A high school with 41 valedictorians?

Saturday, June 17, 2006
Althouse:


If there were no weighted grades, you'd know that if you had a 4.0, you would be valedictorian (but you'd still share it with everyone else who got a 4.0). Weighted grades create an amorphous system. You don't know how much you need to come in first. Pursuing the actual number one spot in a weighted GPA system has to cause a lot of stress and uncertainty, but it seems like a good idea to keep the easy-A strategy from working too well.


Just to be a bit of a devil's advocate, so what if there are 41 valedictorians? In my own high school, I watched the competition of valedictorian versus salutatorian between one of my best friends, and a girl I was dating off and on, come down to the last hundredth of a point --- and be resolved when the girl secretly enrolled in a summer course in tennis. (Secretly, because the other could have enrolled in something with a higher weighting at the last second, had the plan been revealed.) The A on a summer rec course made the difference --- both of them had had 4.0 since roughly first grade.

(Now, 30 years later, the salutitorian has had a respectable, undistinguished career and a couple of kids; the valedictorian made it to doctoral comps, didn't pass comps, and had a breakdown. The extra 0.01 points did lots of good.)

Eliminating grade inflation is a fine idea, especially (I sometimes teach undergrads, believe me when I say especially) when I see what the education system is teaching. But is competetive placement the goal? Or would we be better off to be trying to make sure that every student is mastering every topic first?

22 comments:

Syl said...

Stupid me, but I thought an education gave you book larning and few life lessons at the same time.

Like competition is good, some people are more competitive than others, there are losers as well as winners, if at first you don't succeed try try again but don't make a jack*ss out of yourself doing so, accept kudos and defeats with graciousness and humor.

But then, I went to school in a different century.

terrye said...

I saw Michael Landen on an interview years ago and he said that he was something like 367 in a class of 368. But he was not stupid obviously. He was competitive too, but not academic.

And then there are people like Ward Churchill....

Buddy Larsen said...

Ah, yes, the master of the "if-then" ("If I am right, then all Americans are most certainly, indubitably, without a doubt, shout-it-from-the-rooftops, little Eichmanns!").

Barry Dauphin said...

Maybe it's better to have 41 people competing to be valedictorian than competing to see who can smoke the most crack. Although there is something Alice in Wonderland about it (all have won and all must have prizes-but at least Alice in Wonderland might have been about something repsectable, like mushrooms).

Buddy Larsen said...

Well, after several decades of criticizing the brainy as having an "unfair advantage", the new tack is just to let everyone be the brainy.

Rick Ballard said...

"Or would we be better off to be trying to make sure that every student is mastering every topic first?"

Could we shoot for simple competencey in readin', writin' and 'rithmetic first? Ad astra per aspera is great and all but the NEA still exists and the stars seem further away than they were in the '60's.

Buddy Larsen said...

ABC's deliverer from Hell, John Stossel, has been criticizing the gov't k-12 edu monopoly, and has stimulated the NYC teacher's union to take to the streets agin him, of late. Though they sure don't look it (from the tape shown on the Oreilly Show recently), this group must be especially competent, since--according to Stossel--only 2 of some 75,000 were fired for incompetency last year. Wonder how the kids manage to test so abysmally?

The whole system has apparently become a vast, unconscious (in most cases), stealth attack on the American Dream.

David Thomson said...

A buddy of mine actually had a student whose mother sued the high school for not letting her daughter into the honors program. The young lady was barely a decent student. However, there were concerns about the damage to her self esteem.

It was estimated that the principal spent a full twenty per cent of his working hours responding to law suits. I believe the school spent around $60,000 annually on legal fees alone.

terrye said...

david:

At least no one tried to kill anyone like that cheerleader mom.

Seneca the Younger said...

Syl, are you honestly trying to argue that learning to lose gracefully --- which my old girlfriend didn't do well at, as you might note, even if she did eke out that one-one-hundredth of a point --- is more important that teaching the class topics?

Seneca the Younger said...

Maybe it's better to have 41 people competing to be valedictorian than competing to see who can smoke the most crack.

Why does it have to be a competition at all? Rick asks for us to "shot for simple competency" and, having had to deal with Duke freshmen -- freshpersons, frosh, whatever the hell the term is nowadays --- who didn't know about noun and verb agreeing in number, I could sign on for that.

But that's not a gradient. I don't want to know that some of the grads can spot disgreement between noun and verb more often, I want them all to learn to write a competent sentence! What in the name of Pallas Athena do we gain from sniggling over statistical noise?

