Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Recognizing the Valedictorian in All

Yesterday I attended the Bergen County Valedictorian breakfast where New Milford High School's top student was honored.  It was a great event and I am so proud of the accomplishments that are clearly apparent amongst all of the top students in my area.  The valedictorians and salutatorians for that matter are recognized for their achievement of academic greatness at events like this and commencement ceremonies across the country.  Quite frankly I am in awe of their commitment to learning.

While I was at the breakfast I began to think about all of the other students at my school and their respective achievements.  Shouldn't they all be recognized and treated like valedictorians?  I am not taking anything away from the incredible accomplishments of students that finish overall in their class, but the overwhelming desire to inspire all students to mature into life-long learners calls out to me. 

There is consistent talk around education circles about the relevance of grades as a reinforcer or indicator of academic excellence.  I'll be the first one to admit that this is the only criteria used to determine our top 10 students each year, all of whom are recognized at our yearly senior awards dinner.  Recognizing the valedictorian in all students requires a shift from traditional awards ceremonies and acknowledgment acts.  So what does this vision entail?  Here are my thoughts on other ways to acknowledge great achievements of students to make all of them feel worthy and appreciated for their dedication to learning:

1. Developing a philosophy that supports a school culture where every student is made to feel special. 
2. Utilizing more positive reinforcement.  This is probably the easiest strategy to employ.  It is not that hard or much to ask of educators to tell students consistently that they are doing a great job. 
3. Developing alternative recognition programs that acknowledge all students as they exhibit growth, determination, engagement, effort, and a focus towards learning.  After all, aren't these significant attributes that lead to a love for learning?  Learning and achievement are always tied together.  There must be a stronger emphasis on behalf of schools to acknowledge those students that are learning, but not necessarily achieving at the highest levels (as determined by grading systems). 
4. Involvement, not just success, in non-curricular initiatives such as community service, athletics, the arts, and other extra-curricular activities. 
5. Inviting the Administration, Central Office, BOE members, parents, as well as other teachers and students to be a part of these new recognition programs.  By doing so the students will feel that their work and commitment in and out of school has value.
6. New systems, in conjunction with current grading schemes, that provide all students with meaningful feedback and instill a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

I understand that the list above is no magic bullet by any means.  However, I feel that the field of education must design innovative ways to acknowledge all students in ways that make them feel as important as valedictorians.  The process begins with a commitment to help all students see that their respective successes are just as important as their peers.  This is not an easy task bestowed upon us, and I look forward to hearing about your ideas.


  1. I can say that I both agree and disagree. I agree that all students should feel special and their acheivements and growth should be recognized. However, using a sports analogy, should everyone get a trophy for just showing up? I hate to misquote (and even quote at all) "Meet the Fockers" but it reminds me of the wall of mediocraty that Ben Stiller's parents had in their house displaying his 5th or 10th place ribbons.
    On the one hand, as a teacher and parent, we should look at where each child has come from and recognize, value, note and applaud their achievements. They should be compared only to themselves. On the other, we should not devalue the acheivements of our valedictorians and first honor students by giving everyone honor roll (my son's school has distinguished honors, first honors, second honors, etc.).

  2. Thanks for your comments Debra. I agree that we cannot devalue, nor should we, the accomplishments of exemplary students. They should, and always will, be recognized. My point is that more has to be done to recognize those students that often get "lost". Thanks again for your thoughts. They are greatly appreciated.

  3. Eric,

    I agree whole-heartedly with your concept. The valedictorian, salutatorian, etc. should be commended and recognized for their tremendous achievements over four years. But, I am also bothered by a system that only recognizes grades. In regards to these top students, I feel strongly that they would thrive and be recognized in any system due to their commitment and work ethic.

    As you know, high schools are filled with students who we could spotlight at the end of four years to show off their accomplishments. I am optimistic that with so many tools available to us no, we will find more creative ways to show off more of these students publicly and let them know how proud we are of them and what they have accomplished over four years.

  4. I applaude you for beginning to open the doorways to such a school culture.

    I advocate for the elimination of grades. You can have a room full of winners without having a "wall of mediocrity." I suggest Ron Berger's work in "An Ethic of Excellence."

