Sunday, May 27, 2018
Education

Sue Carlton: Pasco school chief takes crazy-brave leap at progress

In the spirit of graduation season, a multiple choice question:

1. Is Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning:

a. forward-thinking and pragmatic in his pitch to ditch the tradition of naming valedictorians and salutatorians in high schools?

b. crazy-brave, given how some parents are sure to react?

c. just crazy?

Browning is floating a change that may already have outraged moms and dads who have been calculating grade point averages since their kids' blunt-scissors-and-library-paste days — an understandable reaction, until you read the fine print. (Note to students: Always read the fine print.)

Browning wants to get rid of the traditional val and sal designations for the top two GPA earners in every high school because the process has grown complicated, arbitrary and outdated. He's suggesting "cum laude" designations to honor groups of top students in the college tradition.

What's so problematic about vals and sals? A competitiveness that can get unhealthy, educators will tell you. Constant calculation, with students even switching schools to get an edge.

School today is way more complicated than the six-courses-in-a-classroom a lot of us grew up with. Here's one snag: Virtual school and dual enrollment run on different grading schedules than regular classes.

Browning noted a case in which a student was told she'd be salutatorian, only her online class grade didn't get counted toward her GPA, bumping her to third. How fair is that?

And isn't there something off when one student can edge out another by hundredths of a point?

Still, there are good why-buck-tradition questions to be asked. And good answers in the fine print. For instance:

Q. Why should high school kids already working toward becoming No. 1 (or No. 2) be denied now?

A. They wouldn't. Change would begin with next year's freshman class.

Q. What about being able to say "valedictorian" on college applications?

A. Students will still be ranked first, second, third, etc., and can claim those titles. And for the record, most colleges recalculate GPAs anyway to focus on core academic areas.

Browning points out that with 13 Pasco high schools, you're talking 26 students affected. The cum laude honors would give lots more top students a reason to get educationally motivated. He's already been accused by a critic of being Mr. Everyone's-A-Winner — but really? With prestigious designations American colleges have bestowed since the 1800s?

Q. What about the time-honored tradition of the val/sal graduation speech?

A. Individual schools will decide and can still designate the two top students.

Already, Browning has had emails from interested school officials elsewhere. "It's almost like, 'Thank goodness there's someone stupid enough to bring this up,' " he told me. Because, yes, this is not whether to buy more volleyballs. Expect resistance when it comes to the School Board next month. The idea got killed in Hernando County last year.

But with careful consideration, a move to change tradition in the name of education — sometimes known as "progress" — might not sound so crazy after all.

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