by Sara Breetzke, TCA Head of School

On March 8, the Mississippi House passed a bill that would require teachers to grade the parents of their students.

This legislation seems a bit nontraditional, but likely Mississippi lawmakers feel pressure to take desperate measures: the personal finance site WalletHub recently ranked Mississippi’s schools 45th of 50 for “School-System Quality.”

If passed, this law would demand that schools with a “C,” “D,” or “F” accreditation rating would “require teachers to assign a parental involvement grade on student report cards.”  In other words, the law will ask schools with poor grades in a state that has a poor grade to give parents poor grades, so that students with poor grades will work harder and improve their test scores.  

I find myself skeptical that one more ranking or assessment tool will really solve Mississippi’s education problem. And while I applaud Mississippi lawmakers’ recognition that parents should play a key role in their children’s education, their chosen solution confirms a fact I quickly learned as a public school teacher: our country believes in the power of grades to inspire change. 

As someone who has assigned grades to students for over eight years, I just can’t endorse this belief.

I remember my early days of grading papers as a high school English teacher. When I reached an especially poor essay, I wielded my red pen with a flourish, thinking, “This! This 70% will teach Student F to put forth more effort next time!” 

Oh how disappointed I would be, then, to see Student F’s eyes light up when she received her paper back. “I passed!” she would joyfully share with a friend before wadding her paper into a ball and throwing it into the trash can. 

The poor grade hadn’t inspired Student F to think differently about writing at all. I imagine many parents in Mississippi might have a similar response when faced with a low grade from a teacher.

Over the past decade, I’ve thought a lot about grading, and I’ve spent significant time researching how to grade students in a way that might bring about learning and change. Too often, though, all I see grades inspiring in the classroom is apathy or anxiety. Therefore, I pray the Spirit moves at Trinity Classical Academy to redeem our relationship with assessment for His glory and our good.

One way toward this redemption is to acknowledge that grades function as a form of the law. Like God’s Law, grades measure us against perfection, and that elusive 100% consistently reveals where we’ve failed.  As sinful humans, sometimes that’s all we can see. As a result, we often ignore grades entirely, like Student F. Alternately, we can begin to obsess over achieving the perfect grade, using our good grades to prove our worth. The former option leads us to ignorance and apathy; the latter leads us to anxiety and pride.

As long as we ignore grades, we will not improve our knowledge or grow wise in truth. 

As long as they are our justification, grades will crush us.

However, I believe God desires to save us from these two extremes. Just as God’s Law is a blessing when our failure drives us to Jesus for grace, grades can become a blessing when they show us our error and invite us into opportunities to relearn. We can only have this freedom as we remember that we are justified not by our own actions, not by our ranking, but in Christ alone.

Once Jesus frees us to see that He is better than a grade, we can refocus our efforts on building character, not on assigning a ranking. In her book The Core Leigh Bortins suggests that the way to create strong character in students is to give them the “opportunity to watch their instructor struggle with learning, to copy the teacher’s perseverance and character, to see over the course of time that their mentors continue their studies as an ongoing pursuit.”  When that instructor is a mom or dad, children see firsthand what it is to learn, an experience more powerful to motivate than any grade or ranking.  At TCA, we want to help parents know where to begin as they learn alongside their children, modeling good character to motivate their children toward the hard work of learning.

As parents and educators, it’s good to be reminded that while grades are a helpful tool, they are merely an indicator of what children know.  They have no power to change the student.  Rather, our best hope for change is to lay our best before our children.  That’s why at TCA, parents and teachers desire to be mentors who instill good habits, lead children in Godly character, and, most of all, pray for the Holy Spirit to work in their children.

These practices have more power to inspire learning than any percentage at the top of a page.

Bortins says children are “created to work hard and feel the satisfying encouragement of a loving adult while conquering difficult challenges.”   These moments with our children are far too precious to reduce to a grade – whether the grade is assigned to the parent or the student.  Instead, Bortins’ quote asks us to trust Jesus with the difficult journey of learning, remembering that it ends with great reward for us and for our children.  This path won’t be easy, but doesn’t it sound like a worthwhile adventure?