Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Honor rolls do dishonor to many

Your voice: Will Caradine

I can count on one finger the number of teachers who offered me encouragement during my 12 lackluster years in public schools. My seventh-grade home room teacher told me she was sure I could excel if I'd try.

Unfortunately, her kind words were offset by something else she did. After every grading period, she transformed each class member's letter grades into scores ranging from 10.0 (all A's) to 7.0 (D's). Then she wrote our names and scores on the blackboard, in descending order. My name was never far from the bottom. I hated school, especially on those days. No doubt the list was intended to credit the high achievers and motivate the rest of us. For me, it was humiliation.

I recalled that dark period recently on reading that schools in Nashville have quit posting honor rolls. It seems the practice violates a state law that forbids the release of students' academic information. But many parents are concerned that their kids are being denied recognition for their hard work. A plan is afoot to have parents sign permission slips to make that information public. That's too bad.

There are several problems with honor rolls. One is that whenever you crown a winner, by implication you designate a roomful of also-rans.

Honor rolls foster the false notion that verbal and technical ability are the only forms of intelligence worth cultivating. Research in recent times has identified several other kinds of intelligence. Students with these abilities may be less likely to develop them fully if acclaim goes only to those who excel by traditional measures.

Honor rolls frequently provide fodder for parental bragging. Many students are pressured to excel so parents can bask in their reflected glory. That way lies neurosis.

Not making the honor roll reflects an assessment of a young person at a particular stage of development. For many, the sense of personal deficit associated with that snapshot in time stays with them for life. But we don't all mature in lockstep, and some of us are very late bloomers. I was one.

Students who do well need and deserve praise. It should happen among family and friends. Recognition at church and in newspapers is appropriate. But rank ordering in the schools, at a stage when peer regard is so crucial, is too much, too soon.

Young folks need to find their way on their own timetables. Premature acclaim can warp that process, for those who are honored and those who aren't. For many of the latter, the light goes out and never gets relit. Therein lies tragedy, for those young people and for the nation.


Will Caradine is a psychologist in private practice. He lives in Forest Park.


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