Monday, May 29, 2017

How the media discredits successful students

Once again, an undercurrent of bitterness and envy toward high achieving students has surfaced in the media.

Several recent articles with splashy headlines depict high school valedictorians and salutatorians as the "losers" some already assume they are. Face it - many high school students (and their parents) view those students with a combination of awe, astonishment, envy and bitterness. They may question how these students became so successful, and scoff at their sacrifices. Unlike varsity athletes, top scholastic students are often seen as nerdy social misfits who cared way too much about school.

And just in time for high school graduations, several articles affirm the "loserishness" of these high achievers, each with catchy titles that grab our attention. The article, "This is why class valedictorians don't become millionaires" reminds us that these high achievers never snag the American dream. Another article, "Wondering what happened to your class valedictorian? Not much, research shows" reassures the rest of us that all that hard work was never really worth it.

But let's look at these claims. The articles are based on a recent book by Eric Barker, who cited a 1995 study from Karen Arnold, and uses her research to support his contention that valedictorians are not destined for true success. Arnold followed 81 high school valedictorians for 14 years after their graduation in 1981. She found that 95% had graduated from college with an average GPA of 3.6, and 60% had received a graduate degree. Almost 90% were in professional careers and 40% were in "the highest tier jobs." These individuals would be considered highly successful by most standards. Yet the media's provocative headlines proclaim otherwise - and raise the bar for success to an unreasonable height.

Before writing off these vals and sals, consider the following:

1. Arnold's study was published 22 years ago, using a relatively small sample from one geographic area. It may not be representative of what occurs in other schools in the U.S. or the world, and may not reflect current standards. High school graduates from the class of 2017 may have very different career aspirations than 1981 grads.

2. Study participants were followed until age 32. This is hardly an age cut-off for greatness. Although some "geniuses" show spark early on, in many careers, success takes time, and accumulating millions by age 32 (a criteria for success in the CNBC article) is unlikely. Let's not judge anyone's lifelong achievements by accomplishments at this relatively young age.

3. A somewhat higher proportion of Arnold's study participants were women. She found that many of the women started to doubt their abilities once they entered college (a common struggle for young women), and also chose more female-dominated careers. And at 32, many were focusing on building a family, diverting them from their work. Arnold noted that these women might further their careers at a later time.

4. These articles suggest that the hard-working student is not going to be the brilliant genius who makes great discoveries, starts new companies or showcases wildly creative innovations. Yet, the Bill Gates' and Steven Spielbergs of the world are rare. Most studies of success highlight the importance of conscientious, along with creativity, leadership, integrity and cooperation - traits you would expect to see among valedictorians and other high achieving individuals. 

5. The highly successful people sporting a history of underachievement cited in these articles may have "rebelled" due to boredom and disillusionment with an educational system that ignores gifted students' needs. It is possible that their rebellion did not stem from reckless creativity, but rather from disgust with classes that seemed pointless. If they had been challenged and could have engaged in academics, their investment in school might have been quite different.

6. Even highly creative, fiercely independent people eventually learn to collaborate and compromise - whether in the lab, the boardroom or on a film set. Conformity is more difficult during the throes of adolescence, and maturity develops at a different pace for everyone. Some teens have an easier time during high school and feel supported by family, friends and school. They may be more willing to cooperate with established norms, and focus on learning and achievement. Yet articles such as those above portray these well-adjusted, successful students as inadequate - hard working rule-followers who lack spark. Their tangible and significant accomplishments as teens and as adults are disparaged.

Let's not fall prey to the media's routinely harsh and inaccurate portrayal of gifted or high achieving students. These are children, after all, and they deserve our support and consideration - not our bitterness and scorn. Some valedictorians may be hard working, perfectionistic achievers who sacrifice their social lives for their goals; others may be high ability students who play by some of the rules, but are not fully challenging themselves. You don't have to be a val or sal to be highly successful, and many underachieving gifted and creative students go on to discover greatness. But especially as graduations approach, let's stop disparaging those hard working students who exhibit the effort and endurance to achieve.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.


