Everyone's Special

High school Valedictorians are an endangered breed as schools eliminate class rankings and honors for the very top students.

Ranking students by grade point average is elitist, competitive and stressful for top students, say detractors.

The stress and competition won't go away until Harvard, Yale and Stanford admit all applicants. As for elitism, well, what's so awful about honoring students for academic achievement?

No Weight to Excellence 

Grading is tougher in tough classes, so an A in Advanced Placement and honors courses is usually worth five points to a student's grade point average; an honors B is worth four, the same as an A in a regular class. But a committee working on a master education plan for California wants to eliminate extra grade points for more rigorous classes.

Every A would be worth the same as every other A, whether the student is taking Slacker Science or honors physics. Inevitably, students will shy away from challenging courses that risk lowering their GPAs.

Weighting grades is unfair, say critics, because some high schools — about 15 percent — don't offer any AP classes while other schools have dozens of AP options.

But high schools are being pushed to expand access to advanced classes by partnering with community colleges or using technology or coming up with the money to hire a teacher for the 10 kids who qualify for AP calculus. Taking the weight off honors grades takes the pressure off schools to challenge students. It is a dangerously stupid idea.

Merit Under Fire 

State-funded merit scholarship programs, such as Georgia's Hope Scholarships, are facing complaints and lawsuits because middle-class students are more likely to have good grades and test scores than low-income students (via Confidence Man).

A few years ago, a study found that a "C" at an affluent, suburban high school was the equivalent of an "A" at an inner-city school. That suggests that Hope Scholarships, which require a B average in high school, favor students who attended high-poverty schools. Of course, these kids can't use the scholarship for long because they lack the academic preparation to succeed in college.

Coming Out for Harvard

Elite colleges like applicants to take advanced courses, compete in sports and chalk up extra-curriculars. So they do. Elite colleges like to see community service. So every student who ever smiled at a homeless man presents himself as a dedicated volunteer.

Now, according to Josh Marshall, CNN is working on a story saying that Harvard and other universities are favoring students who've come out as gay — or say they have on their applications. Marshall quotes a CNN memo:

Forget winning the science fair or being an all-state pole vaulter or, well, getting straight A's — not being straight's now worth a lot too, when it comes to looking good to the college of your choice. Harvard and other universities around the country now are factoring in gayness as an enhancement to a college application...thinking having confronted one's sexual orientation at a young age shows independence — and builds character and leadership potential...

This doesn't mean honor students will have to go gay to go to Harvard. They'll lie.

One of my daughter's classmates clinched a perfect 800 on the SAT II composition exam with an essay about the courage it took for him to declare his homosexuality. He wasn't gay. He was ahead of the curve.

A pro-gay policy in admissions will fill the Ivies with deceitful heterosexuals.

The Grapes of Annoyance

To meet "sensitivity review guidelines," New York's education department is rewrites literary passages on its high school English exams. This New York Times story would be funny if it weren't so sad:

...the vast majority of the passages — drawn from the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anton Chekhov and William Maxwell, among others — had been sanitized of virtually any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity and just about anything that might offend someone for some reason. 

...In an excerpt from the work of Mr. Singer, for instance, all mention of Judaism is eliminated, even though it is so much the essence of his writing. His reference to "Most Jewish women" becomes "Most women" on the Regents, and "even the Polish schools were closed" becomes "even the schools were closed." Out entirely goes the line "Jews are Jews and Gentiles are Gentiles."

In a passage from Annie Dillard's memoir, "An American Childhood," racial references are edited out of a description of her childhood trips to a library in the black section of town where she is almost the only white visitor, even though the point of the passage is to emphasize race and the insights she learned about blacks.

In "Barrio Boy," a "skinny boy" becomes "thin," while a "fat" boy becomes "heavy."

The Generously Sized Alternatively Valued Wolf Goes Vegan

Scott Norvell gives more examples of rewriting classics to fit current sensitivities. The "Four Little Pigs" rapprochement with the Wolf is not a parody.

College for All? 

An Education Trust West report backs enrolling all high school students in college prep classes. Minority students who've taken a college-prep sequence like California's A-G requirements do much, much better in college than those who've avoided rigorous classes.

However, San Jose Unified is quoted as a success story. More graduates are eligible for the state university system. But a third of seniors — half of Hispanics — weren't on track to graduate at the start of their final year.


Vanishing Valedictorians

Tim Taylor writes:

If schools are going to eliminate academic rankings, I hope they have the consistency to eliminate athletic rankings, too. No judging some students as better athletes than others and creating special teams for them. No "most valuable players." For that matter, no homecoming king and queen. No school plays with starring roles. No solos in the band or chorus. Why should academic outcomes be the only place without rankings? 

Scott Anderson writes: 

The real danger to valedictorians is their ubiquity, because of grade inflation. Our local high school, Oak Park-River Forest High School in Illinois, had 19 valedictorians in 2001. Can you imagine the pressure on any single teacher who wants to maintain some traditional grade distinctions? 

Good Work  

Harlan Sexton writes that "educationists" look down their noses at tradesmen. 

If schools offered classes that actually trained people to do real jobs and prepared them to keep learning new things, I think that you'd have very little trouble motivating lots of students who currently don't care at all, and you could shovel enough math and science into the curriculum to put them well ahead of most college graduates.

Doug Levene mentions a Wall Street Journal column by Lee Gomes about going online to hire a programmer as a day laborer. His rent-a-coder lives in India and works very, very cheap. Gomes advises students not to plan on any job that can be done online and outsourced to Bangladesh. Levene writes: 

This seems like pretty good advice to me. Carpenters and electricians may make out very well in the world to come. Doctors and lawyers and other professionals who need to be physically present with their paying customers may also do well. Code-writers, data-inputters, number-crunchers, etc., — they may see drastically reduced earnings. 

Bob Cavalli writes: 

I am certain that plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other skilled tradesmen make better livings than do I, a lowly editor for obscure trade publications (and are far less bored). And most of them own their own businesses. Schools focus on one thing...college prep, even for students who show talent for trades, or who just don't have the intellectual wherewithal to cut it in college. They do a large number of their students a disservice.

By contrast, David McIntyre argues that everyone should take college prep rather than vocational courses. 

It doesn't make sense to limit someone's opportunities at such a young age . . . It's easier for a college grad to become a plumber than for someone with a vocational education to become a professional . . . Vocational ed signals acceptance of a class-stratified society without social mobility.

Actually, a real vocational track wouldn't be a dummies' track. Skilled jobs require solid reading, writing and math skills. In Silicon Valley, most would-be carpenters, plumbers and electricians can't qualify for the union apprenticeship program because they can't read well enough or do the math. They can go to community college, but most get stuck in remedial classes there and drop out. Undemanding classes prepare students for nothing. 

In Fritz Schranck's school district, students are rejecting vocational training, even with the prospect of high-paying jobs.

For some reason, teenagers in this area seem to have little or no interest in learning how to be a plumber, carpenter, electrician, or similarly skilled worker, no matter what the marketplace says about the current high value of these jobs.

The local school superintendent gave me an example. A tool and die company owner tried to develop an internship program with the local vo-tech, combining classroom experience with work in his busy shop. The first year pay was to be $12 per hour, rising to $26 per hour when the students completed the program.

There were no takers.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at ReadJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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