Jayne: Failing to reward true excellence in school hurts in end

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor



Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

Having never been a valedictorian and having never been able to translate “summa cum laude,” this is all a little foreign to me. Yet despite my confusion, a recent story under the headline, “Spokane to eliminate valedictorian system” caught my eye.

It seems that Spokane Public Schools are doing away with valedictorian honors among graduating high school classes to, as the headline continued, ” ‘dampen’ academic arms race.”

There is nothing new about this; Evergreen and Vancouver Public Schools did the same thing years ago, eliminating the valedictorian and salutatorian designations in favor of honoring the top 10 percent of graduating seniors. In the Evergreen district, spokesperson Gail Spoler said, graduation ceremonies feature a student speaker who is selected through tryouts rather than having the honor tied solely to grades.

Now, before we unleash the typical sky-is-falling reaction to this trend, allow us to acknowledge that there is some logic behind it. As anybody who has been around high-achieving high school students can tell you, the desire to enhance a grade-point average and enhance a class ranking can play a role in avoiding certain classes. The example cited in Spokane mentions students eschewing music courses because they don’t count as honors classes and therefore don’t pack the same GPA-boosting punch.

And, yet, the sky just might be falling. Because doing away with recognition for the singular achievement that is necessary to become a valedictorian is yet another symptom of a culture in which everybody is a winner. In which every participant gets a trophy. In which we are eager to institutionalize mediocrity rather than honor true excellence.

The result is a generation of young students who are unable — or unwilling — to distinguish between average and exceptional ability and work ethic.

And it goes well beyond high school. In 2014, a college professor named Rebecca Schuman wrote a column for Slate.com under the headline: “Confessions of a Grade Inflator.” Schuman admitted to giving out easy grades in her classes, and wrote: “The ugly truth is that to get below a B+ in my class, you have to be a total screw-up. … If I graded truly fairly — as in, a C means actual average work — the ‘customers’ would do their level best to ruin my life.”

Lest we think this is an exception, consider the research of Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, who in 2010 examined grade inflation at 200 four-year American universities. They found that 43 percent of all letter grades at those schools are A’s; in 1960, about 15 percent of grades at U.S. colleges were A’s.

Having gone through the American education system until they handed me a diploma and told me to get lost, and having been in the workforce for 29 years now, I can say unequivocally that 43 percent of people do not perform exceptional work. I’m guessing your experience is similar.

But in an age when for some inexplicable reason people see fit to don bumper stickers saying, “My child is on the honor roll!” too many parents — and, by extension, to many students — regard anything less than an A grade as some sort of personal attack upon their character.

Therein lies the problem. Because regardless of how often we tell students that they are exceptional, at some point they are destined to enter the real world and discover that they just might not be. Employers don’t hand out participation trophies.

Learn to better yourself

In fifth grade, I had a teacher who based much of our work upon competition. We had pages of math problems and had to answer as many as possible in an allotted time; we had classroom spelling bees. We learned that the important thing wasn’t to beat Susie, but to do better than we did the previous week.

And, I figured out years later, we learned that true satisfaction comes from trial and failure and improvement rather than somebody telling us we are exceptional. Even if we never learned the meaning of summa cum laude.