Ethics Quiz: The Disappointed Valedictorian’s Billboard

Gary Allmon purchased the large digital billboard above on U.S. Highway 264 in Wake County, North Carolina to honor  his son, Joshua. The message was on display for 10 days through June 12, the day of East Wakefield High’s graduation ceremony.

The  school recently replaced valedictorians with the Latin honors ranking system used in colleges–summa, magna, cum—as a fairer and more accurate way to honor academic performance. Josh’s transcript shows him ranked as number one, and he felt robbed.

“It’s a stupid rule that will hurt students down the line, but it’ll accomplish their goal of making everyone feel equal,” he wrote on Twitter. He has a full scholarship to North Carolina State University to study chemical engineering.

Joshua told Fox News that he hopes the billboard will send a message that such policies as eliminating the valedictorian honor harms students.High achieving students have their reputations undermined by them, he claims, adding, “It’s impossible to compete on the national stage when your accomplishments are limited by the system you have no choice but to come through. New policies are aimed at making everyone feel as if they achieved equally; this is simply not the case. Some people simple work harder.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the this Friday afternoon is…

Is Joshua’s father’s sign appropriate, or does it send the wrong message to Josh and others?

I may not have disguised my own view on that one very well. I think the billboard is wrong in every way. It advances the toxic distortion of education that has led to grade inflation and meaningless diplomas and credentials, in which it is the grade that matters not what a student had learned, that education is first and foremost a way to get jobs, and not a life-long pursuit of knowledge and personal growth. We have seen some school mint multiple valedictorians like Confederate money; other schools have had their valedictorians go rogue, as if winning the statistical contest somehow endows them with the right to turn graduation ceremonies into a political rally.

Perhaps worse, it endorses the obnoxious practice, frequently displayed by our President, of proclaiming one’s own achievements. One think going to Harvard teaches you quickly is to let your actions prove your worth, not your publicizing them. If you are smart—and some Harvard students are—you learn that it’s foolish to boast  because there is always someone within earshot who can run rings around you in credentials, honors, or accomplishments. You also learn that just saying where you go to school off campus will be interpreted as snobbery and pretenses of superiority. You don’t tell people you are smart. You prove it by what you do..or in many cases, not.

I remember that by some measures I could have claimed that I had earned my high school valedictorian honor. Our school had its own controversy, as there was a rumored tie for the girl’s valedictorian, with the loser being the student with a mild speech impediment. The male valedictorian had the best grade point average, but had taken a lot of non-college track courses. I was happy for them. If my father had put up that billboard, I would have been too embarrassed to attend the ceremony.

What do you think?


Pointer: Micheal

24 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Disappointed Valedictorian’s Billboard

  1. The billboard was wrong, for the reasons you stated above.

    The school was not wrong. It announced valedictorians were being eliminated years in advance.

    The whole valedictorian competition thing is silly and destructive. I was top of my class during elementary and middle school, and earned the #1 spot 6 out of the 9 grades where it was handed. This led to an unhealthily competitive environment, and in many cases drove a wedge between the competing students for the top spot. The system was even worse than that. We had report cards every month, and your position in the standings was included alongside the grades. Some parents (including my Mom) took the thing very seriously though, with the predictably terrible consequences.

    Darn, these memories brought back the anxiety. I can’t even imagine what actual PTSD is like.

  2. Why is this an either/or situation. Every school ranks graduation placement and can bestow academic honors upon the many and still elect a valedictorian. Every school chooses a student speaker. In the past, that speaker was the student ranked first in the class. Today, speakers are selected in some cases for reasons unrelated to achievement and more to be a representative of some progressive cause. Based on the link provided the valedictorian at his school appears to have been phased out early while other schools in the district still awarded the honor. As a result, this student is treated differently simply by virtue of attending the school within the district that phased it out early.

    I really did not find the billboard wrong. It did not denigrate anyone. I do agree that shameless self-promotion is not a value we want to instill in our youth but how is it different than a theatrical promo that draws attention to the lead by touting his/her prior awards? This was a merely a proud parent bestowing a giant albeit public graduation card. If awards for meritorius work are to be considered passe then we should eliminate all theatrical awards programs, tear down the various sports halls of fame and various statues that adorn stadiums, and do away with every medal awarded for valor on the battlefield because I can make the same argument for the other hard working actors, ball players, and servicemen and women who are put in harms way. Awards are designed to help us discriminate the best from the rest.

