If an American family has an exceptionally bright child, we can usually figure out how to surround them with the right educational opportunities to help them excel. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are 3 million gifted children currently in U.S. classrooms. According to this group's definition, these are children "who demonstrate or show the potential for high performance and it is our responsibility to provide the optimal educational experience to fully develop the talents of as many children as possible, for the benefit of the individual and the community."
But what is happening to the psyches of our better students when everyone becomes the valedictorian, considered the best in their high school? The Tahoe Daily Tribune just did a feature story where of the 70 graduates from North Tahoe High School, 18 were declared valedictorians and one was salutatorian (second place). The Columbus Dispatch reports that 20 percent of all graduating seniors in Dublin's three high schools became valedictorians -- that is 222 valedictorians! When I went to high school, many, many years ago, we were all chasing the top student in my class, Steve Wofley, and no one could catch up to his intellect, so he deserved to be our only valedictorian. How did all our kids get so smart that so many now share in top honors? Are our children smarter than we were, or has our society changed how we measure success, and is that change really for the better?
U.S. News just reported that 24 percent of American 15-year-olds cannot successfully complete basic math and science tasks. They estimate that if the U.S. educational system could get these students to understand the basics of math and science, the economic gains over the working lives of these students would add up to more than $27 trillion. This report goes on to say that "improved skills do not automatically require more money, just more focus. As a result, the world is no longer divided into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly educated ones. With the right policies, countries can break out of the cycle of rewarding the best and penalizing the rest."
The Supreme Court unanimously underscored the idea of equal education opportunities for all in Brown v. Board of Education 61 years ago. The court said:
Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. It is the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, preparing for later training and adjusting normally to the US environment. Education is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms.
So how do we help our schools lift up the 24 percent of Americans needing the basic skills, and the other students not standing on the stage as valedictorians? One way is to volunteer your time or donate to tutor organizations that help those in need. If you can't find a local organization to help with tutoring, A List Education has a strong list of organizations that help tutor those who require the most help. Junior Achievement, whose mission is to prepare young people to succeed in a global economy, can use our help. They impacted 4.5 million U.S. students in 197,000 classrooms last year and can use additional volunteers and donations. And at DollarDays, on our Facebook page, we are giving away $5,000 in merchandise to schools that need our help. Please nominate your favorite school for this giveaway!
During the tough economic times since 2008, national, state and local governments have failed to adequately and fairly resource our schools. Budgets, staff and updated equipment have been sacrificed because we have not been able to adequately fund these schools. If the economy had not tanked, it would be a different story, but we have to deal with reality where we just don't have the money to lift the kids who need it most. We need a school system that prepares all of our students for the ever-changing opportunities our economy offers, and that is why we all need to work on the local level to make educational funding the priority of all upcoming budgets. Otherwise, we are just cheating our future. While we will always have valedictorians, those students who need the most help will become greater than 24 percent of our population.