Erika Sanzi: I never got an A, and I am better for it

By Erika Sanzi
Posted 2/11/20

I have been thinking a lot about how tough my high school English teachers were and how hard it was to earn an A, not only on the report card, but even on just one writing assignment. I was in honors …

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Erika Sanzi: I never got an A, and I am better for it


I have been thinking a lot about how tough my high school English teachers were and how hard it was to earn an A, not only on the report card, but even on just one writing assignment. I was in honors English classes throughout high school and I can still remember the relief and, yes, pride I felt when papers were passed back and I saw a B on mine. There was meaning in that B that I had worked hard for—but there was also the possibility that someday I might earn an A.

I never got an A on a paper in honors English in high school and it has served me well.
The “Easy A” hurts kids in the long run. And so does lying to them about the quality of their work and the depth of their knowledge.

Grade inflation is pervasive in American high schools—and it’s common in middle schools as well.  Over the past 20 years, America has seen its grade point averages soar while SAT scores and other measures of academic achievement have stayed the same or gotten worse. Colleges and employers readily admit they can no longer rely on a transcript loaded up with As and Bs as a reliable predictor of knowledge and skills. In Rhode Island we need look no further than the staggering number of students placed in remedial classes when they get to college.

A recent report out of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (where I am a senior visiting fellow) confirms that students learn more from tougher teachers. The researcher for the study, Seth Gershenson, has said that the findings confirm what so many of us already know—“everyone gets a gold star is not a victimless mentality.” According to his research, students learn more from tougher teachers and those benefits continue up to two years later. Higher standards and tougher grading lead to more learning for middle and high schoolers in suburban, urban and rural schools, regardless of race, gender, economic disadvantage or prior achievement. This is hugely important at a time when the hyperfocus on equity can be so easily twisted into the insidious notion that low performers or students whose out-of-school burdens are heavy will be harmed by strict standards. The opposite is true.

Kids thrive when they have challenging assignments and are expected to meet high standards; they are best served by tough graders. Kids feel good and competent and capable when they receive honest feedback. So why isn’t that the norm?

One significant reason for easy grading and grade inflation can likely be found in the self-esteem movement that began in the 1980s in California and by the 1990’s was part of our national consciousness. Largely in response to academic underperformance and the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, schools moved away from traditional notions of schooling and the 3 R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) and towards a greater focus on self-esteem and feelings — skeptics often refer to it as “warm and fuzzy.” Participation trophies popped up everywhere and so did the practice of over-praising students in American classrooms.

But kids have an antenna for false praise and rather than fortify their self-esteem, it often undermines their self confidence. They hear one message loud and clear: my teacher doesn’t expect very much from me. And that doesn’t make anybody feel good nor does it lead to greater learning or higher academic performance. Tough love is much better for that.

Take it from this B English student who now writes for a living.

Erika Sanzi is a former educator and school committee member who writes about education at Project Forever Free and Good School Hunting. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


Erika Sanzi

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