What I Learned From My Daughter’s First “C”

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate for competency-based learning models. I’ve gone on the record lots of times as just that. I shared my thoughts on Montessori education as one of the original competency-based models and until very recently, I had two daughters who were learning in competency-based, montessori learning environments.

This year our third grade daughter transitioned from the only formal learning environment she’s ever known–a no-grades, no-desks, pick-your-own-work Montessori classroom–to a gifted, STEM magnet in a large traditional urban school district.

We really sweated the transition, but it’s been mostly a breeze for us and our daughter. She bounces off to school every day, even though she has to get up more than a full hour earlier. She dutifully and cheerfully does her nightly (much more challenging) homework. She tells stories about how funny her teachers are and every day she mentions a new friend. She’s learning new things in new ways and even described her new school as “more like a Learning Camp” than a classroom.

In other words, all signs point to “happy, thriving, learning child.” So, why on earth did I let one grade, her first “C,” totally shift my perception of how she was doing in her new school?

Coming from the world of no grades where we’d been living for the past five years, when I saw that “C,” everything engrained in my head about what learning looks like was telling me that my daughter’s first reading comprehension grade of a “C” spelled trouble – even though the “smart parent,” education researcher and competency-based learning advocate in me knew that wasn’t the case.

The matter was only further complicated by the conversation I had with my daughter as we went through her folder of graded work together. It went something like this:

Well-intentioned Mom: “Oh look, these are your first grades! Let’s go through these and see how you’re doing.” (Read: My first mistake; I already knew she was doing great! Everything else was already signaling that.)

Confused Kiddo: “I’m doing great!”

Well-intentioned Mom: “Yeah, but I mean, we can look at your actual scores and see your actual grades to know if you’re really doing well.” (Read: My second mistake; I just prioritized the grade over everything else – even her own perceptions about how she was doing in school.)

Confused Kiddo: “Umm… what do you mean?!”

Well-intentioned Mom: “Like this homework, you got 24/25. That means you got an 96% that’s an ‘A.’ That’s good!” (Read: My third mistake; “A = good” set up “the grade” as “the goal.”)

Confused Kiddo: “Cool. ‘A’s’ are good. Got it.”

Well-intentioned Mom: “Uh-oh. Look at this. Your first reading test. Whoa. You got a 24/30. You got six things wrong. That’s an 80%. So that’s a ‘C’ for your grade. Not good.” (Read: My fourth mistake. Are you sensing a pattern here? No joke; I attached an “Uh-oh,” a “Whoa,” and a “Not good” to that ‘C.’ Ugh.)

Confused Kiddo: “Why is a ‘C’ bad? Is that the same as an ‘F?’ I know those are bad.”

Well-intentioned Mom: “Oh, no, um it’s not the same as an ‘F.’  That means you totally failed it. A ‘C’ just means that you could’ve done better.”

Confused Kiddo: “Oh so the ‘C’ is good. Like it means you can keep practicing and get better until you get the A. That’s just like my old school then.”

Well-intentioned Mom: “Well, not exactly. You don’t get to take this test again until you get an ‘A.’ I mean you can get higher grades on other things so you could still end up with an ‘A’ or ‘B’ on your report card but this grade will always stay a ‘C’ in the grade book.”

Confused Kiddo: “Why?! That’s not fair. At all!” (Then her tears came.)

Well-intentioned Mom: “I mean, the grades don’t really matter. I mean they do, but they don’t. I mean what matters is that you’re learning. I mean you don’t want to get all ‘C’s’ probably, but it’s okay if you get some, but I mean it would be better if you didn’t. But I mean we’re happy as long as you’re trying your best, but you know your teachers might expect better than that, but I mean that’s only their perspective….” (And this bumbling went on until Confused Kiddo finally said “I’m cool with the ‘C.’ What’s for snack?”)

So where does that leave me as a parent and where does that leave us as advocates for competency-based learning with one foot still firmly in traditional classroom structures – are we cool with the “C?” Yes, we have to be.

This is especially challenging because in my estimation, no one has it perfectly right just yet. At least the purely competency-based, Montessori school she was in didn’t. In that environment, it was all individual progress without the broader context of developmental targets or goals. Because all progress (no matter the pace) was treated equally, we never had a clear picture of learning strengths or weaknesses. And that wasn’t good either.

So, what did I learn from my daughter’s first “C”–besides the fact that she needs a little extra help with reading comprehension?

 I learned there’s a fair amount of “unlearning” that still has to happen before we will all feel comfortable in completely competency-based learning environments. As more and more schools shift from letter grades to levels of mastery, we would all do well to continue challenging the assumptions we all have about how we define and describe when learning is or isn’t happening.

For more on competency-based learning, see:

For more perspectives from parents who are facing challenges as they support their children in new learning environments, check out our latest book Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning available in paperback and ebook formats for Kindle, Nook and iPad. Share your stories about navigating learning with your kids using #SmartParents on social media.

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Kira Keane

We had this happen at my house yesterday too! Great post and great lessons to share...thank you!

chris sturgis

Carri - This is just a beautiful, heartfelt, honest post. Thank you so much!


I was a straight-A student. Until I brought home a C on my report card in math. My mom went ballistic. It bothered me a lot that it bothered her so much, but I was cool with the C. I was cool with it, because I had transferred into the math class mid-year, from an outside program, and the teacher was very good about putting previously taught materials on all the tests. So I was acing homework, but not acing the tests because I was still catching up on the previously taught material. I got a C because I couldn't answer all the questions yet. Duh. By the end of the course, I had mastered the material I had missed (I knew I would) and scored very highly on the final exam (I can’t recall the actual percent score - it was 98% or higher, though.)

Thanks for writing this. I wish blogging had existed when I was a kid. My mom could have read a lot of different perspectives. She did have her mothers' group at church (they still meet, though they are all in their 70's or older) to talk to, which helped her decide when I was old enough to attend rock concerts/get my ears pierced/travel to Toronto with a friend, unsupervised/etc.

Your daughter will be fine. She sounds awesome!



Your child will be amazingI feel the same way as your daughter.... I’m starting to learn that any grade, if you do the best that you can, it’s acceptable!My grading scale is easier than your childs’ Not trying to brag. 80%is a b for us

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