Should schools select valedictorians?

Moderated by Rick Badie

Who’s at the top of the Class of 2012? At some private and public schools, no one knows. More schools are refusing to rank seniors and choose valedictorians. Today, Paideia headmaster Paul Bianchi writes that schools should focus on learning, not rivalry and competition. The AJC’s Shane Blatt, a 1992 Key West (Fla.) High class valedictorian, says such titles are crowning achievements that reward four years of hard work and prepare students for real life after high school.

Competition is the best teacher

By Shane Blatt

“The cream always rises to the top.”

My mother was fond of uttering that expression while I was in high school studying into the wee hours of the morning. Whether I was tackling physics formulas or calculus equations, poring over British literature or world history, I was diligent about putting my studies before sports and other extracurricular activities.

So it was no surprise to many that I graduated from Key West (Fla.) High School with better than a 4.0 GPA and earned the title of valedictorian — a crowning achievement after four years of hard work.

This month marks the 20th anniversary since I delivered my valedictory speech before more than 1,000 students, faculty and parents. Under the stadium spotlights on that sweltering night in June 1992, I touched on themes of personal responsibility and self-sacrifice, of pushing boundaries and never giving up.

Such themes would resonate in today’s troubling times, and if I were the valedictorian of a high school in 2012, perhaps I would deliver the same speech.

Only I might not get the chance.

That’s because a small but growing number of schools across the nation, including some in metro Atlanta, are opting not to rank seniors and pick a valedictorian. Some educators believe that jettisoning the distinction eliminates close calls, controversies and, dare I say it, competition.

Is this the lesson we want to teach our nation’s children: That rather than confronting close calls and controversies — such as those last year in Cherokee County and this year in Gainesville — with sound logic and rational policies, we’d rather remove the valedictory distinction altogether? By that logic, should the same hold true for close votes for best actor or actress at the Oscars? The Heisman Trophy in college football?

More concerning, however, is the inane notion that we should downplay excellence because, as one local educator put it, ranking students and singling out the top achiever have “a depressing effect” on everyone else.

Here’s something that’s 
really depressing: students who aren’t prepared for life outside high school.

In college or trade school, students will square off with their peers. They will enter classrooms with perhaps hundreds of other students from all walks of life and intelligence levels, and they will compete for the highest grade, internships or apprenticeships.

When they graduate, they will vie yet again for jobs with an even larger pool of peers in an ever-competitive workforce.

Deirdre Oakley, a sociology professor at Georgia State University, said she would have never earned a Ph.D. had she not understood that competition is ubiquitous.

“If you give everybody a trophy for something, that’s not really encouraging them. It’s basically giving them an unrealistic view of the real world,” Oakley told me. “Part of growing and being successful is being able to accept defeat and disappointment and regroup and try again.”

But some educators are under the impression that removing incentives to excel will miraculously put the focus back on learning for learning’s sake.

Yet, in some schools in metro Atlanta, students are allowed to do makeup work to raise subpar test scores. What’s the incentive to study for the test to begin with if students know they can raise their grade after the fact?

Dr. Meena Shah knows a thing or two about the value of hard work, having raised three children who all became valedictorians of Greater Atlanta Christian School.

Asked her thoughts on schools nixing the valedictory distinction, she said: “There’s no reason to stop. It is a healthy competition to recognize somebody who has excelled, with not just a God-given IQ but hard work.”

My sentiments exactly.

Shane Blatt is a copy editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Blatt attended the University of Florida, where he graduated with highest honors and taught journalism. He will start a master’s program this fall at the University of Georgia.

Grade fixation misses the point

By Paul Bianchi

Given shrinking school budgets, overcrowded classrooms and low teacher morale, the issue of naming class valedictorians is not at the top of the list of problems plaguing American high schools.

It is, however, symptomatic of how schools often continue traditional practices that undermine their central mission. Schools should emphasize academic growth for all students rather than perpetuate meaningless and counterproductive competitions. One can have schools that honor and reward intellectual achievement for everyone, not just the handful with top grades.

The mechanics of selecting a valedictorian by calculating grade point average (GPA) are arbitrary. Some schools weigh certain courses, such as Advanced Placement, to give extra points in the GPA on the assumption that high grades in such courses are less frequent. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not. Such practices also promote gamesmanship in course selection.

An obsession with GPA ignores the reality that teachers are different in how they evaluate student work, even when the assignments are similar. Mr. Goodfellow is an easy grader. Mr. Stingy is unable to bring himself to write the letter A. Furthermore, the differences in GPA among high-achieving students are often infinitesimal, a hundredth or a thousandth of a point.

Even if these mechanical problems could be fixed, which I do not think is possible, the fundamental question remains: Why have a valedictorian in the first place?

A common, knee-jerk reaction, sometimes spoken in slogans such as “a nation of excellence” or “race to the top,” is the system motivates students to work harder. My experience is such students strive to do well for a variety of reasons. They are rewarded for these efforts.

