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Good Grades Oversold.

The NYTimes has a short, sweet, and important op ed article today. Written by Asian undergraduate student Kate Chia, it is a paean to her parents who did not want her to become overly stressed about grades but instead enjoy her years in school. They did not want her to “break her neck to make a living” by pursuing a slot in medical school that required hours of study but instead enroll in courses that interested her and pursue a career in THAT area.

This approach resonated with me because as a HS Principal early in my career as an administrator I saw many students working purposefully to become valedictorian because their parents had persuaded them that it was a badge of honor, something I didn’t encounter as a HS student. At the same time, I also saw many parents encouraging their children to do well in school so that they could pursue a career that would help them earn a lot of money, something I did encounter in a subtle but persistent way throughout my adolescence.

Fortunately neither my parents wanted me to be valedictorian. As a result I was able to spend time in HS doing activities I enjoyed and, for the most part, taking courses that I found interesting and challenging without worrying about whether I’d get the highest grade possible. When I DID get to college, though, I spent two years studying to become an engineer with the intent of getting a degree in that area and then pursuing an MBA so that I’d be well positioned for advancement in the corporate world, a dream my father had for me. My dreams were different from his, though. I didn’t care for or do well in the fifth mandated science class, was not at all interested in the engineering courses, and as a co-op student did not find the career paths in the corporate world appealing. I longed for more humanities courses where writing and creativity was valued and wanted out of courses where algorithmic learning was emphasized. I couldn’t see pursuing a career in business while so many children were denied an opportunity to learn, a point that was very evident growing up in the early 60s. So I switched my major to Humanities and decided to direct my energy to becoming a HS English teacher and then a high school administrator or maybe a school superintendent where my latent desire to lead would hopefully result in some social change.

As a parent I believe I made it clear that being valedictorian was a pointless pursuit though doing well in school and taking full advantage of the opportunities offered was important. When it came to college, I believe I did not encourage my daughters see the need to pursue a career track. But, based on  my own experience as a graduate student and, by the time they were ready for college, as a school superintendent, I told my daughters that the only thing that was important was learning how to write. Based on Ms. Chia’s article, it seems her parents gave her the same message and it seems to have turned out well for her and, I believe it’s turned out well for my daughters as well…. and I’m happy to see they are holding the same values in raising their sons.

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