Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

May 6, 2013

High school honors are losing importance

By Taylor Armerding

— I’m going to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court figuring out how to explain that the right to gay marriage has been enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment since 1868 and they just hadn’t noticed it until now; and focus on a less momentous, but equally interesting result of political correctness — the demise of the academic honor roll.

I’m not sure whether to be upset with Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor for his mantra about all the children being above average in his imaginary home town of Lake Woebegon, or with the professional educators who think it’s not a joke.

What I do know for sure is that it’s too late to waste any energy being upset at either. The news out of a small, New England town — Ipswich, Mass. — that the middle school principal recently canceled the long-standing academic honors night because it was “devastating” to some students who had worked hard but not maintained a high enough grade point average to qualify for honors, went viral. It made national news shows, prompted a blizzard of blog posts, and was hotly debated on talk radio.

All of which is amusing in a way because this kind of thinking — that effort equals achievement and that it is destructive to recognize anyone as better than anyone else at anything — has been in place for decades.

It’s just not quite as subtle any more — it’s educational orthodoxy.

The kids who were raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s under this kind of mentality are now the adults running the schools — the indoctrination is essentially complete.

We have gone from “everybody is special,” which is true, to “if everybody can’t excel, then nobody can.” We have gone from “everybody plays and everybody gets a trophy” to “everybody wins” because, you know, some kids might feel badly about losing.

It was decades ago that a school in the greater Boston area canceled its “student of the month” program because there weren’t enough months during the school year for every kid to be the student of the month.

For more than a decade, I have observed an erosion of what used to be a fixture of high school commencements — a class valedictorian. More and more often, there is either no valedictorian or the position is given a different name and is shared by an ever-expanding group of students. You know, because it’s not fair for a kid who is bright in science but not the humanities to lose the title to a kid who is smart in both.

So why should anyone be the least surprised at the elimination of an event that honors some students and excludes some others?

I have some personal knowledge of this school system, because I was the editor of the Ipswich weekly paper many years ago — from the late 1970s into the early ‘80s, when the trend was taking root.

It was during those years that my reporters and I noticed that the list of students making honors, which the schools sent over every quarter to be printed in the paper, was getting longer and longer. We eventually gave that file the sardonic title “Every Kid.”

I finally decided to check to see what percentage of the student body at the middle school had made honors. I was not terribly surprised, to find that it was 76 percent. That’s right — you could be in the bottom third of the class and still make the honor roll — supposedly reserved for only outstanding academic achievement.

I witnessed it with my own sons. When the oldest was in high school, the academic awards night took place in a relatively small cafeteria, and lasted about 90 minutes. By the time the youngest was a junior, it was held in an auditorium designed to hold more than the entire student body, and took more than three hours.

No wonder any kid who doesn’t make honors is devastated. Back when the term meant something, 80 percent or more of the students didn’t make it, so they had lots of company. Now, there are so few of them, they feel like total losers.

According to local press reports, the principal has said the honor students will still be recognized, in front of all their peers at an end-of-the-year assembly. If so, that will go directly against his assertion that it’s not educationally sound for non-honors students to feel badly.

Beyond that, however, to declare that this is educationally sound is ridiculous. It does students no favors to shield them from reality.

Yes, all students are unique and special. But that doesn’t mean that they are good at everything. A key element to a successful adult life is learning, and accepting, your strengths and weaknesses.

I was grievously disappointed when I didn’t make my high-school baseball team. But it taught me to put more emphasis in areas where I did have some aptitude — writing and music.

Not making the honor roll doesn’t need to undermine happiness, or success either. I have childhood friends who I blew away in the grade-point-average department who ended up making much more money than I did because they were good mechanics or electricians.

“Protecting” kids from the “devastation” of trying and failing is failing them. If they don’t learn it in middle school, it will be that much harder, and more devastating, to learn it later.

— Taylor Amerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net.