In the above image, three Cleveland high school students pose in front of a peer-generated list of anti-stress techniques. The changing education system is what many believe makes something like this necessary.
The first time the word valedictorian cropped up in conversation, I was a sophomore. College remained a distant thought on the horizon, and the idea of competing for valedictorian was a barely-formed reality.
But by junior year, we were preoccupied with rising through the ranks. This meant designing our schedules strategically. Paranoid that colleges might disapprove of any nonessentials, Studio Art was dropped for AP Biology while lunch periods disappeared to double up in history. Eight hours of sleep became a distant memory.
The anticipation of receiving our class ranks was practically tangible. Candidates for the valedictorian were traded in rapid-fire whispers, like the overachiever’s version of forming a fantasy football team. Most disturbingly of all, school became an elaborate game of chess, where if you planned your moves carefully you could be celebrated as one of the best and brightest. So we turned to numbers, calculating the math behind GPAs and weighted classes in a desperate effort to be a winner. But education shouldn’t include words like “winner”. We need to remove systems that turn school into a race to the top.
The case for abolishing class ranking isn’t new. Critics have often pointed to the eroding mental health that comes from intense competition, and how the overemphasis on grades discourages critical thinking and academic risk-taking. Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss notes, “Pitting students against one another for the status of having the best grades takes the strychnine of extrinsic motivation and adds to it the arsenic of competition. It not only shifts the focus from learning… but also teaches students to regard their peers not as friends or allies but as potential obstacles to their own success.” The wannabe valedictorian focused on a singular “right” answer doesn’t realize they are rejecting an enriched experience that comes from exploring different perspectives.
“The wannabe valedictorian focused on a singular ‘right’ answer doesn’t realize they are doesn’t realize they are rejecting an enriched experience that comes from exploring different perspectives.”
And for the student aiming for top colleges, it’s important to note that prestigious schools aren’t interested in just top-notch grades. On the websites of Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia University (the top three universities in the nation according to US News), they look for students who will “inspire those around them during their College years and beyond”, who have a “devotion to both academic and non-academic pursuits”, and “offer something meaningful in return to the community.” A class rank does not compliment any of these holistic traits; in fact, it mocks them.
Some schools honor multiple valedictorians. Eight high schools in a Colorado school district crowned 94 valedictorians that earned “a cumulative GPA of at least a 4.0.” While their efforts to reduce competition is a step in the right direction, it still perpetuates the idea that school is a competition and your ranking a trophy. When we get rid of class rankings, we set ourselves free to explore fearlessly and challenge conventional thinking. We demand more from the world we live in, and most importantly, ourselves.