Colleges come knocking at their doors. Adults praise them. They feel good about doing something well and the opportunities it affords them. They already get the message that doing well in school is important and helpful. The race to be valedictorian is irrelevant.

It is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive to overlay that message with all the distracting intensity of a questionable system that allegedly measures years of achievement in numbers rounded off to three or four decimal points. A common concern among teachers is that many high-achieving students already suffer from an undue amount of stress. Intense stress at any age is unhealthy. It constricts creativity and curiosity. Students become overly cautious, too worried about just the right answer and less able to generate and think about the important questions.

The message to the vast majority of students unlikely to end up in the valedictorian candidate pool is even worse. Schools should give education and lifelong learning a good name. The message should be that, regardless of particular strengths and talents, everybody can be engaged in hard work and learning, invested in becoming as smart as they can.

School is not a swim or track meet. Society needs an educated citizenry. The impact of the system that produces a valedictorian is equally wrongheaded for the 99 percent as it is for the 1 percent.

My argument is not a plea for relaxed academic rigor in high schools. We need more rigor, genuine and lasting intellectual challenges that infuse an entire school and motivate all students to do their very best. The competition for class valedictorian and all the hoopla surrounding it fails everyone.

Paul Bianchi is headmaster at the Paideia School.

17 comments Add your comment

commoncents

June 8th, 2012
10:44 am

George “Yes, awards are deserved and Bianchi isn’t saying they aren’t. But why just reward one person, and why must a “reward” be some narrowly defined?”

You’re not rewarding “just” a person, you’re rewarding THE person. Doesn’t the number one NFL draft prospect ususally get the best offers? Doesn’t the top sales person in a big company get all the fancy perks? Doesn’t the best of the best deserve recognition for their hard work?

As Hillbilly D said, not much matters in high school. No one will ever care that a person was average, or that they were in BETA club because there are so many people like that. There is, however, only one valedictorian. There is only one top sales person in a company. There is only one #1 spot in the draft. Some kids want to be the best, and they should be able to try. They should be able to win.

Marlboro Man

June 7th, 2012
4:33 pm

Yes, best grades should be awarded. Just don’t confuse the best grades with the sharpest minds.

Kar

June 7th, 2012
4:03 pm

In my high school, they didn’t even attempt it. They had forty kids with perfect 4.0, before even factoring in advanced classesl, scholastic achievements, etc.

skipper

June 7th, 2012
3:55 pm

But it might hurt Little Johnny’s feelings if he, too, doesn’t earn an award……………lol!

Paideia Alum

June 7th, 2012
3:24 pm

As a former student at Paideia and someone who is intrinsically competitive and academically driven, I can’t say enough about how valuable Paul B’s approach is. Had there been a reward strictly for GPA excellence I would have driven myself directly toward that. I would have counted grades above all. Instead, I took courses and found teachers that I knew would challenge me to my fullest and cared more about engaging with the material and understanding it than being able to answer the questions on the test. I cultivated a love of learning that has served me throughout the rest of my academic and professional career. And, in the end, I was still accepted to an Ivy League school despite not knowing whether or not my grades were the top in the class. There’s enough competition in schools already, even in academics, without having to put such a focus on the imperfect measurement that is GPA. Paideia does it right by having speakers at graduation that are not only strong academically but have shown a well-rounded approach to being citizens and students at the school. The message is loud and clear: “we value your academic success, but we recognize that it is only one measure of successful education.”

SAWB

June 7th, 2012
3:04 pm

Yes, regardless of your approach to teaching or grading or whatever at the end of the day someone is going to perform better than someone else. It is that way in school it is that way in life and the sooner kids get use to it the better.

Elle

June 7th, 2012
2:57 pm

Tom B, that information is under the athletics section of the website. It may be proudly displayed, but rightfully so, as they are celebrating student accomplishments under the proper heading. That information is not the main focus of the website.

Both writers have valid points and clearly have expertise and experience in their fields. However, with academic stress being at all-time high, there is an increasing emphasis on making the grade for the sake of making the grade, rather than for the sake of increasing knowledge and actual learning.
The tradition of selecting a valedictorian is a wonderful celebration of one hard-working, gifted individual, but neglects to take into consideration the second, third, fourth, even fifth runner-ups who may have worked just as hard and wanted it just as much. It neglects students whose gifts do not manifest themselves in the form of perfect grades.
Students should be appreciated and encouraged in the areas in which they excel and are passionate about, and supported and given assistance in the areas with which they struggle. Promoting the individuality,unique gifts and talent of students would increase the wellbeing of any student body. Students should be cared for and acknowledged for the gifts they have, not encouraged to try to fit the mold of valedictorian.
The race to such a standard perpetuates the idea that the title and the award is more important than the path to graduation and the collective learning experience of high school: the academic, the social, the emotional and personal growth that takes place during these four years.