Sex Ed in Higher Ed

College instructor teaching human sexuality rants about the dumbing down of America, the lost art of manners, grammar and (the perfect combination of both) the thank you note. Also includes random rants about life, pet peeves, and sometimes raves about favorite things.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Menschadictorian

My mom recently retired from many years of teaching in a chaotic urban environment. We talk about the state of education in the U.S. quite a bit. Our conclusion: Pretty grim. Of course, we're not unique in our conclusion. Hell, Oprah and Time Magazine had a joint bemoaning session in the same week!

I did catch one of the two "very special Oprah" episodes. One of the segments that has stayed in my mind and continues to agitate me on many levels was about a young woman who was the valedictorian of her high school class. She went off to college, thinking she had the world on a string and after only a few weeks of classes realized . . . she was woefully underprepared. Actually, I think that's putting it mildly. She didn't know what the hell she was doing. She was not just struggling but failing most of her classes. If memory serves (cut me some slack, people - this was back in April!), she was especially struggling with her math and science classes.

On the Oprah episode she kept saying, "I was my high school valedictorian, but I had never seen a Bunsen burner." And her point was that her high school hadn't truly prepared her for college. But I kept thinking: Having the title of "Valedictorian" bestowed upon you is not the same thing as being declared a genius. Nor is it the same thing as being told that you're really smarter than everyone around you. And I think she was confusing a title meaning "highest GPA in your class" with "I'm smarter than everybody else."

Exhibit A: I still remember my high school valedictorian. He wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and yet, supposedly, I grew up in a community that has "really good schools!" (Barf! That makes me gag! Yeah, it was small. Yeah, we were all white kids and to my knowledge, nobody ever brought a knife to school. Although someone did set off a smoke bomb in the boy's bathroom the year before I got there but that's another post. Just because I was in a statistics class with only 4 other students does not mean they were good schools. But I digress.) Anyway, do you know how that kid got all As, all the time? I'll tell you, 'cause I sat next to the schmuck in senior English. We'd get an exam back. He'd miss, oh, some really easy questions. During class (but usually after), he'd say charmingly (I'll give him that - he was very well mannered and I don't think his intent was sinister although perhaps I'm not giving him enough credit) to our teacher, "Miss Appletree, on this question? I thought you were asking about this, so that's why I answered it that way." And Miss Appletree would blush and smile a little bit and say, "Oh, okay, dear. I'll fix it." And lo and behold, his solid test grade of B had been miraculously transformed into a solid test grade of A with minimal effort.
And our Salutatorian cheated on exams. Quite a bit. Although she was much, much smarter than the Valedictorian. She just didn't have the charm and personality to get the blue ribbon.

My mom told me how in so many of her system's high schools, it's a big deal just for these kids to graduate. And when (or if) they graduate, the high schools award the titles of Valedictorian and Salutatorian to the two students with the two highest GPAs. In this school system, the Valedictorian often has a 2.0002 and the Salutatorian often has a 2.0000. And yet, these students can put a pretty impressive looking accomplishment on their resumes.

And then, I see them in my classroom and they can't base an argument on logic or deductive reasoning and they can barely write, yet they get pissed off at me when I return their papers with, "Please rewrite; I cannot understand this," because: "Hey! Whaddaya mean I can't write? I was my high school valedictorian. Stupid white bitch."

So, all this time, I've been bitching about the grades I've been seeing in the student advising center (aside - Monday takes the cake. A student with a high school GPA of 1.6), and perhaps the problem isn't not enough focus on grades, perhaps the problem is too much focus on grades.

This morning, I stumbled upon the article which inspired this post and gave me the word for its title. Please read this article by Rabbi Gellman. You won't be sorry. And then please, please, please come back and let me know your thoughts. Should we do away with "Valedictorian" and "Salutatorian?"


Blogger ColoradoCastaway said...

First of all, I had like a 2.0 GPA in high school. I was nowhere near the top of my class. I went to Hawaii public schools which back then were notoriously bad. However, somehow I managed to learn to read and write and even do a little arithmetic from time to time. I do think awarding kids for good grades is a good idea but, I agree with the rabbi as well. I think the award should go to the best "overall" student. The student who was the best both acedemically and morally/socially. If it were given accordingly, then that commencement speech would be given by someone with both character and intellect. It would probably mean a lot more to the students at commencement as well. I know I really didn't give a Rat's Ass what Joe Bookworm had to say at graduation. He wasn't even well known among the students. Just a kid who studied hard so his abusive parents wouldn't beat him for getting a 'B'.

June 17, 2006 11:27 AM  
Anonymous dear wife said...

