I know it’s the middle of summer and the last thing on anyone’s mind is the thought of the school year, but a study just released this week confirms my long-held suspicion about kids in this generation.
For too long, and in too many ways, we’ve been telling our children that they’re so special, so meritorious, that any effort, however minimal, will be rewarded. “Participation trophies” have become the norm and kids are used to getting awards just for being themselves.
Here are the numbers (from the United States, but indicative of a trend in public education in the western world, I think): almost half of all high schoolers – 47 percent, to be precise – are graduating with an A average. Back in 1997, when I graduated, only 38.9 percent could say the same thing. Optimistically, it would be nice to think that students are getting smarter, right? That maybe the standardized testing so widely criticized in North America has been paying off and that people study harder in anticipation of more difficult curriculum and testing. Alas, experts disagree – the rise in GPAs comes at the same time as SAT scores have fallen.
Even more interesting is this point: more students now get A’s than any other grade handed out. Sadly, what was once the top of the mountain for students has now been made common and unremarkable from overdistribution.
For some reason, perhaps the pressure from parents, perhaps the pressure from bosses, teachers are grading more leniently, and nowhere is this more apparent than in wealthier, white, private schools. Data shows that grade inflation was three times more prevalent in private schools than in their public counterparts. Apparently, money can buy a stamp of approval and credit for good work, even if it isn’t actually that good.
What harm is there in a bunch of people graduating with straight A’s, you might be wondering. Well, historically, the best predictors of college success are a combination of high school GPA and SAT scores, but with GPAs drifting ever upward, college admissions staff are finding it harder and harder to compare one student’s application with another. When the pool is full to capacity with “earned” GPAs of 4.0, how can they be expected to determine the quality of any individual transcript in relation to the others? It’s making for a pretty crowded field and a difficult selection process.
Grade inflation is neither new nor limited to high school, though. In college, the most popular grade is now an A and it’s handed out three times more frequently than it was in 1960, according to this same study.
Our collective coddling of children is only to the benefit of parents, who can sleep better at night having made their precious kids happy. I say this because I’ve done it a million times myself, so I’m not claiming to be any less guilty, believe me. But like watching your 9-month-old devour their first dish of ice cream when you know they should be eating that bottle of green beans, sometimes we just can’t help ourselves, and our basest instinct for their present-time contentment overrides our better judgement for the long term.
I know participation trophies are a bad idea. I know that awarding cheap hardware for simply showing up undercuts the merits of diligence, discipline, drive, and every other necessary element of success. Unfortunately, that point is hard to remember when you see your kid beaming with pride having been given a medal for completing their first year of soccer. It’s a very difficult balance to achieve, and so far I haven’t had much luck.
Is it bad for kids to feel good about themselves and be happy? Certainly not, it’s what our goal is as parents. But it’s also my job to prepare them for the world in front of them, and anyone who has lived into adulthood knows that clearing the path for your kid isn’t doing them any favors. Continuously cocooning our kids with misplaced compliments and rescuing them from the consequences they deserve, is going to lead to an over-inflated self esteem and false sense of security. A real job in a real company in the real world will shatter a coddled child’s illusions and relieve them of their perceived preciousness in a big hurry.
One of the best things we can do for our children is to instill in them a healthy work ethic. Talent is good and brains are fantastic, but no one can do anything about how much of either they are born with. Effort and work ethic, on the other hand, are things we can all work on and excel at. Some of the most successful people I know never saw a semester of straight A’s.