'My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student'

School honor rolls are inherently unfair—and unwise

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I spend a lot of time in my car and, because Americans do an impressive amount of communicating with each other from the rear ends of their vehicles, I gain considerable perspective from the bumper stickers I see. People deploy bumper stickers for a variety of reasons: to proclaim their political or religious beliefs; to comment on their car or its accomplishments (that it climbed Pikes Peak, for example); to urge others to love their mothers or hug their children (fathers are notably absent from this genre); to share a pithy statement or bit of personal philosophy (“I’d rather be sailing”); and finally, to make the world aware of their child’s status as an “honor” student.

This last sort of bumper sticker is a rarity: People seldom use their cars as vehicles for personal bragging. Of course, the displayers of the “honor roll” bumper stickers may believe that they are not bragging at all; perhaps they think that this bit of information about their child will be inspirational to the rest of us and that their public display of pride will improve the school performance of other people’s children. Maybe they drive around imagining themselves the cause of all sorts of productive parent-child interactions in the cars behind them, interactions that lead to better student performance and happier parents. They may even imagine themselves as the parental vanguard of the education reform movement, the cutting edge of school improvement.

As a former honor-roll member, I feel qualified to offer some comments about this bit of Americana. First, the honor roll, it seems to me, is a tradition that reinforces some of the least attractive aspects of our culture and for that reason should be eliminated or radically altered. Second, no matter what justifications they may offer, parents who announce their youngster’s honor-roll status on their car’s bumper have turned their personal pride into a public event and, therefore, are undoubtedly bragging. Further, these are moral issues: Both the educational practice of maintaining honor-roll distinction and the parental practice of publicly proclaiming this status create and reinforce a certain species of unfairness, one that necessarily causes resentment.

Why is the honor roll an unfair institution? Every child comes into the world with a unique mix of abilities and talents, average capacities, and areas of incapacity and disability. The agglomeration of these we refer to as a child’s “potential.” The profile of a child’s potential often includes areas given scant or no attention in school.

In addition to potential, every child—if nurtured and educated with sensitivity to his or her individuality—develops an interest or interests. Areas of a child’s interests do not always match areas of his or her greatest potential. To what extent children develop and fulfill their potential depends not just upon their efforts but also upon whether they are interested in particular areas of endeavor.

School typically only engages students’ interests when these happily coincide with the subjects traditionally taught. If not, interests are ignored or treated, at best, as hobbies irrelevant to the educational process or, at worst, as deleterious distractions from the serious business of education. Thus, opportunities both to develop and nurture interests, and to learn traditional academic content, are lost. The former is obvious; as to the latter, an interest in sports or the planets can be used to teach or reinforce skills in arithmetic and reading, an interest in collecting stamps can be used to enhance knowledge of geography, an interest in movies can be engaged to develop skills used in art or literary criticism, even an interest in television can be used to acquire skills in critical thinking (through critical viewing of commercials), and so on. It is difficult to think of any interest that cannot be used to learn or reinforce traditional academic knowledge.

Moreover, the extent to which we develop interests and fulfill our potential at least partially depends upon fortune, which dictates circumstances of life beyond the control of any child. Is his family poor, middle class, or wealthy? Is her neighborhood a safe or dangerous place? Are there books in his house? Is her natural curiosity indulged, ignored, or punished? Do his parents abuse alcohol or drugs, or abuse or neglect him? Does she have an extended family she can count on for stability and love? Is he valued and respected as a person in his home, school, and community? Finally, does she feel valued by her society or has its distribution of goods left her devalued and devoid of hope for a meaningful future? Developing positive interests and fulfilling potential is much more likely under fortunate circumstances than unfortunate ones.

The problem with the honor roll is that it can take none of this into consideration as it relentlessly ignores the different potentials, interests, and circumstances of children and their lives. Instead, it only values knowledge that can be quantified, measured, and ultimately ranked by school officials. The honor roll establishes an arbitrary, “objective” cutoff point a child must meet in order to qualify for “honor.” There are few better ways to teach, transmit, and replicate the unfairness of our society than to award honor in this manner.

The honor roll is currently a dishonorable institution. Through it we equally honor students who strive mightily to barely make it and those who put forth no effort and make it easily, and we dishonor those whose potential for traditional academic work is such that they will never meet the standard no matter how hard they work, those who never received encouragement and assistance to develop interests, and those whose circumstances of life are devaluing, disempowering, abusive, or neglectful.

If we wish to teach and transmit such values as fairness, then we must award honor in a more individualized manner, one that takes into account a child’s potential, efforts, and circumstances and one that encourages the development of his or her interests and curiosities. That this judgment will necessarily be somewhat subjective is a point in its favor, not an argument against it.

American education has been overrun by “objective” standards, and, while these have their legitimate place in our educational system, awarding or withholding “honor” on their basis goes too far.

In fact, given the pervasiveness of grades, testing, and measurement in our schools, one wonders whether students who make the honor roll would even miss it if it were eliminated. Students who do well in school are told so by their grades, and grades are shared widely with friends and family (“What did you get?”). In addition to its unfairness, the honor roll is simply unnecessary.

As to the parents who brag through their car bumpers and the schools that promote such behavior, other parents are starting to respond. A slogan that I encountered recently—”My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student”—helps clarify this issue. Self-esteem and pride can come from many sources, and resentment at the unfairness of the honor roll and at those who flaunt their child’s academic feats causes some parents to take pride where they can find it. It behooves us as a society to see that students can develop self-esteem, and parents can experience pride, from positive sources: behavior and accomplishments that we value, wish to impart to our next generation, and evaluate in a fair and just manner.

Vol. 06, Issue 01, Pages 40-41

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