Why not, say, have two grades: "pass" and "hasn't passed yet"? "Pass" means "exhibits competence in this topic," and "hasn't passed" is what you have in everything else, from Buddhist Studies to basketweaving, if you haven't demonstrated competence yet.

I know it's not the way we were brought up. But ... well, we gave up on periodic beatings, and we're increasingly becoming convinced that sleep deprivation isn't an essential part of learning to be an MD.

Atlantin said...

re:"I know it's not the way we were brought up. But ... well, we gave up on periodic beatings, and we're increasingly becoming convinced that sleep deprivation isn't an essential part of learning to be an MD."

My sister, a MD, who was a faculty member of a medical school eventually reaching Associate Professor status before taking a job ( with more perks and $s ) with an insurance company, says that the mean IQ of MDs is dropping year by year and the watering down of internships and residencies ( more sleep as you say ) results in dumber docs--there is no free lunch in producing competent MDs.

Atlantin

Barry Dauphin said...

Why not, say, have two grades: "pass" and "hasn't passed yet"? "Pass" means "exhibits competence in this topic," and "hasn't passed" is what you have in everything else, from Buddhist Studies to basketweaving, if you haven't demonstrated competence yet.

We could do that, but I'm not sure it will solve the problem or that it won't create new problems equally as nettlesome. There is still a range of differences among the "passed" that someone will be interested in measuring for lots of reasons (sure there is some statistical noise but not only statisitcal noise). It will end up getting measured in other ways (like a flock of new standarized tests).

There will be different kinds of pressures to "pass" the students, maybe less intense in many cases or maybe more. Also I'm not sure that the disadvantages of such competition outweigh the advantages of it. "Pass" risks risks encouraging a floor mentality instead of an spirational one.

Of course, this assumes fairly large classes in traditional colleges. In more individual kinds of teaching situations, one is generally more concerned with mastery, competence, progress, etc. Perhaps the more substantive change would be not a revised grading system but a new model(s) for higher education period.

Atlantin said...

re: "A high school with 41 valedictorians?"

My son graduated from high school in 1997. He was not a Valedictorian ( 5 in number ) or a Salutatorian ( 7 in number ) but did get into the National Honor Society for some strange reason as he was more into Bicycle Road Racing then studying. His SATs were rather high and he got into a prestigious University along with the #1 Valedictorian. Two of our neighbors had daughters who were two year's older than my son and both graduated from the same high school as Valedictorians but neither got into the University my son and the #1 Valedictorian got into. One went to North Western ( Her father told me she is now married. ) and the other to Rice and she is now a MD and unmarried. Her brother who is four years younger than my son was #1 Valedictorian his year and got into Brown where he started in Engineering but ended up graduating this Spring in Business.

During my son's first year at the "prestigious" University, the #1 Valedictorian was tutored by my son in Calculus and Chemistry but did so poorly that she ended up becoming an accountant. My son on admission was tested ( as were all incoming students ) in English skills and Math skills. He tested out of Freshman English so that he took only upper level English courses and was placed in Math Department Calculus curriculum usually taken by math majors and only a few other exceptional students rather than the standard University Calculus curriculum, a watered down approach by comparison. The #2 Valedictorian who graduated with my son, a boy, had won a full ride scholarship to a Jesuit University but he never finished college, dropping out during his 4th year. ( I know his paternal grand parents who told me the sad tale in obvious embarrassment. ) The #1 Valedictorian, a boy, from 2004 went to a State University as an out of state student but that University is well known for engineering excellence. He made it through the first year but without distinction and did even worse during the first semester of his sophomore year there. In January of this year he transferred to Santa Clara University way out in California and is studying Business according to his Mother a good friend of my wife. The sister of the boy is a looker ( stately circa 5' 9", jet black hair and porcelain white skin ) not a booker ( good but not great grades ) will start NYU this Fall in Communications or some such fluff course of studies. I expect her to do well given her beauty.

As to my son, he got his BS in Mechanical Engineering, his MS Mechanical Engineering, and now in the stretch of working on his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the "prestigious" University having passed his comprehensive exam, published one major paper and recently applied for a patent on something he has invented.

To my knowledge, none of the Valedictorians or a Salutatorians have achieved anything near what the high school given title was supposed to represent. The whole enterprise is true Bull start to finish given the low standards of current American education in the main.

