Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Of GPAs, and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings

Sean, 14, saw me typing about college prep for my Catholic classical education e-group and asked “What’s a GPA?”

When I explained that it was a numerical average of one’s grades, he asked “What’s mine?” I told him that I didn’t really pay attention to marking grades until high school, so I didn’t really know. He said, “Well, what WOULD mine be?” I told him somewhere between 3 and 4 because that was how we operated in the homeschool. We just don’t move on until adequate mastery is reached. And when you are pursuing self-directed interests, you tend to get an A by the very nature of what self-directed interest is about.

I told him that I would start paying more attention to outside measurements for him this year partly because he’s entering those years and partly because if there’s any chance he was going to school, he’d need a transcript. I told him he was carrying an A — a 4– in the few classes that had objective grading, like math, and that it was harder to tell with the mostly reading-based classes, because I just didn’t set them up that way.

It turned out that he was asking because some of the kids at his quarterback camp had been comparing GPAs and he didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. At another time, when his coach found he was homeschooled, he roared “I bet your mom gives you all A’s!! ” This was basically Sean’s first exposure to academic competition standards, and he was interested.

It was ironic, what the coach said, because the point of the email I had been writing was that I actually undergraded Sean’s older brother. I found this out after Liam had been accepted and was comfortably carrying a college GPA that looked like it had been lovingly hand-crafted by Mom, but was actually based on his own hard work. I had been giving Liam college-difficulty courses in high school, and if he had been going to school he probably would have been taking AP and honors classes based on his inclinations, and possibly getting higher than a 4.0. That is apparently how high schools operate to show the difference between a “cream-puff” GPA and a “conference” level one (to use my sons’ football terminology for competition levels in different football schedules).

The conventional homeschool advice is to have the kids take some outside classes to “verify” the grades Mom gives, which are presumably supposed to be biased on the creampuff side. Liam did not take any outside classes. Nor have any of the other kids. There just aren’t that many tame affordable local classes running around in our neck of the Sierras. I have heard anecdotally that many homeschooled kids’ experience with the “real world” of high school or college classes tends to make them realize that it’s the schools who have made the creampuff accommodations. Of course, I’m sure there are exceptions, but the thing is: parents want their kids to succeed. They have expectations and aspirations. They are aware of their childrens’ potential. Schools more generally don’t and aren’t.

This seems like a bit of a side tack, but I dislike the idea of taking a class or doing something “just because” it might help their transcript. This is called making secondary ends into primary ones, and I may be too black and white about it, but it’s part of the reason my husband and I are homeschooling to start with.

I realize that this football/homeschool dilemma may be another expression of the same thing. And indeed, why measure GPAs at all, then? There are some distinctions to be made. I am still working it through, so I couldn’t tell you in so many words the parameters of the distinctions. I wouldn’t want to make distinctions that were too tight and therefore closed off possibilities for our kids. We follow our reason-based intuition or what we like to call our Poetic Knowledge here. Perhaps I’ll write more about this some other time, because I am trying to wrap this entry up, and it looks like I untied more ends than I tied together, here.

Bottom line, if we lived in an area where outside-verification, valuable learning opportunities grew like apples on trees, it would be nice. But we don’t live in such an area. And I have to think there are some advantages to the other kind of life too — “Less can be More, Small can be Beautiful” as the hobbits sang in 70’s style folk meter in the cartoon version of “Return of the King” (haven’t watched it? oh, my. You are missing….something).