    I would bet that the field of competition to become a valedictorian is limited to only a relative few in most schools. Having taught economics at the college sophomore level, I do know that some students impose unrealistically high expectations for themselves and get extraordinarily emotional when they come up short. This is a life lesson that needs to be learned in a forgiving environment such as high school and college.

  3. Agreed with all of that. On top of that, how is this really hurting high honor students? Maybe it gave the one a boost to their pride or something, where everyone else is then supposed to be thought of as second rate. As Alex mentioned, this was announced long before.

    Plus, many times the valedictorian in schools isn’t the person with the “best gpa”, as there are many qualifications that can come into it besides that. Some schools add in activities, social work, volunteerism, and other qualifications of character that go beyond what class you took and the grade you got in it. (And let’s face it, not all classes are as easy, you can pad your GPA if you have an easier schedule). If schools are handling what qualifies to be a valedictorian differently, then how can that be an honor nationally. (I’m even leaving out the likely cases where it’s a popularity contest or someone the principal knows and picks).

    • Yes it was announced but some schools in the district had not yet phased it out. It appears tha high schools use a weighted gpa instead of a purely 4.0 scale. This reflects the academic rigor of the coursework.

      Unlike Alex, I was not pressured at home to bring home the academic honors. I followed an older brother who chose to excel academically. He an I had completely different school experiences. I was often asked why I wasn’t more like my brother. He did everything he was told without question. I, on the otherhand, questioned how I could use the lessons taught. That did not sit well with my teachers who thought I should be a compliant child like my brother. Instead of joining in the school sponsored extracurricullar activities I chose to have an after school job that gave me an income that allowed me to buy a car, pay my own insurance and be more indepependent. That is how I competed with my academically superior brother. I never had to ask to borrow a vehicle to go somewhere or My brother went directly to college out of high school, I started a business which I sold some years later which covered 4 years of college costs. Ironically, I was the first in my family to earn a Masters degree. More importantly, I graduated with no debt. My brother spent years paying off his costs.

      Each of us travels a different road. Success is how you want to define it not what others think your success should look like. Such comparisons inevitably lead to self recriminations, undue stress, unhappiness and resentment.

      I don’t think that academic competition is unhealthy unless the adults in the child’s life create the belief that the child is a failure for not being first in everything. It’s not the competition it’s the culture in which the competition is played.

  4. My school didn’t have this custom. There was a Dux of the school, but that was based on athletic as well as academic achievement. It looked good on the CV and helped get access to Rhodes Scholarships.

    There were also a number of prizes given at the final assembly for various examples of excellence – mathematics, physics etc – financed by almunae. They weren’t awarded every year. Come top of the state in the maths or chess comp, and one was guaranteed. Similarly, if the school debating team won the statewide championship, they’d get the Christopher Taylor prize for spoken English (a hardcover book rather than a trophy).

    There was no graduation ceremony as such. At the end of the school year, everyone was too busy studying for their external exams, that would determine eligibility for university.

    • Even at University this custom wasn’t followed. Those who excelled were awarded honours degrees, or post-grad degrees with distinction though, which is sorta similar.

      Customs vary. In some places a big deal, in others not. One university’s “3rd class honours degree” is a bare pass, a “Gentlemen’s third”, another’s terse (Hons) or (Dist) is the equivalent of 1st Class Honours Summa Cum Laude with oak leaf clusters, swords and diamonds.

      • My school experiences followed Sue’s pattern, except that in both high school and college the competition was focused on the individual to raise their (ok: no more his/her & grammar be damned) abilities from their own zero level to however far they could go. Tests were few; written reports, lab work or essays showing how well the course content was understood or veered off from it in an original direction (Style complete with footnotes) were the order of the day. Grades were determined at the end of the course or semester by the instructor plus counselor. Students met weekly with their counselors, often another faculty member in line with student’s main interest, personally compatible, and meant to wean them onto a wider range of enthusiasms or different kinds of challenges. It was hard on transfer students who had previously rested on their A’s to find that they were starting out resting on nothing whatsoever, with no one else’s work to compare it to as far as grades were concerned. There were few rules as such, but class attendance was mandatory since all of them required active, productive participation.

