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.