As to my own High School class which graduated after Sputnik and before Viet Nam, There was one Valedictorian in Humanities and one Valedictorian in Science and Math and two Saulatorian as well. ( It was an all boys honor high school with competitive admission; they don't exist anymore. ) The Valedictorian in Humanities did well and is a professor at a Catholic University in Sociology. The Valedictorian in Science and Math did get a Ph.D. in Astronomy but never became more than an adjunct professor and the Saulatorian in Science and Math flunked out of Georgetown University studying Physics and eventually became a High School teacher. I don't know what happened to the Saulatorian in Humanities but a friend told me he became a postal carrier which I suspect is a joke.

Atlantin

Seneca the Younger said...


My sister, a MD, who was a faculty member of a medical school eventually reaching Associate Professor status before taking a job ( with more perks and $s ) with an insurance company, says that the mean IQ of MDs is dropping year by year and the watering down of internships and residencies ( more sleep as you say ) results in dumber docs--there is no free lunch in producing competent MDs.


Man, I've been to medical school, and I've watched medicine interns who had to have a nurse take blood because they kept falling asleep if they sat down.

Maybe other issues are involved, but I defy you to produce evidence that says staying awake for 36 hours improves a doctor's performance or raises their IQ.

Seneca the Younger said...

We could do that, but I'm not sure it will solve the problem or that it won't create new problems equally as nettlesome.

I'm not at all sure it would solve the problem --- I am pretty confident that not changing anything won't solve the problem.

Perhaps the more substantive change would be not a revised grading system but a new model(s) for higher education period.

I think, under the covers, that this is exactly what I'm suggesting. Something I keep meaning to write about someday is the notion that the revival of the one-room school isn't such a bad idea. If you do the sums, you find that a one-room school in Manhattan could pay the teacher $150K annually (for a nine-month term!) while very probably having good paedagogical effects, at least up to about 10th grade. Home-schooling seems to produce over-achievers (although there are lots of reasons to think there is sample skew and other problems with the data.) My own experience in teaching suggests that for many things, working in pairs or small groups has very good effects (... but leads to lots of complaints about how it might hurt someone's competitive edge to be graded on joint work.)

I'm not sure what the answer is, I'm just fairly sure that competition for the last 0.01 percent isn't it.

Rick Ballard said...

StY,

I tend to think in terms of competency, proficiency and mastery being similiar to the apprenticeship, journeyman and master stages within trades (which came to be reiterated in university).

The current situation isn't going to be amenable to change until there is a formal recognition that roughly 20% of those being "educated" aren't going to cut it at the basic competency level. The mainstreaming process is dragging the top down faster than it is bringing the bottom up - a totally unremarkable circumstance that is not beyond the grasp of the levelers but does not conform to utopian planning.

Overachieving on the part of those homeschooled isn't necessarily a bad thing - it's achieved through discipline and may prove rewarding to the overachievers both in personal satisfaction and in a material sense throughout their lives. Given that the current climate in education rewards breathing in the same manner that it rewards modest competency, the overachievers should do quite well within the market.

Another one of those "It took us forty years to get here, it's going to take forty years to get back" situations where the point of deciding to return has not as yet been reached. Competency exams that must be passed in order to receive a high school diploma are a nice start, though.

Syl said...

StY

Syl, are you honestly trying to argue that learning to lose gracefully --- which my old girlfriend didn't do well at, as you might note, even if she did eke out that one-one-hundredth of a point --- is more important that teaching the class topics?

No. Quite the opposite. I think life's little lessons are a natural outgrowth of aiming to teach the class topics.

Problems have arisen because some have decided that certain life lessons are more important than others. Through arbitrary rules a type of equality of outcome has been imposed where self-esteem is the more valued lesson learned than, say, self-discipline.

Atlantin said...

Seneca the Younger said...

"Man, I've been to medical school, and I've watched medicine interns who had to have a nurse take blood because they kept falling asleep if they sat down.

Maybe other issues are involved, but I defy you to produce evidence that says staying awake for 36 hours improves a doctor's performance or raises their IQ."

Dear Seneca,

I called my sister and read to her your statements. She said the following:

1) He ( Senneca ) might have been to medical school, but did he actually graduate and do a residency? He probably is a psychiatrist.

2) Working 36 hours at a stretch is an ordeal that was commonly endured by 1st year residents in Medicine and Surgery to see how individuals stood up to the pressure. 2nd year and later residents would be overseeing those 1st year residents and the later year residents had much less night call as the years progressed excepting some surgical residencies where a true chief resident was on call 24/7 for an entire year for doing emergency cases. That chief resident of course would not be doing the drudge work that fell to the 1st year residents and did have time to sleep and read.

