SULLIVAN: Axing the honour roll for North Van schools is not the smartest idea

I’d like to dedicate this column to Nicole Nielsen, a student at Handsworth Secondary, who’s smarter than her teachers.

Not that anyone cares, apparently.

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Nicole has sent the North Vancouver School District to extra detention for phasing out and gradually eliminating the honour roll. That’s the practice of singling out and honouring students who score 80 per cent or higher in their courses.

The bold thinkers at the school board have come to the conclusion that the honour role is a vestige of the bad old days when academic achievement meant something. These days, the trend (and I stress that word, as in “trendy”) is to move from a “grading culture” to a “learning and assessment culture,” and North Van has climbed on the bozo bandwagon.

Before we go too much further, I recognize that a system that rewards grades is open to abuse. That’s never been clearer in the wake of the university entrance scandal.

And I think a culture that encourages “learning and assessment” could be a good thing – but if you’re looking for a way to skate through school without ever being called to account, this one shows promise. In fact a suspicious old curmudgeon (present company excluded) could come to the conclusion that it’s just easier to encourage people to learn and assess rather than actually teaching them anything.

But apparently it takes someone who is still learning to teach the teachers a few things. In her address to the school board, Ms. Nielsen pointed out that abandoning the honour roll removes recognition for academic achievement while conveniently leaving in place the entire sports award infrastructure.

Which means we appear to value athletic achievement over scholarship. Who knew?

And then there’s the obvious fact that, whether the North Van school board likes it or not, the honour roll still matters in the real world (which is rapidly being overcome by the unreal world, where notions rule over facts).

I think I was on and off the honour roll in school – it was so long ago, it’s hard to remember. But I do recall the feeling of achievement and empowerment that came with excelling at core studies such as inventing the wheel, starting a fire and mastodon stalking. 

And today, whenever I look at a resumé and see that the applicant was a fixture on the honour roll, it tells me at least two things:

1) That the applicant cares enough to study hard and excel on exams, or

2) The applicant is so smart, good work habits were irrelevant.

I guess it doesn’t matter to the school district that people entering the job market can’t spell. I mean, who cares if you get the apostrophe right in “it’s” versus “its”? Well, I do, and I bet Nicole Nielsen does as well. Misspelling reveals a working ignorance of the language, in this case knowing the difference between “it is – it’s” and the possessive “its.” Anyone interested in “learning and assessment” might want to know about that one. There are a million other such tells, and from my, um, assessment of current-era correspondence, most recent graduates come with serious foundational language gaps, gaps that auto-correct doesn’t catch.

I may take this language stuff too seriously, but seriously, it’s (note the contraction) the storehouse of our collective mind, and as it degrades, so do science, technology and the arts. We already have a disturbing number in our community who believe that vaccines cause autism, even though that canard (look it up) has been disproved time and again. How long before houses of cards (and bridges) start collapsing under the weight of ignorance?

I’m not saying that the abolition of the honour roll in North Van will lead to the destruction of Western Civilization, but it’s one of the cliffs over which the lemmings will leap. By eliminating an objective benchmark of academic achievement without replacing it, we’re giving up the ability to size up the talent. If I run a medical school, I think it’s great you can play volleyball, but it’s more significant that you made the honour roll five years in a row.

(For those keeping score, I used the contraction for “it is” three times in the above paragraph.)

Finally, if none of that convinces you, the West Vancouver school district will keep the honour roll. Apparently, it’s more than just a river that separates the two jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, Nicole Nielsen, you’re on my honour roll, for what it’s worth.

Journalist and communications consultant Paul Sullivan has been a North Vancouver resident since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Madonna. p.sullivan@breakthroughpr.com

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