Grade grubbing valedictorians??

Karen Arnold has authored a study based on the longitudinal study of high school valedictorians that has generated a lot of online media attention among educators. Arnold followed the careers of 80 or so high school valedictorians and found that while most did quite well, they are prone not to accomplish major things. I have not read her book, but the following two summaries from which I have selected specific quotes:

From Time:

So why are the number ones in high school so rarely the number ones in real life? There are two reasons. First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Academic grades correlate only loosely with intelligence (standardized tests are better at measuring IQ). Grades are, however, an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules.

From the Daily Beast (Grade grubbing valedictorians)

There was little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent, and well-adjusted, and by all measures the majority have good lives.

But how many of your number-one high school performer peers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.


Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries … they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.

I encourage you to read the complete articles.

My comments here respond not so much to these articles as to the spin put on these articles I have observed on social media. The spin I question is close to what seems to be the sentiment of the Daily Beast title (Grade grubbing valedictorians). The existing research seems to be spun to suggest that K-12 and I suppose college education needs to somehow change to encourage those likely to have more impactful careers.

You might understand the core of my position from a reply I made to a Tweet suggesting that this research suggests that educational practice must somehow change. My comment was – Here is my proposal – I will take the valedictorian and you take a student selected at random. Let’s bet on which individual has the highest income at age 35.

I have both methodological and practical concerns related to what I have seen as suggestions related to this research. What I see as lacking methodologically and practically in the work is the identification of which students should be compared with the valedictorian.

Consider that in a class of 100 students there could be 1 valedictorian and 99 other students. Is it really surprising that one of these 99 might eventually be regarded as more successful than the valedictorian? Life has enough uncertainties that this comparison is hardly a reasonable way to evaluate whether those who are successful in schools as they exist somehow provide evidence that schools should be changed.

It appears that argument is that the problem is somehow conformity and a desire to please. It does make some sense that nonconformists will take paths in life that explore new areas and look at things differently. I can understand this advantage or more accurately put – difference. One question related to this group might be how many of the individuals who fall within this group are extremely successful. Just for sake of argument let’s say that 10% achieve at a higher level than the valedictorian but most of the rest accomplish little and most have difficulty fitting into the expectations of most careers. Should the process of education somehow be modified (you would have to explain just what changes would be required) to encourage and prioritize this group?

For the record, I support programs allowing personal exploration such as 20% or passion projects. Even if what should be done to encourage optimal success for each group, I do not assume that institutions must take one approach or the other. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *