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February 02, 2013

We’re killing kids’ ambitions. Why?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Over the holiday break, my kindhearted, hardworking, straight-A niece was in distress: She was facing her first F – ever.

I’ve seen her toil away at school – taking AP English with the school’s notoriously harshest grader, staying behind to study while our entire family hit the slopes – and in life – keeping her promise to babysit when tempting plans arise and feeding those darn turtles (again!) while certain neighbors are away. She’s capable and ambitious, saving money to buy a camera to make documentary films – and then entering a contest I sent her on a whim (she become a finalist with this film). She’s a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of girl, so when she’s facing an F (or maybe a D), it’s not because she’s suddenly become a slacker.

Terrified to tell her mom, she tested the waters by telling me. It’s a moment, I told her, when you really see what you’re made of: character. Will she slink away, or buck up and try again?

But as we talked, I realized she was facing a divergence of two paths worthy of Robert Frost. You see, she’s taking both science and humanities classes in her second year at college. At the same time.

In college, I did the same thing for a year and a half. I remember getting A’s in UCLA’s North Campus humanities classes and struggling to get B-‘s and C’s in the South Campus science and math classes. I also remember a 95 on a humanities paper being a straightforward A, while a 30% (what I assumed was an F) on a chem lab could magically become a B+ with the curve. I worked hard in both – maybe harder in the STEM classes – but it felt like the writing was on the wall. When you consistently earn higher marks in one area, maybe that’s a sign, right?  

Now, watching it happen to my niece, I realize it’s not writing on the wall. It’s a matter of assuming that grades at the same university are somehow comparable. They aren’t. I urged my niece not to give up just because STEM teachers are harsh graders, not to take it as a message to ditch those arduous science courses.

I told her she’s not alone, it happened to me and I let it steer me away. But if my anecdotal experience isn’t enough, a new report released yesterday has the numbers to back me up. Here are the dismaying trends from a new study about STEM in America (they polled 55,000 teachers and reached 95 percent of U.S. high schools to generate their data, trends, and projections):

  • There’s incredible STEM attrition. Some kids (thankfully more now than 10 years ago) start out interested in science, engineering, and math, but as they progress through 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, kids lose interest – 57 percent of them, in fact.
  • The remaining few who hang on in college (like my niece), well, they drop like flies: 4 out of 5 ditch STEM subjects in college.
  • To make matters worse, in the past two years the STEM gender gap has grown.
  • Finally, while 60 percent of schools have programs that encourage STEM, only 25 percent (of that 60 percent) think they have a program that’s working.

Of course, grading isn’t the only culprit, but I believe it’s part of it – and something I hope schools consider as they improve (Stat!) STEM engagement programs. I’m not saying hand out easy A’s – that’s neither motivating nor inspiring. But many kids, looking for feedback about their career prospects,  may do the same side-by-side comparisons of their grades, feel their STEM interest start to wane, and make erroneous decisions about whether or not to move forward. 

Here’s another take on this situation: Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympiad winner and the founder of the online math program “Art of Problem Solving,” advocates changing grading expectations. He’d agree with me about not handing out easy A’s, but he would characterize what happened to me – and almost happened to my niece – as falling prey to the “tyranny of 100%.” His argument is: “It’s supposed to be hard — if you’re getting 98% in a class… it may be too easy.” Read more about Rusczyk’s take and the upside to lower grades in STEM (particularly math) here.  The problem with overcoming the “Tyranny of 100%” is that, right now, if you opt out, you’re on your own. By choosing to struggle and accepting lower marks, you may be forfeit your spot in a prestigious graduate program.

By the way, my niece committed to retaking the course, working hard, and doing better. Then, she got her grade. The final grade, with the curve, was a B.


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Really thankful I never experienced a curve grading. If I earned an A, I earned it.

The problem is that by the time kids begin to get Science lessons in school (only half the 4th grade year in NH)they have already lost interest in it. Science should be integrated into the curriculum beginning in Kindergarten. It is too important to ignore it for so long. Kids LOVE science and they would do much better in STEM with an earlier introduction.

Your experience at UCLA describes almost exactly what I went through at the same university. The only difference is that I scraped and clawed my way to finally obtaining a science degree in Biochemistry. I persevered because I had invested my whole academic identity around my love of science, so I actually had no idea what else I could do. While it surely shattered my former-A-student confidence, I am glad I got through it. Even though my degree field like it was scotch- taped together, I now have a rewarding career in pharmaceutical development. Tell your niece not to give up if she loves science. It's much better on the other side.

SK thank you! I'm sending your comment to my niece now. Sharon, I couldn't agree more: why does it feel like science is relegated to the same position as drama in the younger grades, rather than being equated with reading and math?

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