Well I definately agree with this, but then again I do not agree with grades or GPAs. I had the exsperience of attending both a crappy public high school and a college prep private school. At my public school I had a 4.0, but was bored so I switched. Man was I shocked seeing that first F on a paper, so I know how your students feel. But I worked my ass off and managed to do O kay. I think effort is way more important than grades. I was way prouder of my C in precalc, than any of m As. It really sucked that at my school I was nenver recognised for anything, not because I was dumber than the students around me, but because I did not have the privledge of attending private school since I was 4. So when I got to college and they gave me the option of not taking grades I was all over it. I noticed I worked harder because I was working for myself and not a number. And it did not hurt me, I managed to get into grad school with no GPA and no GREs. I will not be boiled down to a number. I do not know if this was relevant.

June 17, 2006 4:35 PM  
Anonymous mothergoosemouse said...

What a great story about Jacob, but how sad that it ended so tragically.

In high school, I graduated with a 3.4. I took honors/AP courses throughout my four years - math, science, history, English, foreign language - and did fairly well. Honors classes were graded on a five-point scale, and those grades were averaged in with the non-honors classes that were graded on a four-point-scale. Therefore, our valedictorian and salutatorian had GPAs over 4.0.

I was a National Merit Scholar but missed the National Honor Society by less than a quarter of a point. Meanwhile, classmates who did not take honors/AP courses, but who got better grades in less challenging courses were inducted.

Our valedictorian and salutatorian (among with several others at the top of our class - which had over 600 people) actually arranged their coursework so as to maximize the number of honors/AP courses (with the five-point scale) that they would take prior to the calculation of the GPA on which final class rank was determined (end of first semester senior year).

That is, while I took Physics 1 (four-point scale) as a junior (along with AP Chem 2 - five-point scale), they took AP Chem 2 and AP Bio 2, since both courses were graded on the five-point scale, giving them potentially more points that year. I understood their reasoning, but thought it was petty nonetheless.

I honestly never knew of anyone who cheated - I certainly didn't. Too much risk for very little return, in my opinion. Not to mention how it clashed with my morals.

June 17, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger happychyck said...

I find it interesting that a correlation is being made between the students who desire to their best are often the biggest cheaters. I knew people like that when I was in high school, and I have had soooo many students like that since I became a teacher.

I like the idea of Menschadictorian very much because I'd certainly like to build a world of kinder, more honest, and hard working people. (Stop a minute and think about a country run by valedictorians.) My school does a student of the month celebration every month where each teacher nominates a student to be recognized. I always look around my classroom for those average kids who work hard and are kind to their classmates. (This is middle school, so some months this is tough.) Usually these kids are quiet, but when you talk to them you find they are interesting because they have to work on their personalities a bit more than the top golden children. In fact, they have to work for everything--skills, grades, attention...

Yes, these are the types I students I would like to celebrate. They'll do fine in life because they are honest survivors, but sometimes it would be nice for someone to celebrate that, ya know?

June 17, 2006 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree completely that there shouldn't be a valedictorian. I realize that they have valedictorians so the other students can have something to achieve and aspire too and look up to, but then people who can't do it the honest way will find a way to do it. It's one of the 5 ways people react to their culture, innovation (breaking the rules to get what their society says they should want), confroming, rebellion, ritualism, retreatism. I think our society on a whole needs to turn it's focus and priorities to merrit and being a good person and what better place to start.
I also think the reason some of these kids are shocked is because they are used to everyone telling them they are the smartest or the best and they use that to identify themselves. A friend was telling me about an experience she had when she went to Perdue. She was a theater major and of course there was alot of ego going on. The professor got sick of everyone acting like they were the best thing to happen to acting so one day he came in and after everyone got settled he asked them,"how many of you were the best actors in your highschool?" Everyone raised their hand. Highschool kids need to realize that there's a much bigger world than just their highschool.

June 17, 2006 7:54 PM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

HI First time posting, but been reeding for a while.

Well i agreed with the article that the cheating is worst with the kids who are at the "top". I was at this classes but in junior high decide i didn't want to be with this kids anymore. The experience was so disturbing. When this kids got their exam they walk trough the classroom looking in to others people grades and if yours was below theirs they would let you know what they got, like a care you got a A and i got a B. Son for my last year in junior high i got in to a "regular" class with kids that their highest grade was B (sometimes they got A's) but they were better humans beens they care about other people and their feelings they help each other so everyone did good in their work. I continue in this group then in high school to and i have no regrets. The point is that yes a got a B GPA in high school, but when i got to college it was so easy (my opinion) and i got a A GPA with no effort ( FRIENDS... the TV show, was more important than any paper or test, actually any TV series was more important), could you imagine how i felt i haven't seen grades like that since elementary school.

