Letter Grades …. A Parent’s Worry

I am blogging as a parent of a little girl (she would say big girl, but anyways, she’ll always be my baby) who is entering Grade 4 this year in British Columbia. Academically, she has done very well throughout her schooling thus far. But, I still worry.

6668658025_a68a49b540_zI am concerned about the letter grades she will likely start receiving this school year. I am concerned that the inclusion of letter grades into her educational experience will now impact her passion toward learning and her intrinsic motivation to learn. I worry about the pressure she will place on herself to try to “get” the highest letter grades. I have already told her that letter grades will not be a priority for her dad and I. Her Grade 3 teacher introduced them to letter grades as a way to “get prepared” for Grade 4. We have talked about the focus will always be on the learning for us as a family and that the letter grades she receives won’t really matter to us.

While I have been careful not to focus too much on letter grades (and why I am discussing it here), I know that it could be a HUGE focus in Grade 4. And while there will not be pressure to receive straight A’s or the like from home, I know that there will likely be pressure from her peers. They will be comparing marks and competing against one another. “I got 4 A’s, how many did you get?”

punished by rewards picI don’t believe that letter grades have a place in today’s elementary schools. These extrinsic motivators actually hinder the learning process. In fact, in his book, Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn writes,

“Anything that gets children to think primarily about their performance will undermine their interest in learning, their desire to be challenged, and ultimately the extent of their achievement.” (p. 159)

Instead of focusing on grades, as Kohn asserts, teachers could focus more positively and help students to approach tasks, topics, or concepts with a different mindset to

“discovering something rather than ‘learning about’ it.”  (p. 211)

Kohn talks about fellow researcher, Bruner, who says that the benefit of focusing on discovery instead of learning is

that “the child is now in a position to experience success and failure not as a reward and punishment, but as information.” (p. 211)

Kohn goes on to describe five suggestions for helping uncover each child’s motivation and focus on discovery. This reminds me of Kindergarten. I’ve always said that each grade should have at least a little (but, hopefully more than that) bit of Kindergarten in it! Here are Kohn’s five suggestions for educators in today’s classrooms:

“1. Allow for active learning.

2. Give the reason for an assignment.

3. Elicit their curiosity.

4. Set an example.

5. Welcome mistakes.” (pg. 211-212)

I just can’t help but think about how much more motivated and engaged our students would be (both those who struggle academically and those who do not) if we took away the letter grades and focused on discovery and the above five suggestions. This is what I want for my own daughter who is entering “intermediate” grades. To be honest, it scares me to think of her getting letter grades and what impact they may have on her motivation, engagement, and overall interest in school and learning.

If you’d like more information about the book, Punished by Rewards, you may want to check out this interview with Alfie Kohn by ASCD: Punished by Rewards? A Conversation with Alfie Kohn. You may also want to read some teacher’s stories about implementing the Grading Moratorium on Joe Bowers blog, for the love of learning. You might also want to take some time to watch some of Alfie Kohn’s videos about Punished By Rewards.

I’m just a mom concerned about her little girl. This concern does not stop at my own family though. I watch the students in our schools and wonder how they would do without the pressure of letter grades. I wonder how these letter grades truly impact our struggling learners. How do these letter grades affect the learners who know how to “do school” well and get those A’s? It leads me to the question, “How can we do better?”

As a parent, I would just love to be able to tell the teacher not to put letter grades on my child’s report card.  Hmmmmm… I wonder if I could do that?

Published by Tia M. Dawson

There are many things that define who I am as a person. First of all, I am a mother of 3 wonderful children! I can not express how fortunate we are to have our children in our life! Secondly, I am an elementary educator who recently returned to the classroom after 12+ years as an elementary school administrator. Lastly, I am passionate about helping others, learning about abuse, helping others in abusive relationships, and helping others understand their worth.

7 thoughts on “Letter Grades …. A Parent’s Worry

  1. Hi Tia,
    Great post. We have been going without letter grades at our school for 5 years now. Parents can ask (and get) letter grades, but less than 5% do. However, one thing we are learning is the importance of language. Parents understand letter grades, it was a system we all grew up in. While they may not understand the limitations, the know that if their kid is getting a C- there is cause for concern. When we get rid of letter grades it’s important that we choose language that clearly articulates where the child is in relation to the expectations for their grade. Equally important we do it in way that is consistent and free of “teacher speak”. This will be an area of focus for us this year. We’ve come a long way, but we need to be more clear and consistent in our language.

    1. Hey Darcy,

      Yes, it must be a real challenge for parents (and kids, in many ways) to understand not giving letter grades. It is a system that we have used for so long. I agree that the language we use with parents must be very clear, and let parents know when there are struggles with learning. I bet there is a great deal of differing ways teachers address the reporting. I would love to see a sample or two (maybe one where it is very clear how the child is doing and one which would be difficult for parents to truly understand their child’s struggles)!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  2. I’m a grade 4 teacher in Surrey, BC, Canada. We have been involved in a pilot project in which all the grade 4 and 5 students do not receive letter grades. We love it. The students are every bit as keen to do well and we avoid all the negative “side effects” of letter grades. The kids and parents actually receive much more assessment data than before, and the focus is on teaching and learning, as opposed to ranking and sorting.

    1. Hi Tonya,

      I am a vice-principal in Surrey as well. I love the pilot that is happening in Surrey. We are such a progressive district with many great educators pushing the limits. I love it! I wish “no letter grades” would be district-wide. It is very interesting to hear your experience with not giving letter grades. It must have been a very interesting shift. How were your parents? Did many ask for a letter grade at the end of each term?

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Hey Tia, I am with youmregarding letter grades for a whole host of reasons, too many to get into here! For the past 3 weeks I’ve been participating in #sblchat on Wednesday nights at 6 pm. The discussion on standards-based learning is both inspirational and practical! Maybe you could invite your daughter’s teacher over for appies and a great twitter chat to start the process of moving away from letter grades, averaging, and other grading practices that discourage learning!

    1. Hi Carol,

      I think I am going to have to try to check out that #slbchat on Wednesday nights! Is that PST? Sounds like it would be a very interesting chat. I am very confident in my daughter’s teacher. I worked with her as a VP a few years ago. She is an amazing teacher and someone I am thrilled for my daughter to experience Grade 4 with. It would be great for us to get together to talk letter grades and alternatives. Perhaps, we could have the same view!

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