Wanted: Visionary Valedictorians

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 “A-students work for B-students and they both work for C-students.”

 I can’t place who said this to me as I was finishing up my coursework at Carleton College in 2006, but it’s stuck with me ever since. Apparently, a “rich dad” has made an audiobook for parents about a similar train of thought. 

Personally, I was unsettled by this statement. After all, I worked incredibly hard at an ultra-competitive high school and an academically rigorous college to get nearly straight A’s. I am proud that I graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude. But, frankly, I felt betrayed by the system - why would success in school not translate directly to success in the world? 

Anecdotally, based on my decade of experience as a high school teacher, I can tell you that there seems to be very little correlation between academic success and professional success. Many of my students who struggled mightily in the classroom are doing creative, interesting, and rewarding work professionally.

 A recent study out of Boston College confirms what most of us know from personal experience - achieving at the highest levels in school doesn’t lead to commensurate levels of success in the world. The aptly titled article about this study, “What happened to your Valedictorian?” Not much, Research Shows,” demonstrates the ways in which school is disconnected from the world of work. Grades are an, “excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules.” In other words, A-students will pass the marshmallow test and probably avoid making terrible decisions in their youth, but these attributes are certainly not defining characteristics of leaders in an era of innovation.

 After ten years as a teacher in elite public and private high schools, I can tell you that the system is broken. It took me years to realize the problems with being an A-student and it has taken equally as long to overcome the limitations of the A-student mindset. 

 It’s this A-student mindset that encourages meeting others’ expectations instead of setting your own. It’s the A-student mindset that seeks rewards for following directions rather than thinking of novel ways to approach challenges. It’s the A-student mindset that requires you to be good at everything rather than allowing you to passionately obsess over one thing. It’s the A-student mindset that fears failure at all costs, and in doing so, misses many opportunities for growth and learning.

Of course we want schools to develop strong habits of mind and cultivate kindness and compassion in our young people. I think we should encourage discipline, conscientiousness and respect as part of character education in school. It’s just that we need to make sure the skills and attributes we reward in school are aligned with the skills and attributes rewarded in the world outside of school. Our industrial model of education is doing a disservice to students in an era of innovation. Instead of rewarding-rule following and perfectionism, we ought to reward creativity, skill acquisition, specialization, problem-solving and learning from mistakes.

I plan my units and lessons using understanding by design principles. Backwards planning in education reform requires that we start with the end goal - college. The onus is on elite colleges and universities to develop better ways to assess and evaluate students using standards that more fully align with the needs of an economy driven by innovation. I am heartened by the movement towards skill-based micro-credentials and the work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, but even these efforts fall short. 

 We need to close the gap (gulf) between school and the world.

What if the best students were the ones that made the most positive impact on the world? What if the best students were the ones that applied their quantitative reasoning, creative thinking and communication skills to solving problems in their communities? What if we considered the top students to be the ones who reflected most honestly on their process, failures, and opportunities for personal growth? What if we considered students with the strongest networks of advocates and sponsors to be the top of their class? What if the best students had the best online portfolio of skills and the clearest mission statements? What if the best students had the most successful learning experiences embedded in community and business organizations?

 It’s time for us to confront the real limitations of the A-student mindset and reward our young people for being bold and creative problem-solvers.

Meredith Goddard