Good Enough?

Sometimes extra-curricular activities seem to teach our kids more about excellence than academic subjects.

One of my sons is a singer.  Throughout his high school career, he has sung for various conductors.  One conductor decided to teach that it would be fun to show people what would happen if a high school chorus or orchestra used the same standard for excellence that was generally accepted in all the academic areas of the students’ school experience.

So he told the students that they only had to get an A, or 90%, in their performance of their pieces.  Then he went through each orchestra student’s music for one piece, circled every tenth note, and instructed the students to play the circled note wrong.  They could skip it, use a different pitch, or use a different time (e.g., a half note instead of a quarter note).  The students got into the spirit of the exercise and followed his directions to the letter. 

The result, of course, was total chaos.  Since the music for each instrument was different, every student’s tenth note markers were in different places throughout piece of music.  Every student also chose to do it wrong differently.  So after the first ten notes were played, there was not one harmonious sound from that orchestra – even though every student was achieving an “A”.

The students, and the adults, got an unforgettable object lesson on the inevitable outcome of aiming at something other than excellence. 

As a parent, I sometimes find it hard to keep my kids focused on the highest, instead of the lowest, level of achievement in academics, especially when there seems to be no reward or recognition for earning the highest “A” or “B” instead of the lowest one.  When a 98% and a 93% are called “equal” in a grading scale, it’s all too easy for students to settle for the 93 instead of aiming for the 98.  And it’s all too hard for we parents to show them that the difference between “good enough” and excellent actually matters.

I have always found it sadly amusing that in sports, we measure to the fraction — whether that fraction be a unit of time or distance, and recognize achievement based on those exact measurements.  Runners can win or lose a race by a hundredth of a second, and we applaud the fact that we can actually measure that accurately.  We don’t give every runner who finished within a given 10 second interval the same ranking and the same medal.

So, why do we do it in academics?

The reality is that for most of our children, their academic learning will have a much more significant impact on their futures than their athletic or musical achievements.  In the adult world, “good enough” often isn’t —those with an attitude of striving for excellence are the ones who succeed.  It’s unfortunate that too many of our schools refuse to foster that attitude because in the area where it counts the most – academics – excellence is ignored.

As parents, we are ultimately responsible for the attitudes that our children are taught.  There are schools where academic excellence is reported, fostered, and rewarded.  We need the ability to choose those schools for our children, without financial penalty.  That ability will enable us to first ensure that our children have the best educational experience possible; and second, to let our schools know that we can, and will, hold them accountable for the academic environment they create.

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