Formally recognizing the top graduating student is one of the few ways American schools publicly reward scholarship and hard work.
Academic effort and achievement are all too often not at the center of high school culture, with friendships and athletics usually higher on the prestige scale: In the high school hierarchy, wearing an honor society graduation tassel isn't nearly as cool as wearing a varsity letter jacket.
But being valedictorian is the one academic honor that does matter to students.
We understand that athletes and performers merit special honors because their achievements represent sustained hard work, focus, and motivation. So why shy away from awarding honors to young people who succeed in academics?
Opponents of naming valedictorians point to problems that can arise from competition for the top spot. Maybe the answer is to increase the number of scholastic honors; it does not mean we should do away with the only meaningful academic award currently offered in many schools.
In 1995, I co-authored a book on what becomes of valedictorians later in life. We studied 17 years of data and determined that valedictorians become hardworking, productive adults whose educational and career achievements remain outstanding.
As a nation, we have a vital stake in developing the talents of our young people. That's why we should encourage the recognition of educational achievement by continuing the valedictorian award and establishing other meaningful academic honors.
Karen D. Arnold
Professor of Education, Boston College
American high schools must prepare students to succeed in a competitive world. But the intensely competitive process of selecting a class valedictorian hurts students more than it helps them.
Most high schools have only one valedictorian, which often leads to bitter competition among high-achieving students. In some places, students begin plotting in middle school how to outdo their classmates. The result can be broken friendships, diminished collaboration, and a tense atmosphere.
Many colleges no longer name valedictorians. In the 18th century, they began to shift to identifying a large group of honors students: high-achieving students can graduate cum laude (with honor), magna cum laude (with great honor) or summa cum laude (with highest honor).
There is no evidence that colleges consider the distinction of valedictorian more important than other academic achievements. In 2006, Duke University rejected 58 percent of valedictorians who applied; the University of Pennsylvania rejected 62 percent.
There is an alternative. Some high schools have moved to an honors system similar to that used by colleges: All students who meet the criteria qualify. These schools find that achievement goes up as more students begin striving for honors, and morale improves as students begin helping each other attain the honors.
By abolishing the selection of a valedictorian, schools can take pride in helping the largest number of students possible meet the highest standards of excellence.
Thomas R. Guskey
Professor of Education, Georgetown College (Ky.)