There is a growing trend among teachers that I have noticed lately. If an author writes a book on education or someone makes a well-produced video, some teachers are more apt to think that they are hearing or listening to is truth. With little research done on the information they are consuming, teachers are blindly following ideas that do not hold much water in terms of truth. I have seen this time and time again with articles being shared on Twitter.
This post focuses on one instance of this in particular. Namely, this recent Time article on high school valedictorians.
There are other variants such as:
As a person who comes from a family of valedictorians and salutatorians, I was intrigued. However, my “baloney-meter” was off the charts with some of the info that was being expressed in the article and partnering video. This post will be breaking down the video and article’s assertions. I welcome any comments, questions, etc. when doing so. I believe that skepticism should be all-encompassing (especially to the skeptics themselves).
The videos starts with a simple question about what ever happened to the high school valedictorian.
Then, proceeds to cite research from Karen Arnold from Boston College.
I looked up Karen Arnold from Boston College to find her original research... from 1993 (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED368304.pdf). Although her research was published in 1993, the students involved were from over ten years earlier in 1981. I wasn’t even born when this study started.
I am not trying to degrade her research because it is over 20 years old, but the world has seemed to change since way back then. I am not just speaking technologically, but also socially. Many more women (but not enough) are going to college, entering STEM fields, and becoming working mothers than in decades past. This can skew some of the numbers a bit on what valedictorians are up to after high school. A large percentage of the female "valedictorians" (67%) left careers for child-rearing (again this study is over 26 years old and times have changed).
Surely, this phenomenon has created other such research over the years. However, I have yet to find any other such research related to valedictorians. Although, I do admittedly need to look more.
As mentioned in the video, Arnold “followed 81 valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward”. Not only were the supposed valedictorians NOT actually valedictorians, only a small number (51) held that “honor” and the rest were salutatorians or "top honors students". This is odd given that the title of the article strictly mentions valedictorians.
To add more fuel to fire, Arnold’s research states that all 81 students were selected from Illinois (not the most progressive state in education especially in many rural areas). The 81 students were also only being pulled from only 33 schools. There was no mention of anything standardized in terms of grades. Given that grades are arbitrary for each school (some schools don't have weighted grades and others weight grades differently), not all "valedictorians" were created equal.
Furthermore, there was no mention of the graduating class sizes for each valedictorian in the video or accompanying article. There are schools with less than 100 students and others with almost 4,000. Being a valedictorian from a smaller school is not the same as from a larger school. With fewer students, there is less competition. This is a result of the “big fish in a small pond effect”. Arnold’s research states that the study members graduated at the top of class that ranged from 25 students to 650 students. There is no specification to how many of each especially to make sure a grand assertion that valedictorians do not amount to much after high school.
In addition, there is no mention of socioeconomic status of each valedictorian’s school. Some school’s tend to be more rigorous as socioeconomic status increases.

The video states “but, when it comes to changing, running or making an impact on the world, none of these high achievers took on those feats”.

How is "changing, running, or making an impact on the world" even judged? Based on the data from Arnold’s research (see below), most of those careers (if not ALL) have an impact on the world in my opinion.
Sure, they might not be “rich and famous”, but is this something that schools are striving to do? Is that the only measure of success? A snippet from the study shows a more human side to the students.
The conclusion that valedictorians are well-rounded but "lack devotion to a single area where their passions lie" is based on no evidence and is even contradicted within the study that is cited.
The researcher that the Time article was based on noted that the "valedictorian" received insufficient mentoring from faculty on choosing a career properly. Yet, the video or related article make no mention of this. "People feel like valedictorians can take care of themselves," Arnold said, "but just because they could get 'A's doesn't mean they can translate academic achievement into career achievement." This being conveniently left out spins the story a different way.
The video then shows the following statistic.

While that might be true, what is the socioeconomic status of those students before becoming millionaires? Did those students already have money?
Simply put, students coming from money have a leg up on students that do better than they do in school. The following articles showcase this point quite well:

Finally, the video ends with this great “fact”. This statement flies in the fact of any actual data. A related and recent study shows that GPA is actually linked to future salary rather than IQ or other metrics.

Please note: I don't think there should be class rank or valedictorians and the traditional grading system is entirely archaic, but cherry-picked data is not data. The author of the article reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell. He's a great writer that chooses specific data to tell his overly simplistic and easily digestible story rather than being anything remotely scientific.
Reading research (educational or otherwise) gathered by a writer rather than a researcher is the equivalent of watching a movie that’s based on a true story. Most movies based on a true story tend to be dazzled up and made more Hollywood for the sake of the plot and the audience. This analogy can be harmful if used with educational practices unlike the purely entertainment value of a movie.
A healthy dose of skepticism and following the old adage of “if it sounds too good to be true...” can go a long way for our students and teachers. We just need to be able to see through it no matter how much it matches our worldview.
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