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Why We Don’t Reward Excellence


Recently I was very disturbed by an article I read in the Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer concerning grades at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. The article was about grade inflation. This was the part of the article I found most disturbing:

Gilleskie, the economic professor who crunched the data for this new grade report, has struggles grading in an honors-level economics course that involves a great deal of tough written research. In a class of 15 honor students, the work ranges from very good to “really bad” Gilleskie said. But it’s very difficult work, so should she give C’s to students low on the ladder?

She gives mostly A’s, she acknowledged.

“They’re undertaking a task that very few others have done, and the fact that they got through it is an accomplishment,” she said. “But is that right? That’s what I struggle with.”

This is a struggle? Attending class and doing crappy work is an accomplishment? You know what I think? Gilleskie should be fired.

She gives A’s for really bad work. What does that teach anyone? Isn’t her job to TEACH these students? Wow – guess a degree with honors from UNC Chapel Hill is a huge joke. Hope the parents and students paying for that don’t mind. Hope the students that are doing really good work don’t care that their honor’s degree is made meaningless by this teacher’s actions.

I do think that if our institutions of learning refuse to reward excellence and only excellence, we will fall farther behind countries that do. If we celebrate the ability to win a video game over the understanding of a work of Shakespeare, we will get what we deserve. I’m not saying that we obliterate the former, not at all. But we cannot lose the later. The best teachers I had taught me how to think, how to learn, and they created a lifelong thirst for knowledge. There is no excuse for giving a student an A for really bad work.

Employers, next time you hand out an award just because someone showed up and breathed for five years, you too are rewarding mediocrity. What do you do for excellence? What do you give those who showed up with a great attitude and really contributed to the bottom line?

Here are some of the reasons I think we don’t reward excellence:

1.) It’s hard. Someone has to figure out how to define excellence. Someone has to set standards. But our Economics professor clearly knows good work and bad work. This can be done. But it will take some work.

2.) Someone’s feelings might get hurt (or self esteem might get damaged). That’s life. Not everybody gets the dream job, every team can’t win the Super bowl, all swimmers don’t get the gold medal. Some people are going to lose. The sooner in life you learn this lesson, the sooner you can figure out what you do want to achieve and work harder at it. The best thing you can do for someone is let them lose at something. Either they will work harder and get better or they will find something they can win at – something that makes better use of their unique talents.

3.) Someone might get mad. Yep, well, learn how to handle confrontation. Have boundaries. If you change a student’s grade because he (or his parents) pitches a fit, then you are weak. Parents, if you are fighting your kid’s battles, please get a grip. Don’t fight with their teachers, bosses, or anybody else. Or get ready to fight all their battles for the rest of their lives. And don’t think they’ll ever fight for you – they won’t know how.

4.) We have no idea what excellence is. This is different than number one – with number one, you know, but drafting the standards is difficult. In this one, you don’t even know what excellence is! Many companies blab about excellence in their mission statements, but when asked what excellence in their industry means, they can’t even tell you. Is producing green cars excellence for the Big Three? What about comfort? What about profit? Is excellence taking care of over-paid employees for life or taking care of customers over the life of their cars? Is excellence winning the game or is excellence being a good sport? I don’t care if you do win the Super bowl – if you are a gangsta in your off hours, I don’t think you exemplify excellence. See what I mean? What is excellence? Does anyone even talk about it anymore?

5.) It’s not politically correct. What if we define excellence and the short kids can’t be MVP for the basketball team? What if we define excellence and the girls can’t win? Or the green people? When the winners have to be diverse rather than excellent, it’s no longer excellent. Not everybody is good at everything AND IT’S OKAY! I’m not talking about discriminating. I’m talking about setting standards that have everything to do with results and nothing to do with how much money your parents do or don’t make, what color your skin is, what your gender is, or anything else. But people start to freak out if some group doesn’t win. The day will come when a group not represented wins (Tiger Woods is a great example). But if the bar had been lowered so a black golfer might win, we might never have gotten a Tiger Woods. The hours of practice, the hard work, and the discipline were developed for excellence. Any high achiever will NEVER ask that the bar be lowered for them.

6.) We want to make ourselves feel better. Johnny got bad grades and feels embarrassed? Let’s give poor Johnny a prize, he tried after all. Poor Martha has so much going on at home; let’s not pressure her to actually help customers today. It’s not about Martha, it’s about you – you don’t want to feel bad by pressuring her. It’s like loaning money to your always broke brother, you’re giving him the money to get rid of him or so you can feel superior. Want him to stand on his own two feet? Stop rewarding his failure.

7.) Rewarding excellence might highlight our own shortcomings. What if everyone in your honors Econ class fails? Could you handle what that might mean about your teaching? What if your employees NEVER reach their goals? What does that say about you as a leader? What if your kids don’t get in that college you want them to? What does that say about YOU?

Geez – why bother with excellence? Let’s just overeat, quit exercising, play video games, put up with employees who mistreat customers, show up late, dress like slobs, buy things we can’t pay for – oh – and count on someone else to bail us out.

Because the pursuit of excellence gives you what nothing else can – self respect. Stop taking away others chance to earn it.

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