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« Prognostications - 2003 | Main | Two class acts »

Beware the straight-A student

When visiting my daughter this past weekend, she reminded my that while she was in high school that I would give her five dollars for each A on her report card, but ten dollars for every B.* And she knew why.

I'd encountered people who, after an unbroken string of A's in high school, suddenly got a B or C in college and fell apart. Knowing how to handle academic stumbling blocks - that teacher who just can't be satisfied, that concept beyond one's comprehension, that unreasonable assignment - is as critical to one's education as knowing the quadratic equation or how to honor parallel construction in one's writing.

My plan didn't work with my daughter. She still wound up with something close to 4.0 GPA and still handled her college and grad classes just fine. So much for that theory.

But here is another concern I have about stratight-A students: Are they demonstrating, not intelligence, but the ability to conform, to mindessly follow instructions, to support the established order? Do truly orginal thinkers and creative problem-solvers get high grades in school?

So here's the consequence: what happens when our straight-A students become educational leaders - principals, directors, even superintendents? 500 years ago Machiavelli wrote:  

"... it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new."

The underlining is mine. Why would anyone want to change a system that has so handsomely rewarded the deserving - oneself?

Perhaps we need need to put the folks who were C and D students, the drop-outs, the poor test takers, pains-in-the-butt, the artists and rabblerousers in charge of the schools for a while.  Maybe we'd see some change.

Or perhaps we should start giving A's for something other than good test performance. What a concept.

Beware the straight-A student leader.

 *Yes, this is a part of my nomination for the title Worst Parent Ever.

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Reader Comments (10)


Here is the bell-ringer part of your post (for me):

Perhaps we need need to put the folks who were C and D students, the drop-outs, the poor test takers, pains-in-the-butt, the artists and rabblerousers in charge of the schools for a while. Maybe we'd see some change."

I think a lot of people in schools (myself absolutely included) were always good at school. We were never the ones that needed the extra effort, the different approach. We fit.

Rabberousers in charge? That could be really interesting. And productive. And create change.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Russo

I was a straight A student and then a Straight A leader. I know that I knew how to conform when I was younger, would spend the first few weeks of a new semester in college "figuring out" a professor to know exactly what I needed to do to ace the class, and now I "Play the game" to get ahead and succeed in life. I guess it's not a good thing, but it doesn't mean that I haven't also been creative and willing to step outside of the routine.

When I taught I actually disliked my straight A kids. They were so BORING. They never said anything interesting or had any creative ideas. When given the choice of different unit projects, they ALWAYS picked writing a paper. My C kids were much more creative and in their unit projects is where they would easily outshine the A students. I was probably pretty boring when I was a student too, but I also remember doing some pretty over the top projects. Shooting a short film or dressing up and acting out a character from history and my teacher looking at me like I was maybe I wasn't so bad.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGCFLearnFree

This has been making the rounds of some educators' blogs lately. It's a very interesting article describing Carol Dweck's studies concerning effective praise. The summary is that students praised for intelligence were less likely to try because if they failed, they would be perceived as less intelligent. However, students praised for effort were more willing to try, regardless of task difficulty.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteranna

Students may appear to be boring because they're doing whatever it takes to get a good grade, but does behavior in school really reflect a person's personality? I think the quiet kids, whether or not they are good students, always appear to be boring, but that doesn't mean they're not creative geniuses. It just means they choose to not communicate under the circumstances they find themselves in at the moment.

Our leaders are politicians, in other words, entertainers. I'm pretty sure the C students are also the entertainers. Seems like the rabblerousers are our leaders. What we probably really need for effective leadership is people that read, study, learn, challenge themselves to see things from someone else's viewpoint, and maybe do things other than incessant promotion of themselves. Try and findthat type of person in our current political system.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSue Lange

Our school's class of 1972 sponsors the Wylde Q. Chicken Spontaneous Generation Award for Coloring Outside the Lines. The award "commends students exhibiting spontaneous creativity, unbidden originality, and thinking that goes outside the box.” It is presented at the annual all-school what-you'd-otherwise-expect awards assembly. Anyway, if you ever want to feel there's some hope for the future, check out some of the crazy accomplishments of past award winners. My guess is that most of these kids were A students, but they were far from conventional. Maybe it's about school culture?

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrances Harris

Hi Michael,

I was never a good student so maybe that's why I have so much fun stirring up trouble now? I do appreciate the stability our "A" leaders bring to schools. Just that we need to move forward too!


Hi Jessica,

it's easy and dangerous to over generalize about any group of people or any individual.

Do you feel like you are less concerned about pleasing those in charge as you get older? I do think we are all somewhat at the mercy of needing a paycheck as well.


Hi Anna,

Dweck's book MindSet really shifted my thinking and my approach to praising my grandsons. (Too late for my own kids.) Praising hard work is better than praising smarts, for sure. I also encourage them to be a little naughty (but don't tell!)


Hi Sue,

I love your last statement about leadership. Empathy seems to be a lost art. Great comment.



Hi Francey,

It IS all about school culture. You work in an exceptional environment - would more of our schools be like yours.

Thanks for the reminder that schools can be different if they so choose.


May 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Oh, no, I'm still a HUGE people pleaser. I do exactly what is asked of me. That being said, I also have a blog where I relate my adventures of crossing things off of a life list and have been told that some of the things I've done are "crazy" (skydiving, swimming with sharks, visit a nudist camp, etc)

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGCFLearnFree

Doug, you have made me proud to admit that I graduated from HS with a 1.9 GPA. Don't get me wrong. I learned some really interesting and useful things in High School but most of them were not graded. I had some great teachers who inspired and held high expectations. In those classes I excelled but my reaction to the rest was to put in as much effort and caring as they did. If a teacher didn't put in an effort to "get" me then why should I care about jumping through hoops for them. I did go on to college and I am finishing my second Masters now. And when I am working with students, I look really hard to find the ones that need a little extra motivation and attention. They are the most fun and interesting.

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

Hi Dottie,

Well, I had you beat with a 2.2 GPA, I think. I loved everything about HS except the classes!

I am sure the "non-traditional" kids love you. Go get 'em!


May 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I was never a straight-A student in H.S. I graduated with a 2.1 to a 2.5 or something like that I believe (you'll forgive me my memory of it since it was in 1984). I graduated college with a 3.49 in 2010. I knew I wasn't stupid though. I just hated school and was having enough issues at home. I now teach at an alternative school and have found that, while I enjoy having the behaved students who conform to the rules and make good grades, I understand the misbehaved, problem students more and enjoy connecting to them. I don't lower the standard for them, I just increase the encouragement and the personal attention. I also see some of those teachers who were straight-A students and the difficulty they sometimes have trying to motivate frustrated students or explain concepts. It's been my novel belief that perhaps we should teach the subject we were worse at rather than the one we were best at or enjoyed the most!

I think Tom Peters expresses your thoughts perhaps (if you've not already seen it & you need to watch all of it. It's only under 5 minutes): (enjoy!)

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterE

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