A Graduation With Over 90 Valedictorians

We’ve all seen it: Little League baseball players show up for their final game, and everyone gets a trophy. Students compete in an art show, and everyone gets a ribbon. It’s become commonplace. We are all winners. In fact, we’re all awesome.

The question on the minds of students is simple. In this kind of a world, what does an award even mean? I know a ten-year old baseball player who handed the trophy back to his dad, saying, “I don’t want this. It doesn’t mean anything.”

This year, three high schools in Dublin, Ohio, displayed their own version of this charade. But they claim to do it with good reason. Do you want to guess what they did?

They named 222 graduating seniors valedictorian. Yep. They sure did. That means two out of every ten graduates in Dublin’s three high schools received top honors this year. (One of the schools had 96 valedictorians.) If they’d all been allowed to speak, graduation ceremonies might still be going on now.

So why would they do this?

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy with the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, said he’s aware of more schools offering the top award to multiple students. Experts say it’s more typical to see multiple valedictorians (or none at all) as educators try to eliminate the competition among students to be number one in their class. Additionally, some schools do this because of the scholarship money that may be available to high school grads with valedictorian status.

Is This a Good Idea?

I get it. This is all done to affirm the kids and give them an advantage in college. But is this really a good idea in the long run?

Let’s break down a few points of contention surrounding this issue:

Competition – I think anyone can agree that too much academic competition can be unhealthy. But who is the culprit? I think it’s parents more than kids. We speak in hyperbole, sadly tying their esteem to an award rather than their intrinsic value. When one college senior didn’t earn honors, her mom created homemade honors tassels for her to wear at graduation. Sounds embarrassing to me. If we back off, I bet our kids will be fine.

Differentiation – When loads of kids win awards, their differentiation suffers. It’s supply and demand. With a large supply of awards, it’s not rare, which causes it to lose value. (Similar to how the U.S. dollar’s value has declined because we’ve printed so much of it.) I think we should teach students their inherent value apart from the need for a trophy. Too much outward recognition actually creates unhealthy pressure on kids.

Preparation – Do all these awards teach our young grads about how life works? In one sense, award ceremonies like this can emulate a job — with hard work, perhaps many can win a sales contest or a trip to Hawaii. Usually, however, kids will enter careers with tough competition and one top producer. An HR executive told me her company recently hired “praise consultants” because so many young employees require so much feedback and affirmation. We must teach students how to esteem themselves apart from monetary or material rewards.

Satisfaction – Research demonstrates that when we’re presented with too many awards (or rewards) over time, our motivation shifts to the reward rather than the inherent satisfaction of the effort. Soon, a kid only wants to draw a picture if she gets a prize, not because she loves drawing pictures. I believe we must prepare our kids to be ambitious about doing meaningful and rewarding work, not about recognition or prizes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe an award should be handled like a compliment:

  1. Unique – It’s given to appreciate or recognize something distinctive to the recipient.
  2. Personal – It’s not generic but a special and individual honor directed at them.
  3. Meaningful – It’s of significant importance in what it affirms about the recipient.
  4. Authentic – It’s in recognition of one’s lifestyle, not outside compensation they strive to gain.

My parents raised me to find my self-esteem in using my talents to serve other people. I won a few trophies along the way, but my identity was never tied to them.

Let’s teach our students that real rewards are found on the inside.

A Graduation With Over 90 Valedictorians