Recognizing Excellence

At Eastern Middle School in Montgomery County, Maryland, students who earned straight A’s on their report cards got a special reward last Tuesday – an invitation to a dance.  They were released early from their final class period for the event, which featured a DJ, pizza and a game room.  Sounds like a fun way to recognize hard work and academic achievement, right?  Unfortunately, not everyone agreed, and the celebration took place under a cloud of criticism from…you guessed it…parents of students who didn’t make the cut.

Their complaints were loud enough to attract the attention of The Washington Post, which ran a noticeably slanted article on the front page of the Metro section the same day.  One parent was quoted as saying, “The students that don’t get to go end up feeling bad.”  Another parent intoned, “It just feels inherently wrong to separate out the kids.”  Barbara Marinak, an associate professor of education at Mount St. Mary’s University, went so far as to suggest that the celebration was “creating a caste system that could easily result in bullying and victimization.”

A little extreme, but nothing we haven’t heard before.  It’s the same philosophy behind our “everybody wins” youth sports leagues, where we don’t keep score and every player gets a trophy at the end of the season.  Hurt feelings and disappointment are eliminated, but so are exhilaration and fulfillment.  The sad truth is that when we minimize the accomplishments of the few to save the feelings of the masses, nobody wins.

According to Eastern Principal Casey Crouse, Tuesday’s dance was intended as “a congratulations and an incentive.”  She emphasized that every student had the opportunity to earn an invitation to the event.  Students who chose to accept the challenge and earned top grades reaped the top award – early admission to the dance and free pizza.  Students who earned A’s, B’s and C’s missed the pizza, but were allowed into the dance at the end of the school day.  Students with D’s and F’s were the only ones not on the list – it was billed as an “Academic Achievement Celebration” after all.

The idea that this is tantamount to a caste system is baffling.  A caste system is a rigid social structure based on heredity, where people are born into a certain class of society and spend their entire lives in that class, with no way up or out.  It has absolutely nothing in common with a public school grading system, which is entirely merit-based and highly fluid.  Students earn grades based on their performance, not on their lineage.  The honor roll is open to anyone who is willing to do the work.

As for “bullying and victimization,” there are simply no victims here.  Students who didn’t earn an invitation to the dance have only themselves to blame, and they need to take responsibility for that.  I have a hard time believing that they’ll have to worry about bullying either.  The studious kids have been on the receiving end of that since the beginning of time and surely have no interest in perpetuating it.

I don’t mean to sound heartless.  I know there are students at Eastern who put forth a real effort last quarter, but didn’t quite make the cut.  They may be feeling pretty discouraged right now, but that’s….okay.  It really is.  As parents and educators, we should be far less concerned with making sure children are happy all the time and far more concerned with helping them develop as people, preparing them for the future, motivating them to succeed, allowing them to understand the value of hard work and enabling them to make the most of what they’ve been given.

When we recognize excellence, we give students a clear target to shoot for.  We allow them to experience the life-changing feeling of working toward a goal and attaining it.  We allow them to be inspired and motivated by the achievements of others.  We allow them to persevere through the disappointments and failures that lie along the road to success.

When we minimize excellence, we obscure the target and set students adrift, with nothing to reach for and nowhere to land.  We may spare their feelings, but we deprive them of the opportunity to learn and grow, which in the end is much worse than missing a school dance.  That’s why it’s so important for Principal Crouse and her team at Eastern Middle School to continue thinking outside the certificate and award ceremony box for new ways to encourage and reward student achievement.  If we don’t recognize excellence today, future generations may not even know it when they see it.

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