The Honor Roll Does More Harm Than Good

by Alicia Stein
Santi Vedrí/Unsplash

My son started middle school last year. Like many parents, I was anxious about this transition. I was worried about puberty and acne. I was worried about cliques and mean kids and first crushes and vaping. I was worried about academic pressure and increased workloads.

But you know what no one warned me about? The damn honor roll.

Ever since my son stepped foot in middle school, I’ve been hearing about the honor roll. From his first week of school, his friends were buzzing about it, and so were his teachers. In order to get on the honor roll, you had to maintain a 90 average. To get on the esteemed “Principal’s Honor Roll,” it was a 95 average. And the school’s hallways were plastered with lists of honor roll recipients from past semesters.

Now, I should back up and say that I have always emphasized to my son that grades are not that important. What matters is that you try in school and that you have a good experience. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

At the same time, my son is one determined, competitive kid—mostly with himself. And when he heard teachers and other kids going on about the honor and what grades you need to get on it, my son decided he was going to put his all into getting on the honor roll, come hell or high water.

It almost became like a game for him. What would he need to do to “win” a spot on the honor roll? Could he bust his butt and make the revered “Principal’s Honor Roll”?

You might think that this kind of external motivation would be a good thing. And if you look at the results of my son’s “game,” you could argue that it was. My son was able to maintain a 95 average for all four semesters of his first year of middle school and was inducted into the Principal’s Honor roll each time. He also was admitted to the school’s magnet program as a result of his hard work.

So why am I complaining? Well, the honor roll made my son (and me) absolutely miserable. If his grades slipped in one class for even a second, he’d be extremely stressed out. He was losing sleep over grades, obsessively checking the online grade portal and keeping track of his averages. He could tell me what his average was in each of his classes, with decimal points and everything.

In other words, the honor roll severely messed with his mental health, and I was not okay with it.

Over the summer, we had a bunch of talks about how important it is not to obsess about grades. We talked about how the process of learning is what matters most and I tried to remind my son that what has made him a successful student is that he really cares about what he learns. It excites him, and he brings that fervent energy into his academic pursuits.

We also talked about how it’s okay to make mistakes, and that not getting on the honor roll would be as much of an important lesson as getting on it. (He did not share this sentiment, but whatever.)

Frankly, my son’s middle school’s ultra competitive culture wasn’t helping matters either, and for that and various other reasons, we ended up switching middle schools last summer. I don’t know if it was the switch, or just his own personal growth, but my son became a lot less laser focused on grades since the move, which was a very good thing.

However, there is still an honor roll at his new school. And get his—making honor roll means that you will get a pizza party. So of course, my son still wanted on it, though he was thankfully less obsessive about that goal.

Lo and behold, my son did not get on the honor roll his first semester at his new middle school. He got all As except for one B+ and that was the end of it. No honor roll. No pizza party.

As predicted, my son did not react well to the news, but ultimately it was a good life lesson for him. After a few days of moping and feeling pissed at the teacher who gave him his first middle school B ever, he realized that he could live to tell the tale and it was all okay. He seems even more mellow about grades than he ever has, and I’m super-happy about that.

However, I’m still pissed off at the honor roll. My son said that in science class, he teacher ended up reading out loud the names of the kids in his class who had made the honor roll that semester. Are you freaking kidding me?

Isn’t it enough that a school has a system that puts undue pressure on kids to become hyper-focused on their grades instead of learning itself? Isn’t it enough that teens these days are facing unprecedented amounts of mental health issues, many of which correlate to academic pressure? Can we please lay off these poor kids just a little?

Why aren’t schools recognizing other accomplishments besides grades? How about a special shout-out to the kids who worked their ass off for that B, or who passed a class by the skin of their teeth? How about the kid with special needs or a learning disability that makes every day a challenge, but that kid shows up and does their very best? Where is the recognition for these kinds of things?

Just fuck the honor roll. Seriously. My son has been on it, and off it, and either way it totally sucked. It didn’t teach him to value learning, to learn from his mistakes, or even to develop strong work habits. It just taught him that the only thing that mattered is the outcome, and that getting that outcome is more important than anything else in the world, including your own happiness.

That is not a lesson I want my child—or any child—to learn.