Don’t Reward Mediocrity

Posted on May 18, 2011

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It only perpetuates mediocrity.  In fact, it encourages stupidity.

But, that’s exactly what our school is doing.

When I was in high school, we had one honor roll.  You either had straight As, or you didn’t.

There were also only two “honors” given out at graduation: Valedictorian and Salutatorian.

These were actual honors awarded to the students who worked the hardest and/or were the smartest.

During graduation, the top 10% of the class was also honored by graduating first.  Finally, honor society members were awarded cords to wear with their graduation gown to signify their participation and excellence.

Then, at the last school I worked there were several honors given.  The school was over 150 years old and they had serious tradition.  They were prone to pomp and circumstance.  Yet, it was classy and done well.

Again, the top 10% were honored by graduating first.  However, the final group of the top 10% were reserved for award winners.  There were about a dozen or so awards given during this time for academic excellence and recognition in certain areas of expertise.  There were actual scholarships awarded with each award, so these were winners were kept secret until graduation time.

It so happened that many times, the valedictorian and/or salutatorian were given the most honors and awards because, well, they were generally the hardest working and the brightest of the bunch.

I remember one year, the last student called happened to be the valedictorian (who is now off at Oxford studying biomedical engineering).  There were about six awards and scholarships announced along with his name.  Afterwards, people gave him a standing ovation for his effort and achievement.

Then, he gave a speech about humility and acceptance and living a virtuous path.  He had asked me to look it over because I was his English teacher, and I remember listening to see if he would nail the speech.  He did.

Everyone applauded him again.  No one cried foul.

Here was a kid who was headed off to a top notch school, who had already won thousands upon thousands of dollars in college scholarships, and was just awarded thousands more by the school’s endowment, and given recognition upon recognition.  Yet, no one thought he should share.  No one thought he should have been passed over and had the money given to someone more in need.

This wasn’t about sharing the wealth (although his speech touched on that idea).  This was about recognizing effort and talent.

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Today, I’m reminded of this event, on top of many other graduations from my tenure at that school, because we are deciding who should receive the awards for top students per department.

My current school believes in rewarding students for just about everything imaginable.

We not only have awards given at graduation, we also have awards given out for Awards Convocation, and also an Honor Roll Assembly.

The Honor Roll Assembly probably provides the biggest sense of confusion for me.  We award Principal’s, First, and Second honors.  That’s right…three different honor rolls.  That means that more than 60% of the school received “Honor Roll” status this year.

The names of these students (approx 800 or so) are read during this insane show of mediocrity that occurs each year in the gym.  We pile the entire school into the gym (well over fire code safety) and announce all the kids by name, by grade, by honor, to be recognized for their excellence.  Then, we have a speech given by some outside guest.

The outside guest has included such notables as the founder of a major pizza chain, a major business CEO, and a former NFL player.  They generally give a speech about success and determination and being the best you can be, and then give a hurrah to the honor roll kids.

This 90 minute ceremony seems to do one thing only: incite the masses to stupidity.  Probably a favorite past-time of the kids is to try and clap at the most inappropriate moments during the speech.  It’s classy.

We also have the Awards Convocation: a night where parents come to watch their students receive awards for all manner of “accomplishments.”

For example, if you have the highest grade in English Skills I class (remedial English for students who can barely write sentences), you are given a plaque.  if you are the highest achieving student in AP English, then you receive the same exact plaque.  There are twelve different English classes in our school.  That means that twelve students will be rewarded for having the highest grade in their class level.  The same goes for each department: Business, Art, Health, Social Science, Languages, Science, Religion, Math, and English.  That’s ten departments, with about an average of 10 different courses, for a whopping 100 potential awards.

Then, the Guidance department gives out about a dozen awards.  Then, each club and honor society gives out an award.  We have well over thirty clubs and honor societies.  Then, the library gives out an award for the top “reader” of each academic class.  Then, there are the random honors and awards given to athletes, scholars, and other obscure organizations.

All in all, the night lasts about 90 minutes and hands out over 200 awards.

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When I was a five years old, I played on a city soccer team.  That year, each member on the team was given a trophy for “sportsmanship.”  We all got up and stood in front of the rest of the league teams and received the award.

I felt ridiculous.  I knew, even at five, that this was a trophy given out for the team that basically “participated” in the sport.  I felt cheap and sheepishly slunk off to my seat while the rest of the teams were awarded other trophies.

At five, I knew the difference between a meaningful award and a cheap award.

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Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe I don’t believe in praising mediocrity.  Maybe I’m too demanding.

Either way, watching a student get rewarded for B- work in a remedial class just because nobody else was smart enough to earn a solid B doesn’t sit well with me.

It’s like that damn participation award we give out to every kid who puts on over-sized shin guards and attempts to kick a soccer ball.  Rewarding a child for doing something that millions of children around the world do in empty dirt lots with balls made of plastic garbage and no one around to watch really does not sit well with me.

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Which brings me to my original reason why I wrote this.  The valedictorian and salutatorian are disqualified from winning any of the department awards.  The department awards are given out (on top of the all the other department awards given out on Awards Convocation night) at graduation to the senior who has earned the highest grades for all four years within that particularly field.  That’s right, it is given out to the person who has the highest level of achievement.

However, if the top two students are disqualified from receiving these awards, then in reality, the third best student is given the award for being the person with the highest level of achievement.

That would be equivalent to telling Usain Bolt that he is allowed to compete in the 200 and the 4 x 100 relay, but since he already won the gold in the 100, he won’t be allowed to win any award in the other two events.  Sure, you can break the world record and even technically win the race, but we’re giving the gold medal to someone else because, well…we want to spread around the wealth.

I’ve argued my point endlessly and people nod in agreement, but no one says anything to the V.P. except me.  The original idea of the department award was to reward the highest achieving student.  Several years ago, the criteria was changed to add the statement that the valedictorian and salutatorian were not eligible to win those awards.  It was written by the V.P. without any other input from faculty and administration.  You see, the entire honors and awards thing  is her pet project.

She sees this like some party she’s throwing.  She likes to plan parties and so she likes to plan these award things.  The bigger the affair, the better.

For me, the bigger; the cheaper.

It cheapens what we do in the class, it cheapens what the hard-working students do, and it cheapens the value of the entire school’s reputation.

Maybe I am just a bit jaded, but the longer we allow this attitude to pervade our educational theory, the worse our education will become.

Obama’s quest for change in education isn’t going to help if our educators keep rewarding every child for doing mediocre work…

Oh, that’s another blog post I’m working on.  Yeah, I have several thoughts running through my mind lately.

So what say you?

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Posted in: Teaching