Do Good Grades Predict Success?

Paul Kimelman lives in Alamo, Calif., and is C.T.O. of the Texas-based microcontroller company Luminary Micro. He is the sort of blog reader we are very fortunate to have. He writes to us now and again with such interesting queries that they’re worth putting up on the blog in their entirety.

Here’s his latest:

I was speaking with a colleague the other day and he was remarking on an accomplishment I have had in my field (of microprocessor design). He assumed I had been a straight-A student all through school.

When I noted that I was far from it, he was shocked. This got me to thinking: we usually just assume that somehow grades in school (at any level) are predictors of future success, or certainly of intelligence; but I highly doubt it. I tried to find some good studies, but found five problems immediately:

1. The very definition of success is elusive.

Is a straight-A student who went all the way through Harvard Business School a success if she sells insurance? If she opens a business, what determines when it is a success? A hardware store in Iowa may not cut it, but creating Home Depot presumably does; what about all the variance in between?

It is even more complex in many other areas. In engineering, being a worker bee is success, but great advancements do not come from those people; so what are we even trying to measure? If we try to put a scale on it, what metric should we use?

Income, even attempts at “earned income,” is tricky for many reasons, but most obviously the inequity of different fields in terms of income potential. A highly successful grade-school teacher (measured by students who become motivated [by that teacher], and [were] thus successful) will always do poorly compared to even a middling professional football player. The highly successful lawyer who does a lot of pro bono work comes off worse than the ambulance chaser.

Hierarchy in the field does not really work, since few fields have clear gradations or career paths, and many such paths are not reflections of success, but only reflections of time.

2. How do you measure validity of grades?

Besides the obvious problem of the A from a poor-quality school being worth less than from a high-quality one, you also have grade inflation, subjective measurements, and, more importantly, subject difficulty.

[Subject difficulty] is more problematic. Someone who gets all A’s in “communications” at a university is probably not working as hard as someone who gets all A’s in physics. Yet this is all subjective. Why would we assume that physics is “harder” than, say, literary critique?

This is especially problematic in high school and middle school, where many “hard” subjects are about memorizing and repeating well-defined steps. Literary critique has no well-defined guide posts (unless you cheat and plagiarize), and so requires a deeper understanding of what is to be done.

3. Most middle schools and high schools put so much emphasis on homework versus actual understanding that they are measuring behavior and compliance far more than what has been learned.

So we end up with two issues: we may well predict success [only] at compliance-oriented fields, and we do not know how many have been trampled so that their possible future success has been lost. Further, this method likely pushes more people towards compliance-oriented behavior, and so reduces their potential for success outside of this narrow measure. We certainly see this in other countries (e.g. Japan).

4. Creativity and creative people tend to mess up metrics at each level.

Creative people tend to do worse on grades at each level of schooling, yet their success measures can be very high in their fields. However, creative people can also be abject failures as a result of their creative natures; so we have no good metric that predicts [how successful] these people [will be]. Even trying to separate out creative people in schools is hard, as much of their behavior is similar to those who are just lazy, have A.D.H.D., or are generally disruptive.

We often do not know the underpinnings of their behaviors until much later, and many may have been crushed under the molding systems of our schools. Further, many of the most successful [people] are specifically creative with high strengths in mathematics and its implementation: in economics, physics, chemistry, engineering (including civil; think of many of the most dramatic bridges and buildings), and so on.

5. Any research I could find was done at some university which tended to bias results using university metrics of success.

This is likely unavoidable for the above reasons, but results from different studies were so contradictory that you have to conclude filtering and selection bias had a very large role to play as well.

What interests me is whether the present system actually produces more success or heavily limits it.

Would a different system with less emphasis on conformity produce more of our best and brightest? Or does the annealing effect of being crushed by the system help to produce those best and brightest?

If you look at those who have commonly advanced our thinking, our abilities, our technologies, and our economy (through business sense), many did poorly in schools, yet they persisted. The persistence may have been the critical element, and it would have perhaps been lost had they been encouraged more.

