09/30/2016 05:43 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2017

DIY Report Cards

Last year, when my oldest daughter was in first grade, her dad and I did something fairly unusual: when the school sent her report card, we didn't show it to her. Why would we? It was a bunch of random letters that said nothing about what she had actually done. Worse still, these letters didn't reflect what she knew about her own abilities. They were arbitrary based on a few examples of worksheets, a fairly significant misinterpretation of how standards-based grading works, and some really, astonishingly silly school practices. Worse still, there was not a single narrative sentence to be found anywhere on the document - just those random letters and a lot of standard verbiage about grading policies. Even with two decades of experience in education I could find no practical use for the report card, and I had little interest in going through the long, pointless process it would take to explain it all to my daughter. I was much more interested in spending my time with her discussing the plot of her favorite Roald Dahl book, or playing the mental math games that she loves, or just quietly observing her creative play.

This year, regardless whether or not we ever show her that report card, I have a new strategy I'm excited to test out. Each term, before her report card comes home, I'm going to ask her to sit down and spend some time reflecting on how she thinks things are going at school. She'll gather any evidence she needs (assignments that have come home, projects she's done, perhaps some questions to ask her teacher), and then write conclusions about what's working and what needs work. This process will emphasize experience and growth more than innate ability. Using her homemade report card, she'll be able to set concrete goals for herself for the coming term. And then, when the school's report card comes home, if we do show it to her, she'll already have a strong sense of how it compares to what she believes about her own progress. And if the grades don't match up to her own assessment, she'll have the basis for a powerful and proactive conversation with her teacher.

Think about it. How many structures in a child's life are built to allow that child to assess her own progress, strengths, and needs independently? I can't think of any. Dr. Lilian Katz, an internationally renowned educator, puts it this way: "I believe that we tend to overestimate children academically and underestimate them intellectually." (Katz, STEM in the Early Years, 2012; also quoted in Alfie Kohn's September 6, 2016 blog post, at So when does a child get to authentically practice self-reflection, setting her own internal compass and then following it, and analyzing the tangible data that tells her how she's doing - both in school and in life? Yet we expect children to magically acquire this self-awareness somehow, as if years of arbitrarily telling them that they do or don't measure up to abstract, lettered standards can be undone at some point in the future.

Right now at work it is annual review time. That process starts with a self-evaluation, and then supervisors fill out a parallel evaluation for each employee, all based on the goals set in the prior year. This process culminates with one-on-one conversations where the self-evaluation and the supervisor's evaluation are discussed, compared, and contrasted, and new goals are set for the year ahead. I honestly cannot think of one reason why this reflective process, which contains elements of both internal and external evaluation, should not be used with kids. There are certainly schools and school programs that do mirror the annual review process much more closely (portfolio-based assessments are a great example), but that's not the norm, and it's unlikely to become the norm any time soon, as our factory model of education grinds on in the same, seemingly inevitable direction.

And so I invite any parents who are reading this to create some space in your children's lives for self-reflection and self-evaluation. Make it generative not punitive, authentic, and age-appropriate. Perhaps start with this report card activity and go from there. And then stand back and prepare to be amazed when, as adults, they are able to use introspection effectively to move forward, change direction, or correct their course, instead of standing back and waiting for someone else to tell them how they're doing. Their future spouses, children, bosses, employees, and friends will thank you.