Are ‘most improved’ awards for students beneficial or embarrassing?

We attended an awards ceremony at one of our schools this week, and I was struck by how much personal information the teachers were revealing about their students’ academic performances with “most improved” awards.

They had good intentions of praising the children and recognizing how far they’ve come during the year, but teacher after teacher said things like this student was way below grade level on reading and look where they are now. They’ve gone up X reading levels.

It’s a great accomplishment and should be complimented but should the details be revealed in an assembly?

Another teacher talked about a child not turning in homework and getting their act together and doing a great job turning in homework. Again, I’m just not sure where they line is between giving a child praise and revealing too much about their academic or behavioral issues in public.

One teacher worded it better and said how much “personal growth” a student had, which I thought was a much nicer way to phrase it.

So am I reading too much into this? Are most improved awards good to acknowledge growth or embarrassing because you’re revealing a shortfall publicly? Should the student just be given a good spelling award or good reader award without the back story of how far they’ve come?

Would you or your child want it acknowledged in an assembly that they were below reading level and are now above? Is that TMI for a school environment? Should the award just be for being a great reader or a great speller? Or for being an improved reader without specific levels mentioned?

32 comments Add your comment


May 17th, 2012
12:34 pm

As I’ve said on here before, my mother was a teacher, my grandmother was a teacher, my aunt was a teacher, my sister is a teacher, and my wife is a teacher.

In all of my time of knowing many many educators I can tell you this, some are smart and some are quite dumb. I’ve assisted in acquisition of two post-graduate education degrees, and I can tell you this much as well, you don’t have to be a genius to teach.

Yes TWG….what those teachers were saying was completely inappropriate. No….it does not surprise me at all.


May 17th, 2012
12:35 pm

Personally, I think those examples are horrible and I cannot imagine how a teacher could think that saying any of that is actually edifying for a student. “He was a dumbass when he got here but now he’s does as well as everybody else” is not a compliment. Just my opinion.

I got a most improved award in softball my 7th grade year. That’s all the trophy said – most improved. I knew I sucked when I started and I did get better. I was still not good but I did get better. So I earned a most improved trophy. Using the above as an example of what the coach would have had to say – “Denise couldn’t hit worth a dang when she started. I mean, she couldn’t hit a ball as big as a cabbage even if it was standing still! But she finally hit a few, and they even went farther than the pitcher’s mound. Yay D!”


May 17th, 2012
12:50 pm

What would have been wrong with, “Jimmy made some great strides academically this year. He has been a joy to teach, and I’m so proud of him.”?

P.S. Am I the only one that thinks award day at schools are lame?


May 17th, 2012
1:11 pm

@Denise – Hahahaha!

TMI. Why not just say, “Little Johnny isn’t nearly the dumba$$ he was a year ago”? I know Dr. Sears says to provide specific praise, but this is pretty sad.


May 17th, 2012
2:00 pm

@ jarvis…I have been a teacher for now almost 30 years and I agree with you that some teachers are quite dumb. I also want to share that I had a student over 25 years ago who continued to poop in his pants several months into Kindergarten. There were no medical issues nor psychological issues. He was simply not interested in being potty trained. I cleaned him up several times and finally dropped him off in the principal’s office, as we headed to the playground. He sat in there for about 15 minutes ( secretary right in the next room). When the principal got in….you can imagine the smell. WOW…finally we could call the parents in to talk. Guess what…the Dad was a DOCTOR. He assured us that the boy would be potty trained when he was ready to be potty trained. UM ….some Doctors are DUMB too.

I believe you can probably find people in any profession that are DUMB. Even I am quite dumb once in a while…my own two adult kids remind me at least once a month! I am and have been a teacher most of my life.


May 17th, 2012
2:03 pm

MJG, I wasn’t sterotyping….there are dumb people everywhere in all walks of life.

Teacher, Too

May 17th, 2012
2:04 pm

I don’t like giving awards. I don’t even remember going to awards programs when I was in elementary or junior high school. I see no purpose in perfect attendance awards– we don’t want sick kids coming to school to get everyone else sick– in their quest for perfect attendance.

If a kid makes great strides during a school year, what’s wrong with the teacher writing a note to that student telling him/her how much he/she has improved? That’s more meaningful and heartfelt than an award, and the kid will probably keep that note for years to come.

