None or many valedictorians

Many high schools now name many valedictorians or none at all to avoid hurt feelings, squabbles and lawsuits, writes Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker.

Still, perhaps something is lost if schools eliminate valedictorians. Like spelling bees, the contest for valedictorian offers a pleasing image of a purer meritocracy, in which learning and performing by the rules leave one hardworking person standing. It seems sad to abolish the tradition — and faintly ridiculous to honor too large a group. (If we’re trying to be more sensitive, doesn’t it make ordinary students feel worse when they can’t be one of several dozen valedictorians?) Maybe the answer is to stick to one valedictorian but to make the rules of the contest clear, and to be sure everyone knows them.

My daughter’s high school doesn’t name a valedictorian. Allison was chosen to speak at graduation by a committee that liked the speech she’d submitted. The parents of one of the other finalists demanded that the committee pick multiple speakers, perhaps not realizing their son’s speech was not the second choice. Both were teachers at the school. Most students on the committee — and Allison — had a class from one of the angry parents. The best I can say is that it didn’t lead to a lawsuit.

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    Honoring a valedictorian is a good way to reward the students who excel throughout the four years of school… and when I was in high school I never heard any “mediocre” students complaining about the unfairness of it. Everyone pretty much agreed that the person who got it deserved it except for one instance. That instance, though, simply highlighted the need to change the standards for ranking at the time.
    Two years before I graduated, the valedictorian from our school had a 99 average (give or take .1-.2). The problem? Unlike practically every other 90+ student in our school, she took no honors or AP classes. Her schedule was basic to say the least. The minimum number of electives, a regular Regents curriculum instead of honors, she even stayed out of band/chorus/orchestra. As a result, the school adopted a weighed measurement for valedictorian to prevent this from happening again.

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    It is not too late for Allison to sue for post traumatic stress syndrome.

  3. KimJ721 says:

    My public high school went a step further — they didn’t just eliminate valedictorian, they eliminated all class rank. This meant we were ineligible for certain scholarships at the state colleges and universities that were reserved for people in the top x% of their high school class. Had I not been accepted early decision, I would have applied to a college that wrote on their application that students who are unable to submit a class rank were at a distinct disadvantage in applying.

  4. I’ve heard that some schools have multiple “valedictorians”; awarding the title to anyone who achieves certain rather high academic marks (4.0 with AP courses, or some such).

    This makes the pressure on teachers of seniors to give As to potential valedictorians more intense than it would be if there were only one valedictorian not chosen purely by class rank.

  5. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Here’s a education policy lesson from pistol training:

    Make contests out of training, and there will be people who game the contest, perverting the original intent of measuring proficiency with a pistol in the real world. Eventually, the “gamesmen” (that’s the term the gun culture uses) will take over the contest. There is nothing to do but abandon the contest and start over with a new one.

    If ” valedictorian” has become a matter of gaming the system, schools are right to abandon it.

  6. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    A meritocracy or ranking system is beneficial in a competitive society…there is nothing wrong with rewarding excellence in achievement/effort, as long as it’s done fairly, whether in high school, gun training or playing tiddlywinks. Competition breeds betterment, for those who are motivated. Obviously there is great diversity in talent, aptitude and experience, but just because something isn’t “ideal” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards an ideal. Unfortunately, since the 1960’s, feelings have replaced standards. Students should be judged by their accomplishments, not their feelings or intentions. Accomplishments could also be in the area of effort and improvement–for students who may not be Harvard-bound. Our current crop of wimpy students and their parents (for the most part) need to toughen up and accept the fact that there are winners and losers in the game of life. Teach your child how to be a gracious loser and to be proud of others’ accomplishments, as well as their own. There are value judgements that must be made. Not everyone is equally deserving of merit. There is good, better, best. I hope that this Age of Stupidity passes soon.

  7. SuperSub says:

    Its not just an issue of competition…awarding the valedictorian and saluditorian can be an acknowledgement of not just the top two students, but everyone near the top as well. I was 8th in my class, and neither I or anyone else in the top 15 of the class felt disappointed or as if we had “lost” when the two best had been announced. Instead, we all helped out with the two speeches.

  8. Foobarista says:

    I wonder if there are any charter-schools that do things the Chinese way: not only is class rank celebrated and tracked closely through school, all scores on exams, as well as course grades, are posted on public bulletin boards, along with the students’ names. No “self-esteem” protection whatsoever…

  9. I wonder if there’s a “New York Times” of the charter school world? A publication, online or dead-tree, that is or fancies itself the paper of record to the charter school movement.

  10. edgeworthy says:

    In my secondary schooling in Asia, we were ranked within class and within sections. Students in the A section were all the top. The B section was called semi-honors. You knew what it meant to be in the G section. There were numerical, not letter grades. First honors meant you were number one in class ranking and ranks were assigned by calculating grades to 2 decimal places. That school produced a disproportionate number of the top scholars, leaders, jurists and technocrats of the nation.

    If not for the quality of American universities, and the benefits of applying to college from a local school, I’d have sent my son to my old school.

    Fortunately I found a Catholic school here that he loves that gives out old-fashioned reading lists with only minimal concession to relevance and very strict grading standards. He says everything’s harder, but he also says he’s much happier than at the old, “easy” grade school he used to attend. And he doesn’t complain about boring classes any more. The worst I get are complaints about substitute teachers who are “dumber” than the regular staff.