So does this mean we need more of those mediocre middle school and high school teachers acting as the forge to both create the worker bees we need, as well as the best [and most successful] by trying to destroy them?

Thoughts?

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  1. Bobby G says:

    Well one of the philosophies I have always had with schooling is that school teaches you, most importantly, how to act as an adult. Your level of success in life is linked, then, to your behavior and your successes in school. If you follow directions well in school, you’ll be good at following directions at work. If you excel creatively at school, you’ll excel at a creative profession. If you are a competent cheater in school, you’ll need to cheat to go through working life, and you’ll probably be good at it, having practiced throughout your school career.

    Measuring success, the ultimate topic of this blog post, is an eternal struggle, and one that I have thought about as well. To me, the only determinant of success is happiness, a relative, subject abstract. If you are happy with your life after school, you have succeeded, in my opinion. Sounds corny and cliché, but it’s the only real measurement. Money is optional and thus irrelevant as a measurement; obviously it is an imperfect one anyway, as evidenced in this post.

    To bring this to point, my solution dictates that while grades themselves may not be direct influences on future “success” (aka happiness), they are often better-than-average determinants of general intelligence and good behavior, important characteristics when seeking the endorsement of a university or employer. As such, while having bad grades may not mean a student is not intelligent or is not capable of great success, they can become substantial obstacles in getting there. In other words, a student with bad grades may not get into the most appropriate school, or may not get his foot in the door with a compatible employer, due to society’s (overweighted) importance on grades.

    I chalk it up to another misrepresentation of value to society which is prevalent in our world.

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  2. Ike says:

    I’m a middle school math teacher. Success can only be defined by you. So grades can never predict success. They do predict natural ability in certain subjects, and/or a determined hard working student. In my classroom I reward effort and ask for perseverance. Plus some people will work harder and thus do better once a paycheck comes into play.

    This does sound like a discussion I had with friends over the weekend. 2 people make the same SAT score; one studied, went to bed early, got up early ate breakfast, and went to school prepared. The other forgot he had so was up until 3, overslept, went to school in his pajamas unprepared. Who’s smarter? I said that standardized tests aren’t a great measure of general intelligence.

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    • Ken Kim says:

      As a high school student myself, I don’t find it easy at all to get good grades. (I go to a competitive prep school.) I play sports year round, consider myself a determined student in academics, and really do care about what I learn. (Every single subject plus some literature and independent studies.) But that doesn’t mean I will spend an hour a day for each of my 7 classes, which will leave me with around 1-2 hours of sleep. As you all know, being a student means lots of work to do and limited brain power and time.

      But the real problem, it seems to me, is that the importance of academics is often neglected in our current grade-based standardized education system. Are grades supposed to be incentives intended to encourage students to try harder and check where they stand? or are they just embodiments of unfair, inefficient system in which individual students and their different needs are utterly ignored? Are they tender encouragements, or merciless indicator of how naturally good you are?

      Didn’t Rousseau once said in his education treaties “Emile” that “Once you teach people to say what they do not understand, it is easy enough to get them to say anything you like?” if critical thinking skills and applications of such skills are one of the goals of education, what are we getting out of, say, having students memorize and recite the same banal, uninspired things which perhaps no one will remember after their quiz or test?

      I often see teachers “assign” and give quizzes on things, but never give any feedback. It seems to me that their sore purpose of being teachers is just to evaluate students, not to help them improve themselves as students who are there to “learn”, not to be examined and sorted out. I’m not saying the teachers should slow things down for those who don’t even try; that would be even more inefficient. But I do think that maybe our philosophy of grading every student based on things that aren’t necessarily the reflections of true learning is wrong and should be re-examined.

      Call me an idealist, but often times I fancy the existence of a class, or a school, where the teachers’ obligations and compulsory desires to evaluate the students on a daily basis are turned into actual efforts to improve classroom culture and to better encourage a true learning.

