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Is Lowering The Bar on School Expectations Such a Good Thing?

This mom is worried that this issue in her child's class is insulting and degrading to the child, degrading to her, the parent, and seems like a sure-fire way to create failure in later life.

Just had a mom come to me last week who was very angry about the good grade her 9 year old daughter got on a spelling test. That was a confusing moment for me as good grades have typically meant good things. Her concern was about what the grade meant. She told me that 8 out of 10 words were not spelled correctly, yet the teacher still gave the high grade. Wondering if it was an error, this mom went back to ask the teacher about it and was told that she gives the kids good grades like that because the child tried, even if the answer is wrong. This mom was very upset about that response and felt it was very wrong.

At lower ages it seems logical to allow mistakes during the learning process, but once kids reach older grade school ages, I believe it sets up unrealistic expectations of what will be acceptable for the future of the child’s work. By allowing this child to believe that her mistakes are correct and acceptable, she will continue to use those mistakes. Someday in her future, the rude awakening will happen when she realizes that folks who make those kinds of mistakes rarely get jobs, and the kinds of jobs available to people who don’t know those basic skills might not be what she wants for her life. When that happens, where will her self-esteem be? When she truly cannot spell. What kinds of choices will she have? When she is applying for those jobs and other people can spell and she cannot, will it make her feel better to know that she was allowed to fail when she was younger because she tried? I doubt it.

Teachers usually do this out of caring for the kids and wanting to encourage them, but the unintended consequence of that can be devastating. If a teacher has a concern about this I would think a better way is what they did when I was a kid-a separate grade for effort and for content. That showed the positive things you were doing as well as what you needed to work on.

Much more importantly, I see a related phenomenon. It involves a lack of correcting the mistakes and practicing in a repetitive manner so the material never gets learned the right way. What I see is the mistakes happening but nothing happening afterwards-no going over it, no practicing the right way, no showing the work with the mistakes on it to parents to allow them to help make the learning permanent through practice. Lots of parents tell me about their frustration at not actually being able to see the papers with the mistakes on them so they can practice the weak skills. That is where I believe the real problem happens because the child doesn’t take any real learning away with him or her. The grade means nothing. What the child learns means everything.

So I feel the way to make this better is to call it what it is first. Is it a problem with effort or content? After that, (here comes the important part) make sure to train the child in the way to correct the mistakes so that he or she can permanently learn the correct way. Repetition practice works well with this. That is a better way to help her feel good about herself.

Giving a good grade for poor or incorrect work is insulting and degrading to the child, degrading to the parent and seems like a sure-fire way to create failure in later life. It is a disservice to the kids, it is lying and I call it lowering the bar. Expecting less from anyone is like saying that they are incapable of producing more. That is like giving up on them and that is so degrading and unfair.

I have met many kids who were given the impression by their educational past that they couldn’t do things right without some special contrived situation. That they had to have a special grading system or another way of lowering the bar to look like they were doing well. Funny, I never met one kid who had a higher self-esteem because of that. They felt worse knowing that this was occurring.
I reject the "lowering the bar" mentality in the name of helping kids feel good about themselves. From the many moms and families I have met, they report it does no such thing.

Since I am hearing many reports of this these days, I recommend to these moms that they use any of the plethora of computer and online based academic support products on their own, when they are unhappy with the level of learning their child is experiencing. In our home, we have used a great program called Spelling Accelerator. It was really inexpensive and a great repetition program. The kids found it funny too because it yells out cheers for them when they get something right. We also use workbooks from schoolzone.com while the kids are in grade school. We really like them because they are colorful and cartoon like so they keep the attention well. Even better they alternate the types of learning so there is no intense focus on something until you’re bored of it. These are just a couple of examples. There are many others available if you search online. 

