The Grading Curve and the Merits of Sitting Last Chair!

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The Boston Globe recently released a report on the post secondary success of its cities top high school graduates. The Valedictorians Project chronicles the post secondary lives of the best and brightest their schools had to offer. The multi-year study chronicled the lives of these academic all-stars in the decade that followed their graduation and the results were shocking to say the least. 

After interviewing the top graduates from the cities public schools they found that:

  • One in four failed to get a bachelor's degree 

  • A quarter wanted to become doctors, but none did

  • Forty percent make less than $50k a year

  • Four have been homeless at some point

  • Many who achieved college degrees were still struggling

How is this possible? These students studied hard and set off to change the world. But what the study found was that in more cases than not, the world changed them.

This wasn't how things were supposed to turn out. After all, they had put in the time and done the work. They had made the sacrifices necessary to stand among the elite. How could this be possible? It turns out the answers are as varied and as complicated as the lives of the students who participated.

To be clear, the report is not an inditement of these schools or their teachers but rather tries to understand all of the complex factors associated with student learning and academic success, including poverty, gender, race, and opportunity. 

For me, it begs us all to ask the question, “Are these schools failing to serve their children, or is the community failing to serve their schools?”

For instance, the report stated, “many of Boston’s top students are “doubly disadvantaged” at college because they are financially struggling and have little in their background to prepare them for higher education. Thrust into an alien, privileged world, they try to get through classes while holding down jobs, coping with crises back home, or even struggling with limited English. A number of valedictorians said that they experienced culture shock, social isolation, and a deep disconnect with college classmates, sometimes going so far as to switch schools or drop out." The study also noted that, "Valedictorians from the cities and towns surrounding Boston have fared much better than their counterparts in Boston public schools. The suburban graduates were about two and a half times as likely as the Boston students both to earn an advanced degree and earn more than $100,000 a year.”

So, is it better to be a Valedictorian in the inner city or the class clown in the suburbs. This recent report seems to indicate the latter.

If we were to conduct a similar study with student musicians, I wonder what the results would be? For instance, would it be better:

  • To be last chair in a strong ensemble or first chair in a weak one?

  • To be a lead player in a weak school or a weak player in a strong school?

  • Be an alternate in a nationally recognized marching band or drum major of a weak one?

  • To struggle at Juilliard or shine at a lesser school?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I have my thoughts and theories. Winton Marsalis once said, “Don’t let my prejudices become yours!” So I will keep them to myself. But what I do know is that much like the students studied as a part of The Valedictorians Project, the reach, depth, and value of what EVERY child receives as a part of their school music experience (and from YOU) cannot be fully measured until long after they are gone.