3) As to the IQ quip ( "I defy you to produce evidence that says staying awake for 36 hours improves a doctor's performance or raises their IQ." ) :

The problem today is that with the drive to admit more and more women and minorities into medicine, the brighter potential doctors ( men ) are not even applying to medical school in the numbers that a generation or so ago would have applied as they see a stacked deck facing them. The way to raise the IQ of new MDs is to start admitting higher IQs to medical school by stopping preferences ( affirmative action ) in admissions.

4) The every other night residency ( or internship ) is analogous to the boot camp experience used in military training of new recruits or the plebe year in the past to weed out those who lacked the character to make it through West Point and become an officer.

Rick Ballard said...

Atlanin,

The treatment may be similiar but it is hardly analogous. A West Point plebe will be expected to perform adequately under stress for long periods of time because of the nature of the work he is expected to perform.

What specialty among doctors has the level of stress imposed upon first year residents? Aside from that, how many patients a year are sacrificed in order to produce that little frisson of fear that an incorrect decision made under duress induces?

Residency training having nothing to do with the reality of a doctors day to day practice is simply cruelty. Ask your sister to go back and determine how the practice came into being. Fear for livelihood enters into it more than one might hope.

Barry Dauphin said...

My own experience in teaching suggests that for many things, working in pairs or small groups has very good effects

I think this is true for many things, although this could lead to the Teacher's Unions saying STY is on our side (AKA the plea for smaller classe sizes). I don't have great answers myself, but I suspect small groups work well as long as that fits the subject or material and if the teacher is competent. Maybe the public could make a trade off. Smaller class sizes in excahnge for getting rid of basically worthless teachers and hiring good teachers. But that won't happen, I fear.

Atlantin said...

Rick Ballard said...

"The treatment may be similar but it is hardly analogous. A West Point plebe will be expected to perform adequately under stress for long periods of time because of the nature of the work he is expected to perform."

The year of every other night on of a 1st year medical resident or surgical resident is totally congruent with that of the plebe year. They both were designed to test the CHARACTER of the individual. Note: that with the loss of standards in contemporary America neither exists any more. There are no every other night 1st year residencies and given the women in West Point and other "reforms" the plebe year is but a shadow of what had to be endured when my cousin passed through in 1952-53.

Rick Ballard said...

"What specialty among doctors has the level of stress imposed upon first year residents? Aside from that, how many patients a year are sacrificed in order to produce that little frisson of fear that an incorrect decision made under duress induces?"

One knew after completing successfully an every other night first year medical or surgical residency that one had the Right Stuff. As to the hysterical comment about "sacrificed patients," remember that the 1st year resident was being watched directly by a second year resident, obliquely by higher level residents, fellows, professors, and especially the rounding professors ( usually two who did rounds, alternating days six days a week )who would be intimately involved with supervising patient care. The first year resident was kept on a short leash.

Rick Ballard said...

"Residency training having nothing to do with the reality of a doctors day to day practice is simply cruelty. Ask your sister to go back and determine how the practice came into being. Fear for livelihood enters into it more than one might hope."

More hysteria. The 1st year every other night "hell year" was a year to sift the sheep from the goats. Today it does not exist but during the time it existed one had a good indication that the MDs who made it through that year were of stern mettle and could likely be counted on in the future. My sister said to tell you that the new position of HOSPITALIST that is all the rage now appears to be a never ending 1st year medical residency. She suggested you look into the field.

As to how it started, my sister had no idea other than to say that the system was well established by the 1950s because her attendings who had been residents before and during those years told her how easy she had it with her every 3rd night 1st year residency. Note: she did her internal medicine residency at a medical school.

Concerning the "Fear for livelihood..." point, she said that she really did not think money entered the equation. During the heyday of the every other night 1st year residency it was a prestige driven affair. She said that only really selective programs were every other night to begin with so that only a small hand full of a cohort year's 1st year residents ever did either a medicine or surgery every other night year. The premiere spot in the country was for years at Johns Hopkins and there were only TWO individuals selected for that 1st year every other night program, other 1st year residents in the program there were on, she thought, every 3rd night. As to the money, the residencies were notorious for low pay. If one wanted money, one went into the Armed Services or a community hospital where the pay was better and the working conditions were also much more relaxed. She said that only the really bright 4th year medical students ( in her experience ) sought the every other night 1st year residencies.

As to my sister, she was for over 17 years on a medical school's admission board and for over 15 years was the program director of the school's Internal Medicine residency program and still is involved in testing candidates in Internal Medicine Board exams.

Her last point was: "Something tells me Rick Ballard is a psychiatrist." Rick, what kind of MD are you and when did you finish Medical School?