Valedictorians, Learning, and Achievement

2000px-Education_-_Grad_Hat.svgI was intrigued by the following article that I cam across this weekend:

Farewell, Valedictorian: High Schools Drop Tradition of Naming Top Student

For me, this is a welcome trend since this is an award that, I believe, is less about learning and more about achievement. The valedictorian at a school could be a fearless and passionate learner. However, it seems that sometimes this person is simply someone who “does school” very well — who follows directions, gets work completed on time, memorizes for tests with excellence, etc.

I don’t want to take anything away from past and present valedictorians. These students have incredible work ethics and are no doubt prepared to lead in our society. What I question is whether the title itself is really honoring what we want it to honor. In some cases, I am sure that great learning has taken place for a valedictorian. In others, I think that following the expectations of school became more important than the learning that took place. The achievement trumped the learning.

If we were to acknowledge someone who was the most passionate and engaged learner in a school, what would that look like? How would we decide? What would be the characteristics of this person? In other words, how can we honor learning as much as achievement?

2 thoughts on “Valedictorians, Learning, and Achievement

  1. Nathanael W Poppe

    One study says that Valedictorians are too good at following the rules, and therefore, none go on to change the world. While many (40%) go on to be in the “top-tier” of pay at their employment, and most others are highly successful, none go on to make world-changing accomplishments (
    But, if a valedictorian is defined as “a student, typically having the highest academic achievements of the class, who delivers the valedictory at a graduation ceremony,” it does not seem as difficult to see why the students receive the award when it is based on academic achievement.
    Except, of course, you are challenging the process as a whole. Schools should be more concerned with learning, not academic achievement; therefore, an award for academic achievement within a system which strives to produce learners is/could be counter-productive.
    The follow-up question to your inquiry, which you allude to, would be: In a school system attempting to be more objective, how does one measure passion or engagement in terms of awarding students?
    I know some high schools have other awards (Joshua Award-courage, Good Samaritan-helping others…) which shows the school cares about things outside of academic achievement.


    1. Thanks for all your comments. As I move toward the later stages of my teaching career, I do see a growing disconnect in schools between achievement and learning. I want schools to be about learning first. Achievement always follows learning, but not always achievement in the way it is traditionally measured. For instance, a student achievement might be getting something build or developed looked at by an outside company and adapted for general use. That person may not be the valedictorian but they have already created something of value to others as a result of their learning.


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