And God said, “Thou Shalt Get Good Grades”

College bound secondary students do a fantastic job of internalizing parents’, teachers’, and college counselors’ expectations that they earn “A’s” on everything, do well on their college entrance exams, and participate in endless extracurricular activities. Wired to seek their parents’ approval, they acquiesce to a college admission committee full court press.

Parents of college bounders pay little attention to whether their children are curious, interested in ideas, and acting ethically in school. Given good grade mania, it’s unsurprising that most college bounders cut serious corners as a recent New York Times headline detailed in an article titled, “Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception.” A more accurate headline would have read “Studies Find More Students Cheating, Especially High Achievers.”

Parents of college bounders let their economic anxiety get the best of them and their children. They worry about whether their children will get into a good college, earn a degree, and find and keep a job that pays a livable wage and provides health benefits. Parent pleasing, achievement oriented students learn that school is a competition for good grades. Making sure one gets mostly “A’s” justifies all sorts of shortcuts including copying other’s work; befriending teachers as insurance in case of borderline grades; cheating on exams; and getting their parents to do their work.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A more humane alternative is to talk about academic achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives. We need to challenge and encourage young people to imagine themselves as doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, engineers, plumbers, business owners, and field biologists. People for whom considerable knowledge; communication, technical, and interpersonal skills; and character matter far more than one’s grade point average.

Forget being an “A” student. Instead, pay close attention and work really hard in school today so that five, ten, fifteen years from now you’re the best doc, teacher, nurse, social worker, engineer, plumber, business owner, or field biologist as possible. And thereby touch more people’s lives in more substantive ways.

Academic transcripts communicate little if anything about whether students are developing increasing self-understanding and an emerging sense of purpose, nor do they reveal what skills students are developing. And I’ve never seen an academic transcript that communicated whether or not students are fulfilling their potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives.

Fight the power of good grade mania by framing academic achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives and agitate for much more revealing academic transcripts.