Thursday, June 16, 2016

Why High Schools Are Getting Rid of Valedictorians (Response)

A recent article came across my feed that caught my attention, Why High Schools Are Getting Rid of Valedictorians. It was especially timely since I'd just had a conversation about this topic with a principal from another school in our area. He was interested to know if we still recognized valedictorian or not. We do not. In fact, we haven't had a valedictorian since before I arrived on the scene 8 years ago. I'm not sure how long that decision had been in place before my arrival.

Why High Schools Are Getting Rid of Valedictorians

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, American students today are unmotivated and apathetic about their schoolwork, and teachers actually care more about students' grades than the student. Teachers are expected to make lessons more engaging and fun, and to serve more like entertainers than old-fashioned teachers.

The author of the article contends that schools are ending the valedictorian award "because it might make others feel badly about their GPAs." According the article, this decision is just more evidence that schools are lowering expectations. The author seems to draw connections between elimination of valedictorian and student apathy, mediocrity, and even the performance of the United States education system in international rankings. Those are sweeping generalizations with very little evidence to support the claims.

In truth, the school leaders I've spoken with have very different reasons for dumping valedictorian than those presented in the article. Valedictorian recognizes the top student in the class based on GPA. However, GPAs are a terrible way to determine one student as being the best. Often, the difference between the top few students can be less than one-thousandth of a decimal point. And the factors that determine that difference usually have more to do with what classes the students did or did not take than actual academic performance. 

For example, we had a student a few years ago who was a National Merit Scholar finalist and had perfect grades in high school. That's right, straight A's. However, his class rank was not even in the top 3 or 4 of his graduating class. How can that be? Well, he was an all-state musician and took multiple music classes every semester. These classes are not weighted in the GPA. Fortunately, he didn't play the GPA game to be the "top of his class" or we would have missed his outstanding musical contributions in our school.

And it is a mathematical game. I could go on with more examples of how the system can be manipulated and often results in students taking classes strategically to have the highest GPA instead of taking classes because they are beneficial to their own future aspirations.

So the decision to get rid of valedictorian has nothing to do with lowering expectations or protecting other students' feelings. In place of valedictorian, our school honors the highest performing students with a cum laude system, so students who earn above a certain GPA are recognized for their academic achievements. Our students wear medallions at graduation to note this distinction.

Moreover, we no longer provide information to students on class rank. It's no longer on the grade card or the official transcript. We only provide the class rank information if it's needed specifically for scholarship purposes.

And that decision is based on a purpose larger than the fairness of the GPA system. We want to encourage students to learn from mistakes, explore a variety of interests, and become better people as a result of their schooling. The GPA system does not reward growth or risk-taking. It rewards perfection and right answers. Stanford Professor Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset is clear that labeling performance is not healthy for improving performance. Instead, the focus should remain on effort, improvement, and dealing with setbacks. 

Students cannot always control the results or outcomes in life, but they can always control their effort and their attitude. The loss of valedictorian isn't harmful for motivation or performance. However, labeling students can be harmful for motivation and hurtful to healthy attitudes about learning. One mom shared how the pursuit of valedictorian was not beneficial to her perfectionist daughter.

The trouble with high school valedictorian awards - The Boston Globe

When educators talk about why their high schools have given up the award, they note the negative message it sends to the kids who lose by a fraction of a point, or the kids who are never in the competition. I am here to argue that it's not even necessarily good for the valedictorian.

The pro-valedictorian author seems to imply that the valedictorian award is important as a celebration and reinforcement of achievement. But is a simple GPA formula appropriate to determine who is achieving the most?

Consider the student who is a victim of abuse, practically raises younger siblings, serves as designated driver for dad, and still manages to make B's and C's in school while holding down a part-time job. Anyone want to question this student's merits as "high-achieving?" Again, effort and attitude are hard to quantify, but there are lots of students overcoming incredible odds to succeed in school. These inspiring students deserve to be recognized too.

That's why schools should focus more on effort, enthusiasm, and attitudes. Rewarding only the highest achieving students won't improve apathy in schools.

Question: What are you thoughts on schools ending the valedictorian honor? How does your school handle recognizing student achievement? I would like your feedback. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

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