Scott MacKay Commentary: Is Barrington Coddling Students By Ending Honor Roll?

Feb 10, 2017

Barrington middle schools have decided to end publicizing its student honor roll. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders if this is a good idea.  


The public schools in the wealthy East Bay community of Barrington rarely attract criticism. There’s good reason for that.

The town’s schools have always ranked among the state’s best. Standardized  test scores are high by Rhode Island standards. The school system embraced the Common Core curriculum when other districts in the state resisted. Teachers are known as motivated and caring. Taxpayers over the years have been generous supporters of education.

For years, Rhode Island families have moved to Barrington – and paid the high taxes--so their children would have the benefits of a fine public education and the life opportunities it brings.

The college acceptances of the high school’s senior class are the envy of other Rhode Island public secondary schools and even some private schools.

So the latest move by the Barrington schools – to end the practice of publishing a middle school honor roll – just leaves you scratching your head.

In a letter to parents, Principal Andrew Anderson cited the stress on seventh and eighth grade students and their parents caused by having a public honor roll. “We know that the middle school age student faces a number of social, academic, and emotional changes,” Anderson said.

He also said that the traditional honor roll does not acknowledge the whole student and isn’t an ``effective  representation of success.’’

Ok, so the Diary of a Wimpy Kid years are stress-filled. As if that’s something new. Raging hormones and trying to figure things out have long accompanied this age group.

So what’s different now? Barrington has decided to downplay the significance of letter grades in these years. Just how does that help middle-schoolers cope with a society that measures everything? How does this help them compete in a 21st Century society that demands educational excellence?

Is there some new course in teachers colleges stipulating that thou shall coddle these tender youths? Or is it that a new generation of helicopter  parents don’t want their children’s grades compared to the neighbors kid in the local newspaper?

Luther Spoehr teaches the history of American education at Brown University. He also lives in Barrington. ``This does have the odor of everybody getting a participation trophy,’’ he says. “I thought it a little strange.”

Kids need to learn that one of life’s lessons is that you don’t  win every game; even the Patriots lose some. Learning to cope with loss and not always being the best is part of growing up.

Many kids in Barrington begin life on second or third base – that’s just socio-economic fact. Having an honor roll would seem to be a spur for higher student achievement. If a student doesn’t make it this time, well, there’s always the next. An honor roll should be a goal for kids who need to better apply themselves to their studies.

This coddling of students has now made it all the way up to colleges, where kids have fancy dining halls, living quarters and safe spaces so their feelings won’t get hurt by society’s sharper edges and  differences.

It’s sad that colleges spend so much money on elements of higher education that have little to with education, such as gyms and work-out facilities resembling those for professional teams. We should be more concerned about so many courses being taught by part-time, adjunct professors.

What Barrington seems to be teaching these middle-schoolers and their parents is that grades don’t really mean anything, that everybody is an intellectual equal.

If ever there was a solution seeking a problem, ending the honor roll seems to be one. It’s time the school administrators and school committee members stopped hiding behind that Orwellian language known as education-speak. What exactly do they mean by curbing stress?

It’s easy to poke fun at leafy Barrington. Years back it was caricatured as a town of Stepford Wives. Then there was last fall’s Yoga Pants Revolt, when hundreds of women marched on the home of a gay man accused of body shaming yoga pants-wearing females.

Yet, that was more the benign frivolity of a small town.

This time, Barrington School Committee and school leaders ought to better explain to taxpayers why curbing incentives to get better grades is good policy.  How else will they know if those bumper stickers that state "my dog is smarter than your honor roll kid" are true?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org