It would be great if every youngster and parent valued school grades. The trouble is, some don’t. Consequently, rewarding some kids with “good” grades resembles paying them with counterfeit money. They just don’t see good grades as valuable, even though most of us think they should.

Here is how this works. With the exception of grades that might lead to scholarships or admission to prestigious colleges, both report card and test grades have only symbolic value. That is, they are recognized as valuable only by members of a restricted group. And, clearly, that excludes a substantial number of individuals outside the cultural mainstream.

An old love letter is an example of a purely symbolic benefit. It may only have value for the couple involved. Similarly, a dried bridal bouquet from a long-past wedding, a high school class pin, or a photo of great grandfather have only symbolic value. Only a few people value them; and they know not to expect to get anything for them at auction.

Things of substantial value are regarded as worthwhile across groups. U.S. currency is an excellent example. Nearly everyone recognizes its value all around the world. The same applies to diamonds, gold, silver, emeralds, a new Rolls-Royce, and the like. Nearly everyone views them as valuable.

Of course, some things have both symbolic and substantial value. Consider a wedding ring. At one level it is highly symbolic, representing love between two people. Yet the ring also has substantial value. It can be sold. Similarly, a World Series championship has great symbolic value for both players and fans. But team members also receive a very substantial financial reward..

Now back to grades. Their symbolic value often are not shared by parents and children who are outside of America’s cultural mainstream. Many of them live in what some call the culture of poverty. But outsiders who do not see school grades as all that valuable sometimes also include alienated minorities, and subcultures that deliberately reject mainstream cultural values. 

Let’s also consider the importance of peer group values — particularly for teens. If a particular teen peer group values academic achievement, it greatly enhances the symbolic value of grades. But acceptance into some teen groups requires a youngster to underachieve and scoff at grades. Indeed, bad grades come to have a positive symbolic value within that group.  

So what is an educator to do with students, and possibly parents, who reject or discount the value of grades? One possibility involves the youngster liking and respecting the teacher. In that case, the teacher’s approval is valuable in and of itself.  But even a well-liked teacher’s approval often offers insufficient motivation to really care about grades. What then? Sadly, the answer is, not much.

Much would change if educators could offer unenthusiastic youngsters substantial benefits, i.e. financial rewards, for good school work. But that is not within the purview of a typical teacher or school administrator. So educators simply do not have sufficient resources to motivate all of their charges. Indeed, where the culture of poverty is dominant, available resources may be insufficient to even motivate most of them. So what can be done? Once again, not much.

This certainly doesn’t fit the No Child Left Behind, or Every Student Succeeds Acts. But they are politics and this is reality.