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Top of the High School Class? Not Good Enough!

In more than 30 years of classroom experience, I have known many school valedictorians well. Lots of them played in my band—the top 10 graduates in the high school where I taught typically included four or five musicians. My sister was valedictorian (Class of '82) and listening to her inspiring graduation speech made my cry. You would think that graduating at the top of one's high school class, no matter how large the class or prestigious the school, would be a lifetime achievement.

Evidently, not so much. According to The 74, valedictorians are less likely than disruptors to be millionaires. Well, let's shoot for being a disruptor, then. It's certainly easier than buckling down to four years of studying, testing and competitive academic achievement.  

Years ago, I read a fascinating study about high school valedictorians.  I have searched for the report, but am unable to find it—not surprising, as I read it well before the age of the internet. The article tracked the life trajectories of valedictorians—their colleges and completion rates, their SAT scores, their ultimate careers. There were lots of engineers and accountants, and a handful of doctors and lawyers, but the modal career choice for valedictorians was: educator.

Of course it was.

When you discover you're good at something, early in childhood, you tend to stick with it. Kids who take pride in their top marks, and like being in the 4th grade, often end up being recognized for their strong scholarship eight years later. When school is your happy place, you feel comfortable staying there, rising through the ranks. (This is, pretty much, the story of my life, too.)

Now, however, there seems to be a social movement (or at least a book) suggesting that success in a professional career is not enough, that valedictorians are merely conformists, hard workers, even suck-ups, not the kinds of disruptive movers and shakers who change the world:

Essentially, we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system. Many of the valedictorians admitted to not being the smartest kid in class, just the hardest worker. Others said that it was more an issue of giving teachers what they wanted than actually knowing the material better.

Schools reward being a generalist. There is little recognition of student passion or expertise. The real world, however, does the reverse.  If you want to do well in school and you're passionate about math, you need to stop working on it to make sure you get an A in history too. Yet eventually we almost all go on to careers in which one skill is highly rewarded and other skills aren't that important.

Intellectual students who enjoy learning struggle in high school. They have passions they want to focus on, are more interested in achieving mastery, and find the structure of school stifling. Meanwhile, the valedictorians are intensely pragmatic. They follow the rules and prize A's over skills and deep understanding.

The book Barking Up the Wrong Tree (Eric Barker) is based on some pretty crummy and questionable research. But the bigger problem is its definition of success, a good launching pad for the perennial question: What is school for, anyway?

What Barker and The 74 seem to be saying is:

  • Being at the top of your class, academically, is not very important or special.
  • Truly intellectual students don't stoop to doing the work they're assigned, because their passions are all-consuming.
  • Being a millionaire or entrepreneur is a more rewarding and valuable goal than being a nurse, engineer, pilot or a teacher—careers that depend on nurturing or attention to routine and detail.
  • People generally use one skill or discipline in a successful career, so being "well-rounded" is not important.
  • School is stifling, boring and over-structured, a place of following rules and pleasing teachers.

I don't believe any of these points are true.

Further, they run contrary to the direction in which federal and state policies are pushing public schools—toward increasing focus on "data" (which includes grades), increased conformity in instruction and curriculum, and college for all.  A student who refuses to take required subjects seriously, because they interfere with his "passion," might well find himself booted out of a no-excuses charter. 

As for the potshots at compliance-focused, boring schools—well, schools have never stopped struggling to be places of curiosity and excitement, balanced with order and purpose. Most recently, the accountability movement seems hell-bent on squashing curiosity and excitement, and making clear that order and achievement data come first.

Let's tip our hats to school valedictorians everywhere this June. You worked hard, kids, and you did well. We're proud of you and the places you'll go.

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