  1. It seems like the entire benchmark is money. Pure research, especially at a university will not make a person wealthy. An article comes to mind about the person responsible for making weather forecasts accurate for longer than 24 hours. He retired on a standard government pension. Many times I think, people don't understand that sometimes contribution doesn't equal money and that many times giftedness leads to a person wanting to serve or affect humanity in a positive way more than monetary achievement.

    For those gifted people who take more of the arts route, it can take literally decades to achieve any sort of recognition.

    There is of course the dark side of giftedness, which leads a fairly large number to shun their gifts and potentially end up in a disastrous state or die. It might be a good time to mention that one of the big purposes of gifted programs is to ensure the gifted student stays in school and any problems are dealt with before they become permanent.

    1. Rusty, I appreciate your comments. I agree that the focus on monetary success distorts what is meaningful, and also that it can take many years for most people to become successful. The fact that those in Arnold's study were so accomplished by age 32 says a lot about them! Thanks again for your feedback.

  2. Thanks for writing your opinion about these articles. I read the article a few days ago & just rolled my eyes. Who is this author to define what 'success' means to those valedictorians? It's as if the article defined success as becoming a household name. Whenever I read about giftedness, I often think they are defining success on a societal level,rather than individual level. I think it best to let the individual define their own level of success. Not everyone wants to become a household name. Gifted adults are not necessarily risk-takers. Some gifted women want to be stay-at-home moms. I'm sure the non-risk-takers, stay-at-home-moms, and research-lab-rats are all pursuing their definition of success.

    As far as using money to define success, one can become a millionaire while making upper-middle income, but it's done through savings & investing. Don't know if the research look at household wealth or just income. Much research in our country only looks at income & ignores people's savings habits.

    But, to even do the research is weird. What benefit does it do anyone to follow valedictorians through the decades?

    1. Thanks, Kathy. You make some great points. It is so unfortunate to equate success with becoming famous - and to denigrate those who make peace with whatever path they choose. I think there is a mixture of fascination and bitterness that is directed toward vals, and articles like these in the media are feel-good pieces that are used to help the rest of us presumably feel better about having never achieved that high school status.

  3. As a gifted learner, National Merit Finalist, Presidential scholarship recipient, blah, blah, blah... I have not been "successful" by many people's definitions. I graduated from a respectable college with a 3.0 GPA. But I have not had a lucrative career. I have lost many a job. I am mentally ill (yes, I said it). I am not stable enough to keep my head above water, but not "sick" enough to keep from falling between the cracks. my definition of success, my life is amazing. I have 3 children, ages 20, 18, & 15 who are more than I could ever have dreamed of. They are beautiful people who love each other and who truly know what it means to solve problems, not only for themselves but also for their community. I could go on & on, but suffice it to say that I find my fulfillment in being a mother to my three children. They also give me hope & reason to keep moving forward. What more can you ask for?

    1. Anonymous, It sounds like you have achieved amazing success! Wishing you continued joy and satisfaction in your role as a mom. Thanks for sharing this with us, and serving as a reminder of what is really important.

  4. Thanks for pointing out the ridiculously small sample size and that the oft quoted study was only for one place. My valedictorian is an amazingly successful woman. She was voted one of the 40 under 40 successful people in her city last year. She is a cardiovascular surgeon who tours the world to speak about the pioneering techniques they are using to save lives. Our #2 runs a biotech research department. Though I believe a life contribution is about so much more than income and worldly acclaim, I commend any student with the perseverance to rank in the top 10% of their graduate class. Sometimes, sticking with a system, and thriving when it fails you, is successfully winning in life.

    1. Jen, Thanks for your comments. And thanks for sharing your children's successes, your balanced perspective, and recognition of those whose accomplishments reflect the fortitude to hang in there, despite frustration.