Dr. Sherri Singer is a Child and Family Psychologist. You can reach her at http://happyfamilysite.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jim March 13, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Wow! Some common sense re education. Unusual these days.
Willie Wilmette March 13, 2012 at 01:40 PM
New Trier where all the children are above average.
Glenn Farkas March 13, 2012 at 01:54 PM
When did the "self-esteem" movement get started? Lowering the bar so kids can feel good about themselves is a disaster. I never liked my kids getting participation trophies in their sports programs, but someone in the Park District also fell into the self-esteem trap. If everyone gets a trophy, no one gets a trophy. Accomplishment builds self-esteem, and the only way to succeed is to study/practice until you get it right. Should we be surprised that US kids score poorly vs international students?
Concerned Parent March 13, 2012 at 02:18 PM
I totally agree. I have seen teachers give good grades even when they are not deserved. Sometimes it's about self esteem, but sometimes it's about just getting the child through the system. I, too, have questioned some of my daughter's grades because I know she is not doing "A" work. My son recognized early on that the participation trophies mean nothing when he actually won his first trophy. The participation ones went in the closet and the trophies that he deserved on on display. Are these trophies for the kids or really for the parents?
june luvisi March 13, 2012 at 03:09 PM
An excellent article on a controversial subject. As a former English teacher I can attest to the need for standards of achievement. A democracy cannot function well if our citizens cannot read and write with accuracy.
Nonny March 13, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Unfortunately, in communities such as ours, many parents refuse to accept anything less than an "A" performance from their kids. When their kids receive lower grades, the parents blame their children's "poor" performance on the teachers. Although not every kid is an A student, giving kids higher grades may be easier than dealing with those parents.
Michele March 13, 2012 at 05:18 PM
I have been teaching piano independantly for 20 years. Lately I have all but given up (I am down to a very limited amount of students) because I refuse to pass pieces that haven't been practiced and/or written work that hasn't been done (and done correctly, but more often than not, it is just simply not completed). I don't give grades so if the work is not correct, we work on it in the lesson and I reassign it for the following week. When I come back the following week and all that we did in the lesson has been forgotten, the piece sounds worse than when I left (due to lack of practice) and the written work is still not done beyond the examples we did together, we do it again. When I talk to the parents after the lesson, often they want me to pass the work and go on. Apparently, this is what happens in school (and how my teaching style is different). It's frustrating. It also doesn't work because I can assign them something at the same level as previously assigned, but they cannot handle something more difficult. Eventually, these same parents get mad because their child isn't playing harder music. Conversely, the students who do their work know that when I say they have done well, I'm being honest with them and they respect me for that and are proud of their work. Don't schools (and many parents) see that if everyone wins, nobody does? Plus, it takes hard work/practice at whatever one chooses to do to be successful. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing correctly.
John Brinkmann March 14, 2012 at 07:37 AM
this is all too vague---who is Dr Sherri Singer?---this is the Evanston Patch---is she located in Evanston?---if so I'd like to know the school and name of the teacher---it happens to be public information---otherwise there's no way to validate the story and leaves it nothing more than meaningless blather
Emily Stone (Editor) March 14, 2012 at 01:25 PM
Hi John, While we make sure each Patch site in the area covers local issues, we sometimes share stories and blogs across the North Shore because we think there are issues and questions that aren't contained within the borders of a specific town. This is one of those cases, (Sherri Singer is not from Evanston). But we like the lively discussion that these posts generate across the North Shore. As to your questions about the specific post, I'll leave that to Sherri to answer.
grandpa March 14, 2012 at 04:14 PM
"I do think it’s convenient for some to focus on the messenger—why?—it conveniently deflects attention from the message." —Bernard Goldberg
Recall109now March 24, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Curiously similar to a blog post... http://theprincipalandinterest.com/
Hi Recall, Guess great minds think alike. My post is actually based on an article I wrote for Lakeland Newspapers in Sept 2000.
John, while I can appreciate your concern about validation, since many of my questions come from clients and I am vehement about protecting their confidentiality, I do not release names or locations. Sometimes, though, I think their issues are applicable to other people who are struggling with something and I see no harm in talking about that common issue or my thoughts about it. The interesting part about this topic is that it really isn't just about one kid and one family as I have heard it repetitively from many, many families and with time it has gotten worse. I have been writing about this topic for well over a decade and it is amazing to me that I can have the same story from a parent now, that I did then. Something is certainly wrong with that!
I think the intention of it seemed good when it began. As a mom of 3, when you see one of your kids or two of your kids do well at something and the 3rd doesn't, your protective instinct comes out and you want to smooth the way. I think that instinct is how this all started. The problem with that response is that, in my mind at least, it is the worst thing to do and with my child, I have been able to recognize that and stop. In that 3rd child, it creates a sense of contrived success-almost a Truman Show effect. They feel success, but it isn't real, so when that child gets in the real world and the true weakness is there without the contrived situation, the real pain begins. That is truly the saddest pain, because that child has not been given a fair chance to "cut his teeth" and learn the right way before getting into the real world. So instead of making everyone win, or making it easier for the child who has trouble, my preferred way would be to take up the slack and help that 3rd child to practice more or in a different way, to learn it for himself so he can be great with his own real skills. OR to have him focus on some other skill. All kids have different strengths and weakenesses. Different things they shine at. Instead of having them all do well at everything, can we instead make sure they know that maybe the thing they are not so good at, is not what they are supposed to be doing and they need to be finding the thing they shine at?
Thanks June! I appreciate your comment.
It's true Nonny. I have seen many parents get upset that their child did not get the best grade even though the work was less than acceptable. That puts teachers in a really bad place too. Truth is, it should be more about what is right for the child's future and not what pleases the parents. Not always the easist road to walk for teachers!
Schoolmarm September 25, 2012 at 01:37 PM
It, of course, goes without saying that we all want our children to master basic skills. I would imagine that is the hope of most parents when they send their kids to school. One big problem that I have noticed, however, is the number of mistakes, especially in spelling and usage, that are in the communications sent home. Neither teachers nor administrators, it seems, know that the word it's has a different meaning/usage than the word its. The same is true of there and their, to and too, compliment and complement, bare and bear, effect and affect, everyday and every day, and many others. It also is rare to get a note, newsletter or e-mail in which there are no misplaced commas or other punctuation marks. I and me are also frequently confused. It would appear either that many (most, in my experience) either don't know that these are mistakes, or simply consider them "unimportant." Don't we need to work on getting knowledgable school personnel first? How can we expect the current group of "educators" to teach what they do not know? Isn't this an issue for those in charge of training and certifying teachers to be concerned about? It also seems, from my observations, that many teachers think that "teaching" means "presenting material." That could be one reason there is no practice. The teachers either expect the parents to do it, or just don't see it as "good." Again, perhaps we need to look very closely at the individuals we are putting in charge of our kids' learning.

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