June 18, 2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger Kristy said...

One of my biggest learning experiences in grade school occured when I took a class that was graded not on output, per se, but graded on output as measured against your potential. As we worked independently, we set our own progress maps.

I was loads and loads ahead of most of the kids in the class in terms of output, but I still got a C, because I did basically nothing to get there. And you know what? I didn't argue one bit. I got exactly what I worked for, and I knew it.

What could have been a subjective nightmare was instead a show of respect on the teacher's part. While I didn't return that respect with my first semester's work, I sure as heck learned to appreciate it upon receiving that grade. I took my lumps graciously and still have thanks for her today.

It's not about the grade. It's about the effort and work.

June 18, 2006 11:56 AM  
Blogger Teacher lady said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments everyone. I certainly agree that not all "As" are created equal and even know someone who chartered a school based on the effort over test scores concept. However, let me play devil's advocate for the moment: If I am choosing a doctor, or a dentist, or a pilot, (or an accountant or attorney, for that matter), I want the person who got the best grades in med school, law school, etc., because they mastered the material completely - not because they had to work harder than everybody else. Maybe I'm mixing my metaphors, since Rabbi Gellman was clearly talking about high school and I've gone beyond high school and college to professional schools (and I hate to think it, but there is probably cheating in professional schools as well). But in some cases, effort isn't as important.

June 18, 2006 3:17 PM  
Blogger Teacher lady said...

Wait - that sounded completely stupid. I don't mean that effort isn't as important, period. I just meant that in some cases, you do need to go on demonstrated mastery of the material for grading purposes, even if someone got an A and studied only 20 hours a week for 2 weeks, while someone else got a C and studied for 40 hours a week for 6 weeks.

June 18, 2006 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Caryn said...

Oh, GOD! Jacob died?!?! I was all into the story, and he died? I'm so sad now. He definitely deserved to be honored. I wonder what the writer of the article would have to say about high stakes testing in schools. There's quantification of learning if ever I've seen it.

Before I moved to the town I'm in now, I lived in a town of 344 people (as of the last census). Each graduating class had 1-4 students, so the valedictorian award didn't mean much at all. In fact, the other kids always knew who would get it, and they didn't even try. Their paths were all picked out long ago, as is typical of students--well, of people in general. They knew who they were and who they weren't and couldn't be convinced otherwise.

Have you read Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol? This post thinks you might like it.

June 18, 2006 9:51 PM  
Blogger Veronica Mitchell said...

I attended a boarding school that did not provide class rank - no valedictorian or salutatorian. Students were less likely to compete with each other over grades, but it was still a high pressure academic environment. Removing class rank didn't remove all the problems associated with it, though in general I think it's a good idea. I don't know what cheating may have happened. I heard more stories about idiotic smart kids (they do exist) stealing chemicals from the lab and trying to make nitroglycerin.

As for the mensch idea - I think it is perfectly appropriate to incorporate behavior into an honors system ('cuz, ya know, honor) but as an actual award I don't think it's practical. It would either become an academic Miss Congeniality award (yeah, you're dumb, but you're nice), or be the kiss of death for a kid's social life. Remember your fondness for that kid your parents wanted you to be just like?

June 18, 2006 11:48 PM  
Blogger Mrs. T said...

Pardon the expression, but in terms of choosing a valedictorian for a class, size really does matter. (Of the school, not of the person, that is.) My graduating class had almost 400 people in it, I have friends from rural communities who had like 45 people in their class. I know- it's the whole "big fish, little pond" thing. I agree that many students who get all A's didn't come by them honestly- but not all. And I think it's ok to send the message that intelligence is something to strive for- yes, I want the doctor who got the best grades to operate on me, not just the kindest one. In the high school where I teach, I see too many kids NOT value getting good grades, and not care enough to cheat. Since their are many kids who do get all A's, I think it might be more appropriate to graduate them 'with honors' or something, and then honor the Mensch. The trouble is, how do you pick 1 out of a class of 500? At our school, the Valedictorian doesn't give a speech and the kid who speaks has to try out.

June 19, 2006 8:42 AM  
Blogger Jenny said...

That's a beautiful and poignant article.

I was waiting to see the comments on this entry, because my opinion is not yet fully formed. The idea that most valedictorians cheated for it is new to me, though the idea that they might "game" the system by signing up for more AP classes is not new.

My sister went to a selective school where they did not release class rank, and since it was an achievement to enter the school I think this was a nice thing.

But I think there is a disturbing trend towards anti-intellectualism in this country, so I hate to come down on anything which makes intellectual acheivement appealing.

