Search the Site

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?