      It would take us days and years, maybe generations, to debate about what the “true learning” should be, but at this moment I say that our current education system and all the “hard work” that we the students are supposed to undertake, don’t reflect at least what I think the education should be all about.

      After all, men have debated about this for thousands of years. Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Emilie, and John Dewey’s treatises on education are only parts of the perpetual stream of this prolonged debate. If indeed talking about these things are beneficial to the society as a whole, where are the “old books”, or remnants of this debate, that should be taken into account of? where are our philosophers, political theorists, true educators, and humanists whom our society needs more than ever, yet nonetheless are incapable of being evaluated by what we call the best education system in the world?

      *These are my personal thoughts and I don’t mean any offense. As for the teachers’ part, I do acknowledge that there are truly great teachers out there, as I myself have a couple who have been really good influences to me. That being said, Some of the teachers, either victims or perpetrators of this education system, aren’t encouraging the kind of learning atmosphere that we as students have to have for a better learning.

      Ken Kim
      11th grade
      Glenelg Country School
      kyungyeopk@glenelg.org

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  3. JoseAngelCMS says:

    Grades??? I would never say grades tell people how intelligent they are, or how successful they will be in the future. Grades just show how responsible a person is and how dedicated to his studies the person is.
    Even though grades are no reference to a person’s future or to a person’s IQ level, grades are a motivation for students to develop study techniques and responsible qualities. Even though grades are no mark to a person’s success, good grades show that people have developed responsible qualities as a student and if he continues to use them, he might have better chances at being successful later in life.

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  4. MikeM says:

    It’s even more problematic than that. Re: #1 – the uncertainty around a definition of success. In all his attempts to encircle a definition of success, he is still effectively restricting it to the context of a career path.

    Is the professional football player a success even if after his athletic career he ends up broke and in prison for violent crimes? Is the founder of a company like Home Depot a success if she dies alone and looks back on her life and wishes she had married and raised some kids? Or what if she did have kids but they are in prison for violent crimes? Or if her kids are happy and healthy but she’s dying young due to heavy cigarette smoking, alcoholism, and a prior cocaine addiction?

    This kind of thing simply isn’t measurable because we will never agree on a metric.

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  5. Ed Haines says:

    Many of the persons I respect as “successful” when asked how that came to be, comment about the influence of a single teacher. These teachers seem to have made that impact somewhere in the junior high years. When I have asked what it was that the teacher did, usually the response is something to the nature of the teacher having expected the child to achieve and succeed in class and also in the future.

    How does one measure expectation? I do know that successful leaders “know” that their staff will succeed.

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  6. Barb says:

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    • Brab says:

      Steve Jobs dropped out of college but produced more than you (most likely) ever will. So dropouts are more successful than straight-A students and both are more successful than the people in between.

      Just kidding. I’m happy for you and everything but single observations don’t make samples.

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  7. Bobby G says:

    @ MikeM (#4)

    I don’t think my definition hinges on a career path at all. The rest of your post I agree with. Success is (or should be) defined only by happiness, which is pretty much impossible to quantify. If, however, a person’s happiness is linked to his career, which is almost always the case (how many of the things that make you happy would you have access to had you never had your career?), there can be a case where grades, an admittedly sub-optimal indicator of “success,” can alter one’s career path, or hinder it altogether.

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  8. tribrix says:

    I’ve thought about this one a lot, to no strong conclusion. The emphasis on conformity does act as a filter, that’s for certain. I think it’s also useful to compare other systems which attempt to beat one into submission (societal racism, for example) and see that in some cases it creates a kind of weakened conformists and in some cases a strong willed rebel (Dr. King comes to mind). Obviously, in the case of the sledge hammer of racism it’s so patently unfair and illogical we now seem to collectively desire to remove it, but less so in this public school sphere (IMO, private schools deal differently with these issues, owing partially to the voluntary nature of attendance).

    It would be interesting to see if a study could be crafted to determine the predictive quality of grades, though it seems the success definition would be much harder to design than the rest of the work.

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