Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mad at Rewarding Excellence? Work Harder!

I read this LA Times op-ed piece wondering if naming high school students as valedictorians is outdated and unfair. The story sprang up from a controversy where the parents of the student who had the 2nd highest grade point average complained to the school that it was unfair that their daughter's hard work went for naught.

The father said "You don't want your kid to be a loser" and the family is threatening to sue the school because their daughter finished .05 behind the valedictorian (4.55 to 4.5). Yes, you read that right. Threatening a lawsuit because their child didn't get the highest GPA.

It gets sillier when I read their daughter has already been accepted to Stanford. Not exactly struggling to get in a great school.

I actually have a solution to what the article proposed but first I want to address the parents and high school folks who are so caught up on GPA and overloading their plate because it looks good to colleges. Full disclosure, I was valedictorian of my HS class 10 yrs ago and had a GPA above 4.3 so I'm not just blowing smoke.

Every student should strive to be the best. If you can take AP or honors courses, do it because you want the challenge and it'll prepare you for college. Not to mention that college credit you get from it is beneficial. But it's not the end all be all.

Too often, we live by the above quote from Talladega Nights. It's not always true and it's this all-or-nothing culture that scares people into not offending those who don't win or makes them strive too hard to win regardless of the cost.

Chasing a high AP score or GPA at the expense of being a more well-rounded student is not a good gamble long term. For one, you'll be more of a school machine instead of a person who can balance school work with the relaxation of the arts. Finding something that you enjoy at school besides the course work will make the work a lot easier.

Two, colleges want more well-rounded students who have more than just a pretty GPA/AP/SAT score. Excelling in community service or having a skill or sharing a unique personal statement is just as important and you can't always do both in a classroom. Extracurricular activities are just as important as having great grades.

This complaint and threat of a lawsuit is also a sign of the softening of our culture. My generation reaped the rewards of everybody getting a trophy in Little League or everybody getting a medal for simply competing and now the ones after are surprised when they don't. High school leagues award co-MVP's and try to honor as many kids as possible that the postseason award lists make it hard to differentiate who's deserving sometimes.

A lot of my peers and kids younger aren't adjusting to failures or rejection in the real world because simply trying was good enough to be rewarded beyond words or knowing you had to try harder if you wanted to win.

A lesson kids need to be re-taught earlier & earlier. I take for granted that this was common knowledge when I was younger.

The idea of being mad that you don't finish first is admirable for competition's sake. But when it comes to measuring intelligence or who's a better student, it's common knowledge having the highest or lowest test score or GPA often has ZERO to do with it alone. Yet also, you have to work harder if you want to reach a certain level that somebody else is at.

This is the fault of overprotective parents. Whatever happened to teaching that trying your best is sometimes it's not good enough. That's life. It's no longer "no matter if you win or lose, but how you played the game." It's "everyone's a winner and nobody gets their feelings hurt so it's all or nothing."

I'm tired of the "everyone-gets-a-trophy" mentality in competitive events. In life, there is often one winner and somebody will get left out. Dealing with it helps you deal with adversity. Kids are coddled so much that we see them ill-prepared to handle when somebody tells them no or lets them know how good they aren't.

YOU get a trophy! And YOU get a trophy! EVERYBODY GETS A TROPHY!!! (But doesn't this promote mediocrity or ignore that not everybody wins?) Oh Hush!!! Think of the children!!! (I am)

Don't even call the rest losers or give them a demeaning label because that's worse than accepting failure. That parent inadvertently insulted his soon-to-be-Stanford educated daughter by calling her a loser for not winning. Instead of building her up to say "You're still No. 2 and you're going to a school that so many kids like you wish they could be at," you're mad at the school and had your daughter thinking she failed instead of praised her accomplishments.

(And also, shouldn't the No. 3 student be jealous your daughter was named salutatorian? At least yours has a title. 3rd is almost not even mentioned at all)

Personal testimony. The kid who was No. 2 behind me in GPA was a hard worker in his own right. He was a joker but he knew his stuff and we pushed each other. He also did that while balancing basketball, volleyball and being an Eagle Scout. He didn't care much that I was going to be No. 1 because he had a balanced high school experience to make up for it.

You know what he's doing now? He has his own law practice in Texas after passing the bar there as well as California. My class was full of hard working kids who didn't need a label to validate their success. You earned your reward and if you didn't get honored, it wasn't a mark on you. In time, it won't even matter because your work ethic and intangibles will earn you rewards eventually.

At the same time, why not celebrate those who perform exceptionally?

Monty Hall said it best

The op-ed piece made a great counter point to having valedictorians and salutatorians. Do a cum laude system just colleges do. I propose this is a great idea. How about several categories?

- 3.3 to 3.5 GPA (Cum Laude)
- 3.5 to 4.0 GPA (Magna Cum Laude)
- 4.0 or higher (Summa Cum Laude)

This not only appeases the parents who want to see more folks honored, but also prepares the kids on how they'll be awarded when they graduate from college. Not by having the highest GPA but fulfilling a GPA requirement.

I can get with that idea but unless schools do it across the board, we have to settle with valedictorians and that's not a bad thing. Why penalize the student who earned the highest GPA? Why keep kids from understanding that not everybody wins a prize and they are no less hard working because of it? Why not send a message that at the same time, we reward excellence because they earned it?

Instead of coddling our kids with always rewarding them, let's restore the idea of telling them to keep working harder and smarter because it pays off in other ways where it counts (i.e. at your job, personal pride, tangible rewards). If you want to eliminate the term "loser", fine by me because loser implies an attitude that our kids don't need. Accepting defeat or finishing second doesn't make you a loser in attitude and that's something we learn from sports every day.

It's time we bring that attitude back to our kids in other arenas. If not, I feel like we'll keep raising ultra competitive yet mentally soft kids who lack the ability to cope with adversity, believe mediocrity should be rewarded due to effort or can't be happy/supportive for somebody that wins unless it's them.

Like Journey said: "Some will win, some will lose, some are born to sing the blues. But the movie never ends. It goes on and on and on and on......"


  1. I love this post. I think it's so ridiculous how coddled people (and it's not just kids) are nowadays. People get so offended when they find out that they aren't perfect and then they go on the defense. And to sue over something as trivial as this is asinine. I love the German system for suing...if there is a lawsuit, the loser has to pay the winner's court fees on top of their own. You think that that girl's parents would have just gotten over it if that were the case? I'm pretty sure they would have moved on.

    I wish that people realized that you don't have to be the top of your class or the one in first place to have achieved something in life. I graduated college with a 2.8, not because I screwed off but because I spent the majority of my time figuring out how my brain worked because I had a learning disability. Yet, I still managed to get into one of the top grad programs in my field and have been a part of building two different programs for Athletic Trainers within the military. Oh, and I live in Germany. I would say that I'm doing pretty well for myself...

    And as a side note, my graduating class had 8 valedictorians (they all tied), so we had several short speeches at graduation. :)

  2. Exactly!! I wish that German system was over here cause it'd kill a lot of silly lawsuits. And yes, you're living proof of success minus "pretty GPA" :)

    It's so funny how I stopped caring about a perfect GPA when I got to college. Doesn't mean I didn't work hard but knowing that I wasn't going to get A's all the time made it easier to focus on turning in good work and getting better/learning the material. The older you get, you realize being #1 is great but not everybody wins and that's fine. I wanted A's yes but I wanted to learn more and be more well-rounded just as much.

    We have to remind folks younger and older that work ethic trumps winning. Trophies are nice but memories/reputation are better. Plus I don't think I remember who our valedictorian was at USD but I know how some of my friends and classmates are doing job/career wise.