’t matching the report card. They earn a 100% on a vocabulary quiz without the ability to use or understand any of the words or in a real-world situation. They move to a new level or new school and realize that the student is not as advanced as the grades described. At some point, now or later, many students in this system will hit a wall. A next-level course shows their weaknesses, and they don’t have the resources or tools to strengthen their skills, most likely those skills that were neglected throughout their education.

Sometimes, a student can exceed all of the official benchmarks of the school and still be searching for something more. They look for help in the school, possibly through the teacher. Often, the teacher will be more than willing to help. Sometimes, and this may happen more often with overachievers, the teacher will resist or hold it against the students. A teacher’s job is to help students achieve, but they usually must follow a prescribed curriculum. Students moving faster than, or beyond, the tools that a teacher is allowed to use creates a problem. The excellent student doesn’t fit into the system and the teacher doesn’t know how to individualize the curriculum in a way that successfully fulfills that student’s needs. While this manifests in many different ways, it almost always has one end result: a frustrated student not achieving their goals. 

Schools are almost always well-intentioned, and they are necessary for most students’ socialization and sense of belonging. But they don’t give most students what they need. An excellent student will quickly feel the boundaries of what watered down school learning and teaching can give them. A student who struggles in school academically because their learning needs are not met will be told that they “can never get it” and shunted aside, probably with “good” grades.