With all the trumped up, made-up awards that we give kids, the awards themselves have become meaningless. It does not raise a child’s self-esteem. Students develop more self-worth when they have earned good grades through study and self-discipline.


May 17th, 2012
2:04 pm

Or stereotyping either.


May 17th, 2012
2:16 pm

@Teacher, Too….it was the Perfect Attendance Award that I was specifically thinking about.
What a dumb thing to recognize a kid for?

“Hey Beau, thanks for showing up here every day for 9 months. You didn’t contribute much, but you were here. Now you have something to put on your wall that says as much.”

Old Man

May 17th, 2012
2:27 pm

Disagree completely. Little Johnny needs to be called out to begin with, and when he starts doing better he should be praised. In my day (when dinosaurs roamed) peer pressure was a great motivator. Embarrassed? Good.


May 17th, 2012
2:58 pm

When everyone gets a trophy to help their self esteem what do you expect?

Tad Jackson

May 17th, 2012
3:18 pm

When the school is examined, or all must go through some exercise in the public hearing or view, you must not be absent, in any event, without first procuring the teacher’s consent; if you should, you are out, and out you’ll remain till the Superintendent admits you again.

—from “Rules for Scholars,” issued by the Public Schools of Atlanta, 1871

When it was my turn I said it was an honor to teach every one of you and I’m proud of every one of you. I said it because I meant it. Not that it was the thing to say after all was done. I mean it. Kids have no idea how they make teachers better and I’ll bet, with all due respect, once you started to tell them they’d throw up.

I gave Hap my Academic Achievement award. I told everybody the way he performed during the spring semester was breathtaking. Every day Hap would come see me privately to see how he was doing and what he should be doing and if he was doing it right. That’s one of the reasons he made an A. It’s not easy to make an A, but Hap made it look easy. Of course, he looked nervous about it for ten dag months, but that’s Hap.

I gave my Most Improved award to Irving. If you made a documentary about Irving’s eighth grade experience in Georgia History class and you watched a little bit of the beginning and then fast forwarded to the last month you would say the kid looks like Irving but he sure don’t act and talk and ask questions and answer questions and offer up wonderful discussion items and bring in awesome show-and-tell stuff like that other Irving. Lurlene wouldn’t let me name the award Complete Transformation of a Human Being, but that’s what it is and that’s what happened.


May 17th, 2012
6:04 pm

I think the awards would mean more if they were only given out once a year but when you have awards day quarterly (sometimes even monthly) it takes away from it. I remember when my son was in first grade and “won” student of the month. I only found out because I saw his picture hanging on the wall outside of the main office. When I excitedly told me how proud I was of him, he simply shrugged and said that everyone would get it sooner or later and that his name happened to be the one pulled from the hat. He said the kid who got it the month before always acted up and didn’t complete his work in class so that’s how he knew it was nothing special.

Last year my son won the year end award for being the best reader in the entire school (based on the number of books read, AR points, test scores, CRCT, etc). He got a certificate and coupons for free ice cream cone and brownie from Chik fil A. Each grade gave an award for the most improved reader. Those kids got a certificate and $50. My son was very unhappy about that and said this year he planned to pretend not to know how to read until the end of the year when he would suddenly improve. Thankfully he forgot about his master plan by the time school started last fall.

GA Teacher

May 17th, 2012
6:34 pm

Every kid gets a trophy. I could just write a novel about this issue-but in synopsis, it is my opinion that we have been raising now two generations of children who aspire to nothing more than mediocrity, as a whole. This goes for education, sports, everything. Rewarding every child, or almost every child, with a trophy or award, teaches them only one thing-and that is, all they have to do is show up. Why work harder, when every other kid out there is going to get an award as well? When I grew up, trophies were for the champions, and the absolute best. We worked harder to achieve that status. Shoot, even in little league baseball, it was try-outs-if you weren’t good enough, you didn’t make the team. Now, every precious little angel/darling makes the team, just by showing up. Did it hurt our self-esteem to not make the team, to fail? I can speak to this point-for me, no, it didn’t, it made me work harder and practice more to make the team the next season. Every kid gets a trophy. We are destroying our children’s internal drive and motivation, all because we are so afraid of hurting their self-esteem. It is just so absolutely stupid and ridiculous to me.


