10 Valedictorians? REALLY?

I live in your typical midwestern small town and like all small towns we have a local newspaper that NEVER carries national or state news.  In fact, you’re more likely to find recipes, Rotary club activities, kids participating in some afterschool event sponsored by the public library, church news, athletic events, and your neighborhood garden club photo.  This is the kind of newspaper that is truly full of only good news!

These kinds of newspapers are Americana at its best.  It is there that we also find photo’s of the valedictorian and salutatorian of all the local schools.  The number 1 and number 2’s of their respective classes all of whom boast a 4.0 or better depending on the grading scale.  All of them are pictured wearing their caps and gowns with cords signifying a multitude of accomplishments. My local hometown paper publishes every school’s valedictorian and for salutatorians three counties.

This normally goes unnoticed by me, I simply look to see if I know the names of the kids whose families I might know — but normally it is just a perusal of those best and brightest from each school. However, this year it was different.  Full and half-pages had to be dedicated to this ritual because of the number of valedictorian listed.  One school district had 10 valedictorian with 7 salutatorians! Very few districts had a true number 1 and number 2 and for that I am happy — It is impressive to see so many kids “ACE” all their classes….


As I looked at all those smiling faces — I know that in some cases — the drive to become number “1” overshadows learning; it often makes kids uber competitive and at odds with one another.  I have witnessed kids get snippy and downright nasty with one another over grades, schedules or classes they plan on taking.  They obsess over the schedules, who is taking what, plot out possible scenario’s and often attempt to outmaneuver their closest rival to better their rank.  What is even worse is the classes they refuse to take or the teachers they avoid at all cost.  Kids who often have those pictures in the paper as the Valedictorian are often the ones that played the game the best … not necessarily the brightest or the smartest — but savvy enough to game the system.

They game the system by taking a study hall instead of that AP physics course with Mr. So and So who is demanding and tough so they can raise their GPA!  HUH?  Yes — do the math — kids who are on a mission to be Valedictorian have not only figured out how to mathematically raise their GPA without taking courses — but they also know who to take — when to take it — and the only thing that really matters to them is the GRADE — not the content or the learning.  This to me is the exact opposite message we should send to kids who really need to be challenged and pushed academically to insure future success.  How often have we heard the stories about those Valedictorian college drop outs?   The reason this happens is some of those kinds of students have never been challenged — really don’t know how to study — and if something is hard they really never acquired the skills to overcome those obstacles.

Some of the most successful college students — the ones that graduate on time — are often those middle of the road students.  They worked hard, took the tough classes, did not always get the “A” but managed to work through those classes.  Those are the students who excel when they reach the next level — they have perseverance, skills to overcome obstacles, stick to it ness, drive etc….

The whole notion of ranking and sorting runs counter to truly making schools a place of intellectual development.  By focusing on grades and rank we send a mixed message to kids — on the one hand we say we want to develop them intellectually to become life-long learners while on the other hand we are ranking and sorting them like a baseball scorecard.  We simply send the wrong message.  I want kids to love learning for learning sake — not for a grade — but because it piqued their interest and they valued the knowledge gained.

I am willing to bet if I asked those students pictured in the newspaper what the word “valedictorian” means they would look at me with blank stares or might blurt out erroneously it means number “1.”

Valedictorian means the action of saying farewell.  It is the student  commencement speaker — the one that addresses the class one last time.  Most schools have fortunately ditched the traditional commencement speaker — you know the ones that drone on and on about nothing and no one can remember them to this day — and they have limited the student speakers.  Instead many schools have made graduation more of a showcase of the talent of the students and a reflection of the entire high school experience with photo’s of each graduate often juxtaposed to a baby photo and highlights of the last four years. Commencement is about all the students not the one that gets to say farewell.

I really think it’s time to ditch the whole idea of Valedictorian and Salutatorian and move more to the college format using Magna Cum Laude, Summa Cum Laude, Cum Laude —  Using this system means no one is competing to be number “1” everyone has a chance to be honored for the hard work and commitment they made to their classes and schools can focus kids on learning — developing them intellectually and giving them the opportunity to be lifelong learners.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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