Is Smart the New Average?

By October 18, 2018Family, Mental Health, School

You’ve heard it from friends, family, relatives, neighbors, other parents, teachers and you’ve possible said it yourself: “My kid is smart.” But what does smart mean?  What is it? How do you quantify it?  Depending on the context in which it is used, Merriam–Webster defines smart as an adjective, verb, and a noun; i.e. bright, knowledgeable, witty, clever.

So this smart thing, it sounds good but how is smart measured?  Too often it seems to relegated to the academic arena and specifically a standardized test score, grade(s), and/or the number of advanced placement classes. But with test corrections, test re-takes and rolling deadlines, should be we really consider these artificial and arbitrary indicators?  Unfortunately, too many parents do and with good reason.  The Loudoun-Times Mirror  sites that 81% of the high school grade distribution among Loudoun County Public Schools were As and Bs.   If this is the barometer for smart, then for parents and students alike, this is a trigger.  A trigger for panic and fear!  Fear that your daughter isn’t making the grade or THESE GRADES, and that she won’t get into college and she won’t be happy and that she won’t be successful.  This likely leads to parents incessantly checking the on-line portal for grades or missing assignments and contacting teachers.  Thereby creating a parent-child relationship void of independence, instead modeling one based more in anxiety and distress.  How parents so often forget what their formative years were like. It is said that age and experience provide us with wisdom.  But if grades are the measure of smart, then we are likely going to see more parents’ hysteria.  Where’s the wisdom in this?

This smart phenomenon had me thinking.  Is it supposed to be code for gifted?  Is it an indicator for exceptionalism or for proficiency?  When did grades become the measuring stick for tolerance? Is the use of the word smart now code for average? And if so, is average a bad thing?

Think back about twenty years, when education, learning, comprehension, and independent thinking were more the focus than the number of Honors and AP classes a kid took.Psychologist, Richard J. Herrnstein, and political scientist, Charles Murray, introduced the Bell Curve, the statistical analysis of how and where people measure against the norm.  While there was controversial use of the Bell Curve due to social agenda and stigma, within the academic arena its use was for probability and how to understand a student population on any given task.  In short, the Bell Curve determines that students are more similar than different with a small sample of outliers on either end of a continuum.  So, if students are more similar than different, is smart really the appropriate term? While it’s nice to identify someone as smart, should we actually say that most students are average? And that this is not disparaging in any way?

I contend that the word smart has been misused.  What if what is called smart is a person’s natural affinity or gift? That thing that comes easy and with little effort.  Calling it something that it is not could indirectly do more harm than good, thereby diminishing a student’s ability and undervaluing effort and work ethic.  Have we – parents and students – become unintended casualties of the standard-based education reform by focusing on labels, smart, and grades and not determination?  Just something to think about!

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