        With the usual competitive barriers down, as far as I could tell or have heard from schoolmates, we could make friends more easily than those at the more standard schools, as well as ask for and receive support from other students. Plenty of exercise was to be had, but horrors! no team sports. In high school (four years) parents were invited periodically to attend their offspring’s choice of class. Both the high school and college had out-of-school work plans or whole semesters, in which students left the classroom for practical experience out in the wild wide world. Everyone participated in theater (front- and backstage), learned a/another musical instrument, basic art forms. We were graded on those, eventually, too. Graduations were mainly leave-takings with an hour or so of speechifying by four-to-six students who had submitted their topics to the entire student body for selection. The topics ranged from a lecture on — horrors! politics! — The Southern Manifesto (presenting pro and con on the attempt to de-racialize public places in certain states), to a doggerel satire of the faculty at the time.

        The pressure was in some ways greater than that of grade competition. It has also lasted a lifetime, above ground, gradually becoming more useful. For one thing, it made me resourceful and ever excited with new worlds (except for its electronic devices), content to live alone or function as a cog in a wheel of strangers,but not always understanding the value of an award or reward. It brought me to this blog, finally, to Jack’s arguments and the commenters’ counters and thrusts, the results of which I had better leave for another time.

          • I don’t know the college in question – but it’s a very close description, almost identical, to the situation half a world away, at Gungahlin College, where my son studies.

            I have a problem with it, in that some of the assignments for year 11 are considerably harder than the 1st year university ones I’m used to grading, and are marked harshly. The official estimate of only 45 hours study required per week is wildly inaccurate.

            One advantage of living in the nation’s capital is that for the legal studies and accounting sections, it is possible to arrange personal albeit briefly interviews with movers and shakers of political parties rather than just staffers.

  5. When I graduated, I had no hope of making valedictorian, although I did make National Honor Society. I did win an appointment to Annapolis…don’t ask…one of life’s many embarrassments. The valedictorian was seeking an appointment to the Air Force Academy, which he did not get. I have no idea what happened to him or where he went. Thus you have the value of being valedictorian.

  6. I don’t have a problem with a family being proud of a graduate with an academic ride. Nor do I think academic or academic/social/moral criteria are bad to give awards for. There are plenty of awards and scholarships for sports achievements, not as many for less visible talents. I do have severe doubts about the bitterness about a discontinued award.

    This smacks more of petty anger, especially in the family, that their duckling just wasn’t lauded enough by the school. This is is the helicopter telling the world how special their kidlet is, in full despite the school’s decisions. It could also be he might have still missed the award if he make some other criteria for community values or good sportsmanship. They’d have put a board up then too? (If the kid is angry, the parents set them up for the unrealistic beliefs and the billboard made the ego a hundred times worse. Life has a habit of teaching helicopter kids the hard way)

    The family knew before the senior year or could have known if they were paying attention, that it was discontinued. If they wanted the title that badly they should have changed schools for one that retained it. The billboard is only a childish scream that ‘our child is specialer than yours! He WOULD have gotten a discontinued award!’ It’s the same as someone taking out a major net campaign that I was cheated out of the Moses Coit Tyler Prize and it wasn’t fair to me. The mocking of the family and specialness will last a lot longer and further than the award they’re having a hissy about missing. Embarrassment should have been a clue, but it seems they all missed a reality check.

  7. Josh’s transcript shows him ranked as number one, and he felt robbed.

    This stood out to me. If he’s only got his transcript to go on, how does he know there’s not one or more kids he tied with, but the computerized transcript system put him as “number one” because his last name came up first in alphabetical order? John Smith and Zack Zimmerman might have exactly the same GPA without even knowing it, and be ranked “number two” and “number three” because no one thought it would really matter since they did away with the award.

    Not to mention, maybe Sally Smith would have taken an extra honors class, except she knew there was no valedictorian title to go for.

    That’s where my line is, personally. You can’t claim you would have won something without knowing how the competition would have played out if it had been a competition. It’s unethical, egotistical, and poor sportsmanship.

  8. Being proud of personal achievements is bad but being proud of “immutable” physical characteristics which one has no control over, good?

  9. Upon reflection, I have a much deeper problem with the young man’s resentment toward the change than the billboard itself. Thus, the question I have is what did he really learn in school and at home about life. If top accolades for hard work is the only motivator then his priorities and understanding about life are flawed.

