Do grades really matter?

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For generations, parents have been pushing children to get good grades. When I was a kid, many of my classmates got $10 for an ‘A’ and $5 for a ‘B’ but I received nothing because good grades were simply expected. Today, students continue to receive rewards—candy, cash, ipods, even cars—for good grades from parents and schools.

This obsession with grades comes from the belief that school success means more opportunities for higher paying jobs and a better life. Since grades are indicators of school success, good grades are seen as essential.

But are grades really a good predictor of success?

While good grades may indicate mastery of content, what they really demonstrate is that students have the skill set necessary to succeed in school. Success comes by not bucking the system, causing waves or creating something new or different. High achieving students are able to deliver what the teacher wants. So, grades, in fact, reflect whether teachers think students have mastered the content.

It is not grades that predict success in college. Rather, it is the accompanying skills, such as how to understand and navigate educational systems. High achieving students turn out to be solid citizens who become accountants, doctors, engineers and lawyers. By middle age, they are often happy, prosperous and community-minded. Yet, the very skills that help high achieving students mean that they tend not to be mold breaker types who need a different skill set.

Success in business, public service, research and beyond often requires creative thinkers driven by curiosity, an appetite for risk and an open mind. These skills are often in opposition to those necessary to succeed in school. Instead of simple compliance, these students will question the rules and challenge the teacher. They are not interested in delivering what the teacher wants and may appear bored, indifferent or defiant. These students will receive poor grades and not achieve school success.

Do poor grades spell doom?

Poor grades do close the doors of opportunity for some students. School performance has limited their opportunities and reinforced a message of inferiority. The conventional wisdom that more education means higher income seems to pan out. Yet, poor grades have little impact on mold breakers.

From the realm of politics, Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain, was a horrible student at the bottom of his class at Harrow (an exclusive private school). Yet, he led Britain through World War II and is recognized as one of the great leaders of the 20th century. Back home, Senator John McCain graduated 894th out of 899 in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. This poor performance did not stop him from becoming a war hero, influential policy maker and presidential candidate. And, of course, George W. Bush was a solid C student at Yale Law School. His transcript did not impede his rise from governor to president. These poor students had the necessary skill set to succeed outside of school.

From the world of business, Richard Branson, CEO of the Virgin Corporation, was a high school drop-out. Of course, he left high school to run the newspaper he started and parlayed this enterprise into a multinational conglomerate. And Bill Gates is Harvard University’s most famous and successful drop-out. While Gates did well in private school, he decided school success was not necessary and left Harvard to build Microsoft into an industry giant.

Mold breakers can be stubborn, impulsive and rebellious. They are determined, often displaying single-minded obsession, where perseverance and resiliency lead to success. They are able to see things most of us can’t. These traits equip them for success, but drive teachers crazy.

Besides these traits, emotional intelligence is more important than IQ. Grades are less important than being able to manage your emotions and read other people’s feelings. Emotional intelligence also includes the ability to develop relationships, work with a team and, most importantly, lead with vision.

There is an old axiom: “School is a place where former A students teach mostly B students to work for C students.”

Are good grades important? Yes, if school success and becoming solid, contributing citizens is the desired student outcome. However, poor grades may result from qualities and traits that lay the foundation for transformational activities.

Before parents and teachers panic over grades, remember that many successful people had poor grades because their success came from reinventing instead of working within the system.

Scott Key is a professor in the School of Education at Fresno Pacific University. Before coming to FPU, he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.

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