Archived Opinion

Valuing the process more than the outcome

op frThis is one tradition that could just die and I don’t think many will care. I’m talking about the recently announced plan by Haywood County Schools to do away with the time-honored ritual of naming a valedictorian and salutatorian.

Haywood joins many school systems across the nation in going this route. Some want to argue that this is more evidence that we are dumbing down our schools and finding ways to tell all students that they are all fantastic and that everyone will succeed.

But that’s not what this is about. In fact, those who argue we are dumbing down schools are usually in the same ideological camp as those who argue for more competition in schools. And that’s really what the tradition of valedictorians and salutatorians has fallen victim to — overzealous and highly competitive students and parents who push their kids hard to excel, and the high-stakes battle to get into the upper echelon universities.

It’s not just about straight “A’s” anymore. No, it’s become much more nuanced. There’s the different weighted GPA for honors classes and Advanced Placement courses. There’s the gaming, where students and parents study to find out which AP classes might be more likely to garner the better grade, the simple fact that an AP Physics is more demanding and takes more time than AP History. And, as always, there are parents who actually do work for their children or pay them for high grades.

And then there’ s the transfer student, the kid who moves into a small, rural WNC district in the 11th grade from a bigger system that offered many more AP classes early on in their high school career. She comes in and knocks the local student out of contention just because her school system offered more access to higher-level courses.

Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent for Haywood Schools, says one potential benefit of doing away with the competition could be students thinking about what interests them versus just taking courses to maximize their GPA.

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“We don’t know if this will cause students to think about the courses they should be taking rather than the courses with the most weight, but if that is one of the outcomes then that will be a positive benefit,” said Nolte.

Imagine if that actually did happen, if students in public schools weren’t so pressured to take this and that high-level course but could pursue classes that actually interested them. Imagine if at least some part of high school could be about intellectural curiosity with having to look forward to two hours of homework every night from some crazy AP course.

Look, I’ve sent three children through Haywood schools. They’re all different kids and competed at different levels academically. But none of them have had much opportunity to pursue personal interests. Most all public schools aren’t set up that way now because they have to focus too much energy on getting students to do well on standardized tests. After that, it’s all about getting into college, all about where you stand academically while leaving very little room for thinking. 

Don’t get me wrong. I like competition and think it’s healthy. But education is about nurturing a curiosity, about teaching people to want to learn more and to not be afraid of their own beliefs. Doing away with this little valedictorian/salutatorian competition won’t accomplish that, but perhaps it is a sign that the pendulum is swinging back towards placing more of a value on the process rather than the outcome. By my estimation that’s a good thing.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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