Touchy-Feely School Administrators Are Still Trying to Eliminate Valedictorians. Don’t Let Them

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about how more school districts are doing away with the distinction of valedictorian and salutatorian, focusing specifically on the Wake County school district in North Carolina that recently made the switch. This isn’t a new trend. It’s been done and done and done and done (by another Dent). And nearly every piece on the matter shows two things:

  1. School administrators at schools who quit naming valedictorian and salutatorian think the change will help prevent “unhealthy competition.”
  2. High-achieving students at these schools think their administrators are bonkers.

I tend to agree with the students in this case.

Cards on the table, I was salutatorian of my graduating class, and involved in a close race for number one with a classmate. We both took a truly absurd number of advanced placement and honors courses our junior and senior years in an attempt to beat each other. When we finished taking all the AP classes our school had to offer we went outside the course listing, and started taking online and independent study AP courses. The competition was good natured, and while both of us wanted to win neither harbored any negative feelings toward the other. But even if we did, who cares? We learned a lot from all the classes we took, we both scored well on the SAT and ACT, and we got into quality universities. Only one of us won the top spot, but we both reaped the rewards of our rivalry.

Despite being the movement du jour, removing competition from academics is pure inanity. College is hard, and being a driven student in high school helps prepare you for the coming challenges. Removing the element of competition from high school is supposed to make school stress free, but, as any college student, graduate student, PhD student, or medical school student will attest, school only becomes more stressful the more advanced it becomes. High school is supposed to prepare students for the rigors of higher education, something a stress-free environment can never actually do. There will always be big projects, difficult tests, and important grades to pursue. It’s better to teach students how to handle that stress early on rather than just throwing them into the midst of it unprepared.

One Wake County school spokesperson quoted in the WSJ piece had an even sillier argument against valedictorianship, saying that getting rid of it was necessary because students were taking classes based on how it would affect their GPA rather than their interest in the subject. This reasoning is laughable. High schoolers should take classes outside their interests. After all, it’s unlikely they know what they want to study yet. Eighty percent of college students change their major according to some studies, so how can we reasonably believe high schoolers’ interests will dictate their lives? By studying new subjects, students learn more about the world around them, and discover new areas of potential interest.

The decision to stop awarding valedictorian and salutatorian was, like many other school decisions, not made with the smartest students in mind. So much of school is focused on the average to below average students that it can be tedious for intelligent kids. It’s dull sitting in a class where you already know the material, hearing a topic you already understand explained to your classmates, day in and day out. Many highly intelligent students simply give up in the classroom because they don’t find it interesting. So give them something to work for. You’re a lot less likely to stop putting forth effort in class if you’re working towards an objective. Smart, ambitious kids around the country want to be valedictorian. Let’s let them try.

Image: Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his wife Deborah speak with Saint Mary’s High School Class of 2010 Valedictorian prior to commencement exercises in Annapolis, Md. on May 27, 2010. – By Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Flickr: 100527-N-0696M-127) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • SamHamilton

    I don’t think there anything wrong with eliminating these awards, but it seems like a lot of the rationales behind the changes are silly.

  • Grandma

    Sure. Achieve excellence with participation awards for everyone!

  • Alicia Westberry

    Arguments for and against awarding valedictorian status can be made. This post, and “everybody gets a trophy”, make the case that valedictorian status should stay. On the other hand, if the curriculum offered is lousy, being the best the school can churn out might not mean that much.