Why I don’t want my daughter to be valedictorian

This time of year valedictorians take center stage and often make boring speeches. More and more schools are doing away with the honor like this recent Indiana school.

“Next year, Noblesville will become the latest district in Hamilton County to ditch the traditional ranking system in an attempt to refocus high-performing students on bettering themselves, not competing with their peers.”

Some have pushed back that eliminating this honor has more to do with pacifying a participation trophy culture than changing a defunct system, but principal Jeff Bryant, points out that the current GPA system guides students to make choices not with their best interest, but rather with the intent of  gaming the system.

“This could cause some students to prioritize weighted classes to boost their GPA, perhaps over art or band, Bryant said. Other students may choose a class that seems easier over one they are interested in to try to boost their GPA.

“We want them to choose what courses to take based on their interest level and what is going to best prepare them for college,” Bryant said.”

It is also worth remembering that standardized test scores are not used to select these individuals. No state test, ACT, or SAT. Maybe it is a coincidence schools are removing this honor as we over-value standardized test scores, maybe not.

Interestingly a discourse around valedictorians has been growing, recent research around valedictorians by Karen Arnold, has been cited in a book “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong” by Eric Barker. At the heart, both are pondering why does the top-level of success in school not equate to the top level of success outside. (Parallel with the question around why do the most successful entrepreneurs and business people seem to not have an MBA. In fact it might be better to have an engineering degree if you plan to go in business.)

Arnold concedes that valedictorians are not risk takers, but are successful in mainstream society.

““They get school,” Arnold said. “While they’re not entrepreneurs or mold-breakers, valedictorians continue on to succeed in mainstream institutions.”

In contrast, she also discovered that the gender gap affected valedictorians as they progressed into their careers. For men and women who performed equally well in college, women left college with lowered intellectual self-esteem and achieved a lower level of success in the workplace than men.”

Please let that last part haunt you. If you have a daughter, I hope you lose sleep over this. The reason these women got to the position of valedictorian was in part because of their compliance to the school system. That was their reward and they fully expect it to work that way outside of school culture. It does not. The overly compliant disposition, being too agreeable, does not prepare them to go out and take on an unfair system. To be a leader, especially a female one, they do not need to be taught how to jump in line, but rather how to make the line.

Barker right now is being quoted even more than Arnold as he discusses his interpretation of the findings in connection with his book. (From Time. From CNBC. From Business Insider.) His point is that valedictorians are only somewhat successful and are not the ones who change things.

” “But how many of these number-one high-school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world?” Eric Barker says in his new book, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree,” which cites the research. “The answer seems to be clear: zero.”

Barker’s point is that while top students generally become successful, few of them achieve the kind of wild success most of us dream of.

Instead, kids who struggle with or don’t particularly enjoy formal education are more likely to get there. In fact, a study of 700 millionaires found that their average GPA was just 2.9.”

Both Arnold and Barker agree that school rewards compliancy and that there are negative side effects.

“Karen Arnold, the Boston University researcher, told Barker: “Essentially, we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.””

Barker identifies that valedictorians not having the success one would predict is that schools overly reward compliance and generalization. The rub being that our system in society reward more highly those who look to add to the system as opposed to following status quo. Also, we value passion and expertise. (Not everybody needs an advanced understanding of geometry to be really good at what they do. Being too generalized can take away from the opportunity of being focused or from learning how to be.)

The big take away, is that there are ways school are not preparing students for current opportunities.

“When he visited Business Insider’s New York office in May, Barker explained: “In school, rules are very clear. In life, rules are not so clear. So a certain amount of not playing by the rules is advantageous once you get out of a closed system like education.””

All of this seems insightful in that it supports the ideas 1) that schools value compliance over learning. 2)The system still lacks equity of gender and class. (Think not only about the representation of valedictorians, but also who is the top 10% of students based off GPA. You already know you will see a lot of females and less of lower-socioeconomic students, you maybe didn’t ask why.)

Getting rid of the valedictorian position is only treating a symptom. To get to a real cure we need to keep asking, “What is school for?”

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Using what I know about learning to help others.

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