May 17th, 2012
6:42 pm

Very much against meaningless awards; I’m with you on this topic, Jarvis. @Teacher, Too has the right idea – a handwritten note by the teacher to the student is more thoughtful and discrete.


May 17th, 2012
7:17 pm

@jarvis…no hard feelings…I did not think you were stereotyping.


May 18th, 2012
6:43 am

We just went through awards ceremony this week. My first time going through this. Every child got an award. Each award was given based on each child’s personality. Stacy got the best friend award. Sammy got the math master award. Jill got the kindness award. Mark got the community helper award. Bascially, they all got pats on their back for being themselves. I was not impressed. Save the awards to high school graduation and only give out two or three for every subject.


May 18th, 2012
8:31 am

Is it really an award if everyone gets one? I don’t think so.

This year my son’s teacher just had the students vote on the awards for their peers like funniest, most supportive, best leader, most helpful, etc. I thought they were really cute!

Warrior Woman

May 18th, 2012
9:11 am

Some of the awards ceremonies I’ve been to at schools reveal enough information to violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It’s ridiculous!


May 18th, 2012
10:19 am

That is way wrong to do in my opinion. By the same token, why recognize those who are outstanding, as that only means that everyone else is not outstanding or is average?


May 18th, 2012
10:21 am

I don’t really see anything wrong with “most improved” awards — they may not mean anything to me, but perhaps it may encourage the student that they are being given to, and acknowledgement that even if they aren’t the best student, their effort has been noticed. Probably, if I were a teacher, I wouldn’t go into too many details as to WHY it was a “most improved” — I might call it “Best Effort Award” or something like that. The kids to whom school comes easily get these awards like confetti, and they end up being fairly meaningless. I’ve never been convinced giving an academic award to a genius acted as an encouragement to others — most of the kids simply shrug and say, “Oh, well, that’s Marcus, he’s always been a brain.”

On the other hand, I’ll never forget the look on my child’s face when their English teacher told them, after an awards assembly, “To be honest, you probably earned the Outstanding Student award based on grades alone, but I decided to include effort in with grades — and frankly, (winner) always gave his best effort, I always felt like you were just cruising. That’s not “outstanding” — that’s just raw talent. Talent without effort is wasted.” She was right — and her words definitely made a positive impression.


May 18th, 2012
10:24 am

@Kat: Do you live in Lake Woebegon, where all of the children are above average? That’s the reason a bell curve exists — some kids do very well, some kids will never get it (through ability or inclination), and the rest of them are . . .average.


May 18th, 2012
10:25 am

I would really hope that kind of information is something that a teacher would only share with the child’s parents. Personally, I would love to see the whole “superlatives” awards that middle and high schools do gone as well. I think egos and confidence are fragile, and any message we send kids that say “you are not good enough as you are,” such as these types of awards should be done away with. Additionally, it provides more ammunition for children who are already teasers or bullies to use against these kids.


May 18th, 2012
10:31 am

My nephew got most improved in pre-k or kindergarten and he deserved it. It meant something to him because he didn’t come into class knowing what some of the other kids knew and he struggled but eventually got it. He got recognized by his teacher at “graduation” but all she said was that he was her most improved student and that she was happy to have had him in her class. Daddy said it was like the sun was shining in the room his smile was so big. That was it. No certificate. No plaque. Just a compliment. It wasn’t awards day so it wasn’t anything made up.

I actually think “best personality” type of awards are cute but they don’t belong in a ceremony where “Best Math Student” gets recognized. Being friendly is not the same has having math aptitude, sorry. The former can be done in the classroom at the end of the year party or something. That is a time for fun and cuteness. But, to me, getting recognized for academics is a serious honor and shouldn’t be diluted with foolishness. Yes, I was a nerd. Yes, I worked really hard trying to get “Best In xxx” awards because they were highly competitive and SERIOUS at my nerd high school. We had “Most Athletic” and “Most Witty” but that stuff was for the yearbook, not awards day.


May 18th, 2012
2:09 pm

My youngest child got most improved in middle school for basketball and cheerleading. She was proud to get them–she had improved a great deal and worked hard to “catch up.” Now, if it had been in an academic subject the feelings might have been different. She was willing not to be number one in every subject, but she sure as heck wasn’t going to be lower than number two!


