Thirty Valedictorians? Seriously?

Posted on June 28, 2010

Recently, I wrote here about a report in the New York Times on the latest egalitarian trend in schools across America: breaking up best friends. Students, it seems, are no longer allowed to develop any special relationships, but instead are expected to be friends with everybody. Now, on its front page this Sunday, the Times reports on yet another frightening egalitarian trend in American education: everybody gets to be a valedictorian.

Well, not everybody. Stratford High School in Houston, Texas, only had 30, about 6.5 percent of the graduating class. In Colorado, eight high schools in the St. Vrain Valley district crowned 94 valedictorians, an average of nearly 12 per school. Jericho High School on Long Island was downright exclusive, naming just seven valedictorians (no one gave a valedictory address; the seven performed a skit together in which speaking time was evenly divided so no one would be perceived as the star). The dean of admission at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons, told the Times he had heard of schools with more than 100 valedictorians.

The title of valedictorian was once reserved for the student with the highest grade point average, who is given the honor of delivering an address as commencement (the term in Latin means farewell sayer). No longer. The Times reports that principals say recognizing multiple valedictorians reduces pressure and competition among students, and is a more equitable way to honor achievement, particularly when No. 1 and No. 3 may be separated by only the smallest fraction of a grade.

Well, No. 1 and No. 3 are often separated by only a fraction of a second at the Olympic Games (or, for that matter, high school track meets), but not everyone gets a gold medal. Recognizing someone is coming in first does not mean you do not recognize the achievement of those who did not come close behind (that’s why we have silver and bronze medals in sports, and different levels of honors in schools). But when everyone can jointly claim first place, the honor becomes meaningless.

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