Wake County’s proposal to do away with high school valedictorians and salutatorians has sparked a nationwide protest from conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, who argue that the county is dumbing down education.
The school board gave preliminary approval last month to a policy change that will drop valedictorians and salutatorians and instead recognize seniors with Latin titles if they have a weighted grade-point average of at least 3.75. The change, starting in 2019, aims to eliminate “unhealthy competition” among students.
“You know what’s unhealthy?” commentator Eric Bolling said on “The Cost of Freedom” on Fox News last weekend. “Liberalism is unhealthy. Folks, we’re becoming a nation of wussies.”
But Wake County school board members are standing behind the switch in North Carolina’s largest school system. The board is scheduled to give final approval to the policy change on Tuesday.
“The emails and questions I have gotten nationally show a complete and total misunderstanding of what this is about,” said Wake school board Chairman Tom Benton. “They don’t understand weighted GPA.
“They don’t understand that our major high schools have graduating classes of 400 to 600 kids. With weighted GPA, it leads to thousandths of a point separating our kids.”
Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Honors courses are given more value in calculating weighted GPA.
Most Wake high schools follow the long-standing tradition of naming valedictorians and salutatorians – the two seniors with the highest weighted GPAs, who are often chosen to speak at graduation ceremonies.
Under the new policy, principals could not use those titles after 2018. Instead, Wake would switch to the Latin honors system, similar to how colleges and universities recognize high-achieving graduates.
Seniors with a weighted GPA of 4.25 or higher would receive the distinction of summa cum laude. Those with a weighted GPA of 4.0 to 4.249 would get the distinction magna cum laude, and those with a weighted GPA of 3.75 to 3.99 would receive the designation cum laude.
Even after the change, state law will still require class rank to be listed on student transcripts.
Supporters say the change will lead to more students being recognized for their hard work and will allow students to take more of the courses they’re interested in instead of just the advanced classes that will boost their GPAs.
Competition is a reality of life, whether these hippies like it or not. The kid with the top GPA is still going to have the top GPA, no matter what you call (or don’t call) him or her for having it.
Katherine Timpf, reporter with the magazine National Review
“To be No. 1, Wake County has to make bold moves and decisions,” said Tim Lavallee, vice president of policy and research for the WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed nonprofit group that advocates for public education. “Wake County is making a bold move in this case.”
But conservatives have accused the Democrat-led school board of devaluing the merits of competition.
“Competition is a reality of life, whether these hippies like it or not,” wrote Katherine Timpf, a reporter with the conservative magazine National Review, in a May 19 article. “The kid with the top GPA is still going to have the top GPA, no matter what you call (or don’t call) him or her for having it.
“Class ranking is a competition, and the kid at the top is the winner.”
Limbaugh described Wake’s actions on his national radio talk show on May 20 as part of an effort by the left to not elevate anybody.
“The left is all about lowering everybody so that everybody is equal and the same,” Limbaugh said. “So you punish achievement, raise their taxes, you eliminate their awards, you stop recognizing them, you eliminate classes where they can excel, and you just dumb everybody down.”
Some North Carolina school systems, such as Buncombe County in the western part of the state and Johnston County, have already approved the switch to the Latin honors system.
The Orange County school board gave initial approval May 23 to adopting Latin honors. Final approval is expected June 13.
Durham school board members gave their support Thursday to a staff plan to use the Latin honors system. But unlike Wake, Durham will still continue to name valedictorians and salutatorians after the move to the new system.
Benton, the Wake school board chair, said highly regarded North Carolina public schools such as Raleigh Charter High School and the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics don’t name valedictorians. And he contends that there’s misinformation about what Wake plans to do.
When you have to have a minimum of a 4.25 GPA to be summa cum laude, that’s not mediocrity. That’s celebrating excellence.
Tom Benton, Wake County school board chairman
Fox News mistakenly reported that Wake school officials say singling out two people for their GPAs just encourages students to take easy classes. Benton said what’s actually occurring is that students are taking harder courses just to boost their GPAs.
For instance, Benton said students interested in architecture might not take drafting because it won’t help their GPA as much as taking an Advanced Placement course.
“They’re over and over again saying we’re rewarding mediocrity,” Benton said of national critics. “When you have to have a minimum of a 4.25 GPA to be summa cum laude, that’s not mediocrity. That’s celebrating excellence.”
Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank, said he understands why conservatives are upset. But Stoops said people should be more outraged about low-performing schools than whether high schools recognize a valedictorian and salutatorian.
“This plays into the idea of cultural decline, and conservatives are very sensitive to that,” Stoops said. “Any sense that there’s a lowering of standards, especially when it comes to K-12 education, it will touch nerves.
“But all in all, I’m surprised by the amount of national attention it has received.”