May 18th, 2012
2:19 pm

@DB: If you plan to try to insult someone, spell the words correctly next time – Lake Wobegon. It gets the point across better. Actually, skip that. Your point did not come across.

Yes, there are over-achievers, under-achievers, and the rest are average. What I was saying (and you failed to comprehend) is that if we don’t recognize the under-achievers (or at least not in the proper manner), then why recognize the over-achievers?


May 18th, 2012
5:05 pm

@Kat: Correction noted; however, the rest of your rant is totally illogical. I wasn’t trying to insult anyone (if I were, you would know it.) Your comment was, “By the same token, why recognize those who are outstanding, as that only means that everyone else is not outstanding or is average?” If you meant something different, then perhaps you should have said that, instead. Your original comment made it appear that there was something wrong with being average — which reminded me of the ironic tag-line on “Prairie Home Companion.” Are you really questioning why outstanding students receive ANY recognition and praise? If so, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree. People receive recognition throughout their life, in the form of pay, personal satisfaction and sometimes public notice for their efforts. Why shouldn’t an outstanding academic effort be celebrated, also? There’s nothing wrong with being average, but if you are encouraging excellence, why not note when it is achieved?

K teacher

May 18th, 2012
10:29 pm

We are required to do a “Kindergarten graduation” and every child has to receive some type of academic award. It can be quite difficult to come up with awards for everyone!


May 19th, 2012
3:17 pm

I’ll try a third time so everyone catches up. DON’T recognize the over-achievers, the most improved or anyone else. Save time and teach instead – novel concept.

Just because we are sometimes recognized as adults – and I really don’t think all adult recognition is “public” as this would be for these kids – does not mean that all “over-achievement” should be recognized. For example, no one knows my salary and/or my bonus at work. Give me more, sure. Tell everyone else so that they feel “less” or put on the spot, nope.


May 20th, 2012
7:33 am

@Kat…some parents don’t even recognize their own kids and thus good teachers tend to do more than teach. I, for one, love teachers who can.

I volunteered , twice a month, for 6 years at the middle school check in desk and enjoyed doing it. In addition to all of the people I work with across the country, I met thousands of parents who had to show their ID and sign in on the log to go into the office to check their child out. This saved time when they went into the office. Two of my favorite episodes were:

What is your student’s teacher’s name? ( asked in the spring) “Um…I don’t know!”

Whate grade is your student in? ” I think 5th.” (Middle school is 6-8 and there are no 5th graders in the building.)

DB, I understand what you are trying to say. When HS kids get ready to head to college, the recognition they have as over achievers can be critical to get into a good school. We both know this as we have had four, between the two of us, in college.

I am an overachiever. I want to do my best at my job. I had a meeting yesterday and the teachers were to rate me on a scale of 1-6. One eval came in with a new line of 7’s. I saw the teacher who handed it in and touched her on the shoulder and laughed. She told me she loved every minute of the training session. My mission was accomplished. I also told her that I had one evaluation in SC, where the teacher mentioned that she did not care for my presentation. Her reply, “What is she doing in Early Childhood…everything you share is right on the money and extremely useful! She is nuts!” I know not everyone likes me and if I have 1 out of 300 teachers ( in my meeting in SC) I can handle it.

@K teacher…what county do you teach in? Are you in the metro?


May 20th, 2012
2:06 pm

I am not opposed to a kid getting a Most Improved award in general, but how they handled it could have been better. I would have been embarrassed by their hadling of it.

However, my 6 year old got most improved on the swim team last year and we (both she and I) look at it as a great accomplishment. When she started, she couldn’t even doggy paddle and by the end of the season, she was down at Georgia Tech, having made it into the county meet, swimming above her age level. She is very proud of her “Most Improved” trophy and we very often refer to it as an example what what can be accomplished thru hard work and practice.


May 23rd, 2012
7:15 am

Our school used to give out huge stacks of certificates … maybe 10+ per kid. All sorts of made-up stuff, IMO. I’m sure the teachers hated to print them out too!

When we found them in the files 2 years later, I explained to my 8- and 10-year-olds that these sorts of awards have little meaning. Then I encouraged (but not forced) them to feed the certificates to the shredder. That was the best lesson learned!