Valedictorian? Here’s your participation trophy

UPDATE: My friend and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity brother Wes, a college music theory professor, offers his two cents on this topic since it’s more in his wheelhouse. I recommend you head over and subscribe to his blog.

To the 22 Scott County High School valedictorians: congratulations on your high level of achievement. The road to get there was very difficult, and I sincerely hope the hard work pays off as you embark on the next collective chapter of your lives.

Now, please leave the room so the grownups can talk for a little bit. Go on.

Twenty-two valedictorians, SCHS? Really?

Is this an extension from these kids’ respective childhoods, when we didn’t keep score in T-ball or youth basketball and soccer because we were worried about the losers’ feelings getting hurt? As 17- and 18-year-olds, aren’t 21 of those kids able to own up to the idea that they tried hard, but that maybe they just weren’t good enough?

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but this valedictorian business has gotten out of hand. At one time, a high school class had a single valedictorian. One. That’s it. End of story. “Game over, man. Game over.” There were rare exceptions, but more often than not, it was one person.

“But Tom, all these kids are ranked No. 1.” I don’t doubt that, but surely there must be a way to look at each of them, their coursework, their extracurricular activities and their accomplishments outside of school and make a qualitative judgment based on all those things. Surely someone who balanced their coursework with participation in a club, volunteer work and a part-time job would merit distinction over someone who focused solely on studying for four years. I’m not saying such an evaluation would be easy, but no one can say it is insurmountable. It happens all the time in the private sector. It’s called a job interview.

Yes, in four short years these 22 will presumably exit academia on equal footing with their peers, scrapping for a scant amount of jobs in a workforce that is becoming more competitive as we slowly recover from a recession. They will enter that jungle with the same credentials: a college degree and no experience. And if the economy doesn’t bounce back by then (and, no matter who is elected president, I don’t think it will), there isn’t an employer in the world who is going to look at a list of 22 equally qualified candidates and decide to hire them just because “gee, they all worked so darned hard.”  They’re going to do what Scott County High School should have done with its cadre of valedictorian candidates —pick one.

In case you were wondering, I was not valedictorian of my high school class, nor was I salutatorian, nor was I “sorry about your luck” No. 3. I don’t have a dog in this fight. But in the job market, I have been the No. 2 guy at least twice that I can remember. Second place doesn’t feel so good, and it sucks to lose, even when it’s a job you think you really want, but failure is as important as success. The kids know this. Once upon a time, the adults in their lives knew this too.

Forget for a moment that most of the competitive colleges aren’t even looking at class rank anymore, a fact I confirmed talking last year with a college admissions official fromTransylvaniaUniversity, one ofKentucky’s very competitive private colleges. Forget that. Diluting a distinction that once went to one person among 22 cheapens the honor. It’s like living inChinaand being told you are one in a million. It sounds good, but it really means there are a million other people just like you.

Kudos, though, valedictorians, on fulfilling those difficult requirements and enduring the death march of academic rigor. I’m sorry, though, that the adults in your lives have refused to teach you a real life lesson before you are drop-kicked into the college life.

Director’s commentary: The preceding column appeared in the May 26, 2012, edition of the Georgetown News-Graphic, the paper I used to write for. I actually proposed doing this column last year, but my editor at the time, Pete Mathews, and publisher, Mike Scogin, thought it would make a better news story. At the time, I wasn’t so sure about that, but did it as an objective piece anyway. I’m glad I did, because letting this topic ferment in my brain for a year with the objective data I picked up for the story in 2011 was the best thing I could have done for this opinion column.

For the record, I played youth soccer and T-ball starting at six years old. We kept score. I suffered no ill effects, even without the participation trophies. If you finished first second or third, you got a trophy, in descending size according to the order of finish. Apart from that you got a stinking ribbon. Even if we sucked, I still remember having fun.

To take it a step further, I also have a problem with kindergartners wearing caps and gowns as they “graduate” to first grade. The only other place you see adults putting kids into outfits normally reserved for grownups is on “Toddlers and Tiaras.” 


  1. Tom, excellent, my friend. Thanks for the spot on rant. I have to nitpick your math on the population of China (perhaps against my better angels). If you’re “one in a million” there, that would mean there are about a thousand others just like you. A million million is a trillion.


  2. Tom, Any plans to do a rehash of this topic, given the 29 valedictorians this past spring? SCHS just doesn’t seem to get it. I would have thought there might be at least SOME embarrassment after your column on the 22, but apparently not. Having taught in the past, I have seen way too much of the “I’m special” attitude of students with little to no real academic achievement to back it up.

    1. I toyed with blogging about it this past spring when the news came out, but since I don’t work for the paper anymore and since it’s an exercise in futility to harp on the topic every year at the same time, I chose not to. It still angers me, though. Not that I think my opinion should be considered an authoritative one, but I had hoped, as you did, that being called out publicly for such an insane practice would have suitably embarrassed Scott County High School enough to get them to reconsider the practice of recognizing multiple valedictorians. They continue to brag on it though, and with an ineffectual school board’s blessing, I might add. I would ask you, as a former educator (did you work in Scott County Schools?), do you believe there are really 29 students tied for first-place, or do you think the high school is moving the goalpost for what it means to be a valedictorian so that they don’t have to recognize just one? I’d be curious what an actual educator thinks.

      1. No, I did not do any teaching in Scott Cty or in KY for that matter. While I don’t believe that KY is unique in this little problem, nevertheless, Scott Cty has elevated it to what you said, the “really, are you kidding?” level. And they seem to be doubling down by almost having 30 this year. Besides, if SCHS “got it”, they would award ONE valedictorian and ONE salutatorian.
        No, there are not 29 students “tied for first place.” As far as my recollection of the award goes, it is for academic achievement and nothing else. So all of the resume-padding volunteering, sports, etc. should have no place in determining who finally wins the spot. Unfortunately, given the universal grade inflation that occurs beginning in pre-school, making that determination has probably become all but impossible. As example, GPAs of 4.5, 5.0, anything more than 4.0 on a 4.0 scale – those have no meaning any more. That, plus the whole helicopter parent thing. When I went to school, teachers and parents were a team with expectations that the kiddies would do their best even if it seemed hard for said kiddies. Now it seems all they have to do is get dropped off at the front door of the school and they qualify for a 4.0 GPA.

        I think schools, at all levels, have sunk to rote memorization in order to get as many students as possible past periodic formula tests. Which is why so many students are shocked to find out that their “special snowflake” status doesn’t get them diddly when they finally run up against real expectations at the top universities. If they can even get into those top institutions, I suspect that most products of the KY educational system struggle to qualify for even a mediocre school like UK. May sound harsh, but I’ve been at several of those consistently top-ranked institutions and UK isn’t even remotely close.

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