April 2016 (Volume 66, Issue 3)
The stress of success: it’s what provokes schools around the country to reevaluate nearly all of their preexisting values, and it’s what Needham High School attempted, and still attempts, to eradicate within the walls of the building. Ten years ago, in light of a rash of suicides, Needham administration decided to abolish class rank and the recognition of the valedictorian and salutatorian. “I believe it focused on wanting to shift away from the competitive, high-stress environment that NHS was at the time…We don’t want high achieving students; we want well rounded, healthy and motivated students,” says Aaron Sicotte, Needham High School administrator. Assessing these tragedies is of the utmost importance, but eliminating valedictorian altogether is not the solution, as it fosters even more problems on its own.
Art, music, and athletics. Each of these is highly recognized within Needham High School. Pictures of student-created masterpieces as well as athletes and musicians in the heat of the competition and concert line six NHS walls. But where do academics fall? What about the students that labor through the night on countless AP assignments? Or those that maintain a nearly unblemished GPA? Where are their pictures on the wall? The school emphasizes the ideas of “academic excellence” and “student-athlete,” the prioritization of schoolwork over all other activities. Yet, the hard work of a dedicated, high-achieving student goes almost unrecognized in comparison to other accolades. Schools need to actualize the precedence of academics, and the way to do this is recognition of the valedictorian.
Every school aims to prepare its students for their future, whether it entails the transition to university education or the competitive job sphere, and a large part of adhering to these goals is the incorporation of the valedictorian process. In the real world, everyone cannot be ‘number one,’ especially within prestigious colleges or institutions. And the majority of the students contending for valedictorian are those that strive to attend universities where competition and stress are far more pervasive than they are in high school. According to a study done at Brown University, 95% of accepted students are in the top tenth percentile of their high school class, and 47% are valedictorians.
Academic recognition amongst the student body cannot be both equal and fair. Motivating and rewarding the general mass is key, but by no means should the accomplishments of a school’s top students be watered down to level the playing field and address what Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College, calls the “culture of overachievement.” The universal impetus to be seen as stellar leads schools to praise every student, which only downplays the prestige associated with the idea of excellence. Many high schools have even begun acknowledging multiple valedictorians, a group of students that can represent up to the entire top-half of the class, as a way to combat pressures. Bock coined it “the Lake Wobegon effect…where everybody is above average, where everyone is No. 1.” The distribution of the title only defeats the award’s purpose: honoring a singular, exceptional student.
Even with valedictorian gone, stress and competition, some of the school’s main concerns, prevail. Gerri Zhang, valedictorian of the selective Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, says that “Even if they got rid of the title and there were no rankings, I think kids would still be pushing themselves and being stressed about the future and their grades.” With or without valedictorian, anxiety is perpetual, for students will not cease to compete and strive for success.
The hard work of a school’s brightest students deserves praise, and since the burdens of success are ever-present, reimplementing valedictorian into Needham High School will only have benefits. We need to reevaluate our reevaluations. It’s time to bring valedictorian back.