I wonder if the main problem isn't just that "valedictorian" and "salutatorian" are the only honors in many schools? As the previous poster suggested, graduating "with honors" (as colleges do) might be better. Giving additional awards like "most improved" and "Menschadictorian" might help too. I think it is important to convey that different students have different skills, and no one student can be or do everything.

June 19, 2006 12:12 PM  
Blogger desiree said...

My Higshool Valedictorian cheated, lied, stole, and when she OD'd at a school dance her dad bought her way back into prom. My Salutvictorian couldn't read but he played sports and his dad was the school VP.

I couldn't even break the top ten because I only took 3 five point classes, not 6, so my gpa of 4.17 didn't even make the cut.

I am bitter, so so bitter, and angy at the whole stupid institution of titles for the damn kids.

I spoke at my graduation because I tried out and because I was funny, not because I lied my drunk whore ass through school.


June 19, 2006 12:17 PM  
Blogger Bobita said...

Great, great article!

I have recently finished grading for spring quarter...and because the students can see their grades posted online...began to receive emails immediately after posting grades.

"Why did I get such a bad grade?"


"This grade is much lower than I expected. Could you tell me what was wrong with my paper?"


"Did you forget that I turned in my journal?!"

And my favorite...

"I don't want an "F" on my there something else I can do to make up the grade?"

(It should go without saying that I frequently picture myself punching students square in the face!!)

We are not doing students ANY favors by making education easier for them...or by giving them grand awards for minimal effort. What happens when they are met with challenges in the real world? And furthermore, what happens if we are producing a generation of young people who won't buy a homeless person a pizza...because there is no recognition?

June 19, 2006 3:10 PM  
Anonymous Julie said...

What a fascinating topic, and what a great article.

I'm of two minds about it. I agree that there's a scary anti-intellectual trend in this country, and kids are not learning enough. What if the "valedictorian" was randomly chosen out of the top ten percent? Another thing I've heard about that sounds promising is the idea of calculating grades by some other method than averages. What if your grade for the class was the highest grade you got on any one assignment? Hmm, I can already see problems with that, but maybe some variation of that would work.

On the other hand, I love the mensch idea. But can't you just imagine all the almost-mensches who didn't get picked complaining that the decision process is too subjective?

June 20, 2006 7:50 PM  
Blogger liberalbanana said...

Damn, you've got some long comments up there. I can't finish reading them all, or the whole Rabbi article, but here comes mine!

I think your overall GPA is important, but if you're not the top of your class, big deal.

I can't remember what my high school GPA was but I'm pretty sure it was above 3.75. I had a class of 330 or so. I decided not to stay in any AP (Advanced Placement) classes because they just seemed above my level. But I did just as well in college and have never cheated. That said, I feel like I've barely retained anything - I think I'm just good at remembering things for tests.

I think it's important for people to learn how to spell, use grammar properly, and then master whatever their profession will be in. I know what a bunsen burner is and have certainly used one, but do I need to use one these days? Absolutely not.

And as for the "best person" idea? I'm not so sure about that either. It's important, personally, to be well-rounded, but if my surgeon doesn't play sports and isn't a member of several clubs, I'm okay with that - as long as he knows as much as he can possibly know about the surgery thing. I'll stop now.

June 21, 2006 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Lady S said...

In a class of 215 I was in the top 15% and considered an "honors" graduate. My husband (only an aquaintance then) was the salutatorian. I was also friends with the valedictorian and #3 and #4. Throughout Jr and Sr year they were all #1-4, but their ranking changed during the year. At our school classes aren't weighted and APs aren't 5 pointers. In fact, my "GPA" was an 89, we didn't have a 4.0 scale.

Over the years (around my time in school) a "Voc Ed" student was top in the class, which (to this day) pissed off a lot of students and parents; a junior who decided in May to graduate early had a better GPA than the top student in the graduating class (also a very universally popular girl) and the "new" valedictorian "graciously allowed" the other girl to speak at graduation with her.

We also had a class speaker. They were usually popular, funny, and intelligent. And they were also, often, more interesting than the #1 student.

I have heard of schools that have gone politically correct and started naming the Top 10 or 10% valedictorian. I agree we should do away with this title. Graduates at my school are recognized with scholorships for service and scholarship. I think they are the ones who should be honored.

And (as if I haven't said enough) I also missed out on being in the National Honor Society, as did my salutatorian husband and valedictorian friend. Why, you might ask? Because at our school you also had to get points in extracurricular activities. There were, like, 5 types of activities and you had to get a certain number of points in each type. I didn't play any sports and wasn't too involved in school politics (Model Assembly, student council...), but I was overloaded in arts and service. Oh well. I am gainfully employed and love my job (as is DH), so who cares about High School?

July 06, 2006 10:50 AM  

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