A recent study by researchers at Boston University, which looked at the national, long-term success of high school valedictorians over a number of years, created quite a bit of interest on the internet. A flurry of articles were written about the study, some of which were measured, but many of which seemed to delight in the findings from a monetary standpoint.
Last week, we shared one of these posts on our Facebook page, and it spurred a level of commentary that I wasn’t expecting. The main thrust of the article is that students that typically become the Valedictorians of their schools do not seem to carry the same degree of outlier performance into their adult lives. They typically land good jobs and have what would be considered a successful life, but very rarely become thought-leaders, innovators, or (in the words of the aforementioned article) millionaires.
Now of course, making inordinate amounts money is not the goal of a public education system, nor should it be the standard by which a quality education is judged. I will argue however, that the way we evaluate talent and success as teachers and schools is probably due for a change.
It didn’t sit right with me.
One of the things that I am sure educators struggle with is explaining the difficulties and traps inherent in the profession with those that are looking at it from the outside, these are typically successful people that enjoyed their time in school, or who have children that benefit greatly from the system as it currently stands.
A perfect example of this was in the form of an email I received after posting the article. It was from the father of one of my former students. He was upset that I had seemingly endorsed the article, and was particularly irked by the fact that his own daughter had gone on to become the valedictorian of her school.
I made a point to emphasize that the point of the article from my point of view was that measures that focus on compliance as opposed to growth are problematic at all levels of schooling, and also that the we should be offering wide ranges of options for all our students.
The back-and-forth conversation was civil, measured, but at the same time it didn’t completely sit right with me.
One of the best I ever taught.
Let me tell you about Gina. I taught Gina during her 8th grade year in an Honors English class. She was, and continues to be, one of the best students that I have ever taught.
When I say that however, I want to be really clear how I am framing the conversation.
Gina was bright, but that wasn’t what was most important. What clearly separated her from her peers was her work ethic, and willingness to struggle in order to grow. After she left the middle school, her family moved out of town, and I continued to work with her in a mentor capacity for the next four years. In addition to getting perfect scores on her SAT’s, she also completed an in-depth, national accreditation program that required hundreds of hours of work outside the classroom. She was Valedictorian of a competitive school, and graduated from Columbia about 3 years ago.
So back to the best student designation…
It wasn’t because she was such a high achiever, or that she reached perfection on a test, or was accepted by an Ivy League school.
Gina was the best because she pushed herself to work hard, to work past what was necessary or required, and to actually follow her passions.
It also had a lot to do with her parents, and the schools she attended.
Gina had exhausted all of the available math classes in the school by the time she was in 7th Grade. This meant that there was quite literally nowhere to go. Luckily, her parents and a couple others began to press the school to create a geometry section for about 5 kids. After moving some things around with the teachers in the building, the school did just that. The following year, the same five kids pushed into Algebra 3/4 in 8th grade.
When high school came around, a quick look at the new town’s course offerings showed that Gina would complete all of the math the district offered in her sophomore year. Again, her parents went to the mat for her, and made sure she would have options that would test her moving forward.
Gina benefitted from two school districts that were willing to accommodate her needs, in order to make sure she was constantly being challenged. In addition, she received no additional “credit” for taking these courses, and still managed the highest GPA in the building.
By the time Gina stood in front of her classmates delivering her speech, she had taken the single most difficult path to get there. She had been given the opportunity to challenge herself with unknowns for the last 6 years of her public school career, and she attended two districts that listened to her parents and created spaces designed to help her blossom as both a student and person.
She was one of the best students I’ve ever taught.
If you were to go down my list after that however, you would begin to notice a different trend.
The vast majority of my other “best” students come from my remedial classes. These are kids that are struggling to read on the same level as their peers, and desperately want to improve. While over the course of the year many of them will go up multiple grade levels in their literacy, a large percentage of them are still below level by the end of the year. They spend their time in class thinking and writing for hours, they read close to 20 books over the course of the year, and although many will fail their PARCC assessment at the end of the year, I make damn sure that they understand how much they’ve grown, and what they did to get there.
Making the shift from a classroom that rewards compliance instead of growth may seem like a daunting task, but it can be done, should be done in all of our classrooms.
This is where the article begins to make more sense in a larger context.
Unlike the situation that Gina benefitted from, in schools where her parents could effectively advocate for her, having yearlong classes created for small numbers of students, the vast majority of our public schools are unable or unwilling to make these changes. The result is that all high level students begin to see the school as a competition, one that has clear rules, and a number system they can learn to game.
Additionally, since HARDER work in this context is almost always confused with simply completing MORE work, without advancing past the static curriculum into more difficult (and developmentally appropriate) concepts, the students that emerge as valedictorians from these schools have simply mastered the art of putting up with requirements, as opposed to growing their minds for their future.
Gina’s dad’s discomfort with the article stemmed primarily out of a defense of his kid, and the positive experience she had at school. He watched Gina grow into a truly exceptional young woman, and was worried that the work it took to get there was being overlooked. I get that.
But our job now should be to create systems where ALL students are given the opportunities that Gina had, regardless of their parents’ advocacy, or the towns they happen to be born in. This will require great schools, but we won’t get there without great teachers to staff them.
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Matt Daly has been teaching and coaching for over 15 years. He is an Instructional Leader, Educational Consultant, Writer, and Speaker. He holds degrees in English and Secondary Education from Providence College, an MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry, and has Supervisory Certification in Instruction. Matt lives in New Jersey with his wife, also a teacher, and his three daughters.