  10. Jack wrote, “…toxic distortion of education that has led to grade inflation and meaningless diplomas and credentials, in which it is the grade that matters not what a student had learned, that education is first and foremost a way to get jobs, and not a life-long pursuit of knowledge and personal growth.”

    Nicely stated.

    My wife was High School valedictorian there wasn’t anyone even close to her academic achievements, my daughter was a very close 2nd in her High School class, in college I was the top academic student in one of my two degrees but not the top student at the college – I personally didn’t give a shit because I achieved my personal goals.

    Yes now it seems that education is distorted; yes there is grade inflation happening now, yes there are meaningless diplomas and credentials to go along with the participation trophies for snowflakes, yes the premise that academic achievement will get you the job of your dreams is being pushed to fill the coffers of colleges, yes students are sacrificing their financial futures for a degree from an expensive prominent named college thinking that is will be their meal ticket for life, yes all these things are “negatives”; however, true and honest academic competition and encouraging students to strive for excellence is by no means a bad thing. The problem, like so many other things in our society, is that people are abusing, bastardizing, cheating, hyping at these kinds of competitive things.

    All that said; I think the billboard is the unethical equivalent to handing a snowflake another participation trophy.

  11. My high school was a magnet school, and we didn’t have a valedictorian (in the “top of the class” sense) or class rankings. I don’t even remember my college having class rankings, actually. We didn’t really need them; grades were supposed to speak for themselves.

    As far as resumes go, it seems silly to single out one student as “the best” and have a label that only that student can put on their credentials. The point of grades is that all students can establish how skilled they are in an absolute sense (what kinds of problems they can solve), not relative to other students at the same school. Without a greater understanding of how students are measured and a statistical distribution of how all of them performed, whether someone is “the best” or not may not tell you anything meaningful at all. Whether grades can actually measure students meaningfully in the first place (as currently implemented or in general) is another issue.

  12. I am OK with the billboard, insofar as it is “reasonable” for the kind of society we live in at this time. Personally, for me to do that would be exhibitionistic and rude to the person I was ostensibly attempting to honor – yes, even perhaps an indication of parental narcissism. I would not encourage such billboarding among anyone I know. If someone I know did that, I would say to them simply, “I saw the billboard message you made; congratulations to your son on his graduation.” (if I said anything at all)

  13. I had no idea there were so many systems that differed so widely from my experience in public school. Good content here!

    By my sophomore year, we had 6 students competing for top honors, in a class of 30 or so. Very small school! Two boys, four girls.

    By the end of that year, the other boy discovered 1) beer and 2) what you could do with girls if there was enough beer. He was wealthy, so getting beer was not an issue, and getting girls was therefore easy. He dropped from competition, as his college was paid for. One of the girls had family issues that dropped her grades that year as well.

    Junior year it was three girls and I. The fight was fierce but friendly. One girl had a bad home situation, in a small, poor welfare community known for beer parties and consequently single moms. The other two were moderately well off. I had a teacher for a father, in Texas, in the 1980s… we called ourselves middle class, but we were poor. (Mom was out of the picture) Dad pushed hard on grades, as college was out of reach without scholarships. Working at my school, he knew my test scores before I did!

    During the later part of Junior year, both ‘well off’ girls got serious boyfriends, and the grades slipped a bit. (One married hers, and as far as I know they are still together. The other avoided getting pregnant and left for college) Still a race, but not neck and neck. Being a nerd, I had no girlfriend. The girl from the welfare community had determined to GET OUT and did nothing but study.

    Being in a small school, I could wear many hats. I played sports, was editor of the yearbook, and acted in school plays. I took harder classes to get ready for college, and even took summer courses at the local community college. It was nice, despite the pressure.

    You see, that local community college gave a two year free ride (everything included, dorm, books, and food) to the valedictorian and salutatorian of local schools. This was the prize as far as my dad was concerned (college savings: zero).

    Senior year, my competition was the determined girl. She did NOTHING but study: no extracurriculars, no non essential classes, no hard classes which could impact her GPA. Other than not having a girlfriend, I had a great senior year. I, too, was going to GET OUT, but I had done the math: there was no percentage in fighting for top honors when second place produced the same exact prize. She beat me by half a point overall, and she deserved it. Ironically, she got a full ride to a women’s college and did not need the local one. I think I enjoyed my school experience more, but who knows?

    The pressure came from motives other than the honors themselves. Life made everyone prioritize how they pursued those honors.

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