    By eliminating grades and tracking you can cultivate the culture you seem to desire. And I don't support more positive reinforcement. As Daniel Pink's "Drive" and numerous studies have shown that it is best to create the space for people to follow their passions, rather than teaching them to chase carrots. I recommend Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards."

    Lastly, I refer you to Monika Hardy's (@monk51295) work if you are not familiar with it. She is developing in collaboration with students, teachers, and college profs, "build your own school" models, where students utilize technology to access the vast knowledge base that exists and develop a PLN per their passion. Included in the PLN is an expert individual tutor who hails from the field the student has interest in. Learning becomes immediately relevant, students work on local and community problems, and are deeply engaged because it is their interest, their passion. I think this approach might be right up your alley! (

    Again, I am encouraged by the direction of your thinking, but as Monika says we must "re-define school." And it seems you still hold onto many definitions of school that are outdated.

    While the valedictorian system works for one person, we need systems that help everyone to be their best and don't make comparisons based on grades, which aren't even a true telling of someone's intellectual capability. We need a new honor code which values skills and attributes that contribute to a just, sustainable, and peaceful world. Consider David Orr's words:

    “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”

    Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to present a different point of view.

    With hope,

  5. I think this is a discussion that needs to be started. This is a part of the culture that must be changed if education is to move in the direction of promoting learning and not just getting grades.
    I always question if one student can get 95 % as a grade by only exerting 80% of his ability and another student gives 100% of all he is capable of but can only attain an 85% grade, who deserves the higher grade? We must remember that genetics often play a role in a student's education.
    Unfortunately, grades have become bragging rights for some people. That should not be what education is about or what we should recognize as the sign of an accomplished student. It is however what the culture accepts as the standard for excellence. I am not saying that the valedictorians and salutatorians should not be recognized. They have made a great accomplishment. It is what the culture recognizes and proclaims as a pinnacle of success in education. My question is how much can education claim in regard to the genetic make up of these kids? Others with greater physical, mental, or emotional challenges may be working harder but achieving less. Should they not also be recognized for their accomplishments? We are not all challenged equally, but we are graded and judged as if we are.
    I do not have the answers to a better way. I only question and reflect on how we are doing it now.Until someone takes the lead and questions what is to replace it with what should be, everything will stay the same. Thanks for stepping up.

  6. Eric,

    In my opinion, the greatest gift we receive from education is the training to become lifelong learners. Regardless of what profession students choose, and regardless of what they learn in school, without the ability to continuously learn, they will not reach their full potential.

    I have to say I agree with the first comment about rewarding mediocrity, but I'm not sure that's how you meant it. I absolutely agree with your statement about recognizing those that get 'lost.' I was recently faced with choosing the recipient of an award for the graduating class of my graduate program, and chose the non-obvious choice, which may have raised some eyebrows, but I think there was a much more deserving recipient than the most obvious choice.

    I also agree with Tom that this discussion should be opened and that we should be recognizing students for more than just grades but rather a more 'whole' vision of success. Thanks for sharing as always.

  7. Eric,

    Great post. It definitely makes all of us reflect on current grading practices. I don't have the answers,by any means, but in all facets of life we recognize individual accomplishments. If it is not grades, how do we measure student learning and separate those whom have shown greater growth or better skills? I have some ideas, but I think some people are just better in certain things, so it can't be on effort because if an individual is born with better skill set they won't need to give as much effort. Tom says there should be a "whole" vision...what would we include in that vision?

  8. This is an excellent post! It strikes hard at some of our deeply rooted myths of a good education system.

    Until we recognize all students for their potential and cease artificially inducing students with carrots and sticks, terms like life-long learner and inclusive classrooms will go on being shallow punch lines to a joke that would be funny if it weren't so damn sad.

    I worked hard with a committe of teachers to abolish our Awards Ceremony 3 years ago. We replaced it with a recognition breakfast that featured everyone.

    I have a post on this coming out tomorrow:

    Thanks for sharing this, Eric!