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Perspective

The trouble with high school valedictorian awards

A high school valedictorian’s mom on why it’s time to end class rankings.

John Jay Cabuay

As my daughter gave her valedictory address at Westwood High School 10 years ago in June, exhorting her classmates to go forth and find their passions, the parents who turned to congratulate me saw tears in my eyes. Although it was a proud moment, these were not tears of pride. I was jealous of the parents of the carefree students accepting their awards for community service and school spirit.

The tradition of anointing the student with the highest class rank as valedictorian has been controversial over the last two decades, with parents across the country suing high schools over who gets the award and, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, as many as half of all school districts electing to forgo handing out the honor altogether.

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When educators talk about why their high schools have given up the award, they note the negative message it sends to the kids who lose by a fraction of a point . . . or the kids who are never in the competition. I am here to argue that it’s not even necessarily good for the valedictorian.

Karen Arnold, an associate professor of higher education at Boston College and one of the country’s only researchers of valedictorians, says that the 82 Illinois valedictorians she followed for nearly 15 years reported well-balanced high school careers. Only two had lasting regrets: one about a system that encouraged students to pay attention to all subjects equally, and another about feeling she’d been “put in a giant machine and spit out the other side.”

But Arnold’s valedictorians graduated in 1981 — not in the current ramped-up high school climate. Today, towns like Lexington, with some of the state’s highest achieving students, feel compelled to host official “stress reduction” days, and others including Newton and Needham, which have suffered teen suicides, are strategizing about how to reduce the pressure.

Arnold, who doesn’t see harm in the award, notes that competitive pressures exist without the top honor. “Schools don’t hesitate to reward other achievements. No one talks about getting rid of the position of quarterback on the football team because not everyone can be quarterback.”

At Lexington High School, which dispensed with class rank and the valedictorian award decades ago, Principal Laura Lasa responds that while students can choose whether to compete in football, there’s no choice about academics. She agrees that some school districts may need the incentive of a valedictorian award to get students to work hard but says the more immediate need in Lexington is to de-escalate “the pressure of perfection.”

By the time my daughter Lannie was 12, I was buying her books about the dangers of perfectionism. By 14, she was working herself into what would become annual bouts of exhaustion that mimicked mono. Two months after she made her valedictorian speech, she was hospitalized for an eating disorder.

As parents, we can’t help wanting our children to succeed — whether it’s academics or sports or music. When it became clear to my husband and me that Lannie was a contender to be valedictorian, we wanted her to reach her goal, but parents need to be careful what they wish for. Being best is not always best.

Not every valedictorian is a perfectionist. But in a contest that requires a relentless focus to excel in all subjects equally, doesn’t it reinforce and reward that thinking? According to Jason Moser, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, perfectionism, while not classified as a disease, has been linked to poor physical health and to mental health problems like eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Even at its most benign, perfectionism is known to squelch creativity and risk-taking. Ten years after they graduated, Arnold’s valedictorians were successful in life but not necessarily outstanding anymore. Valedictorians do extremely well within highly structured systems, she says, but they do not break molds or flourish as entrepreneurs or in the creative arts.

Ten years after being named valedictorian, Lannie fits Moser’s description — healthy, happy, and in her second year of medical school, but she has a jaded view of the award. Yes, she has gotten into top schools, but on the basis of good grades, not because she “beat” others by fractions of grade points. Nearly every college she toured prided itself on how many valedictorians it had rejected.

Lannie now mostly sees her award as evidence of an unhealthy childhood obsession. At the time, she says, she was “focused on external markers of success.” She calls those meaningless, just a way to get hard-working kids to work harder. And she asks, “Do we really need that today?”

Jan Brogan is a Globe correspondent. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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