Selecting a Winner

Giving student awards can have the unintended effect of alienating some school community members, as Principal Farndale is about to learn. Do awards programs rely too heavily on grades and standardized measures of students in the academic track? How can participation in award programs be used to increase student motivation? What ethically and legally defensible actions might be taken to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to compete for awards?

The eleven science department faculty members of Break Falls Senior High School meet to determine the student winner of the outstanding work in science award.

Department chair Harriet Vaul calls the meeting to order and glances at the agenda.

See the Science Department meeting agenda below: 

“Okay, we’ve got three students nominated for the science award. Arthur Foltrain, Lin Wonting, and Meg Chase. Good nominees, I’ve taught them all.”

John Harrington, senior member of the department and resident jokester, is first to speak. “Let’s save some time and skip right to Lin’s name. The Chinese kids always win in science!” John rolls his eyes. “Six years and counting!”

Harriet hopes he is joking. “Very funny, John, but let’s get on with things now.”

Fred Chandler, biology teacher, says, “You know, the winner always goes to a good school with good financial aid—and they don’t necessarily need the money. I know a thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket, but it could make a real difference for some of our poorer kids. ”

“Good idea,” says Ron Orwell, biology and chemistry teacher. “It would also give us a way out of the Chinese dynasty.”

“Hey,” Harriet says, “enough with the ethnic jokes. They’re just not okay.” She looks around the table at her colleagues. The room is a quiet.

“Sorry, Harriet,” says Ron. “That was a weak attempt at humor.”

Harriet nods and moves on. “And the only criterion for this award is academic excellence.”

“Good thing, too,” Daniel Sears, physics teacher, says. “It’d be pretty tough to calculate financial need.”

The faculty discusses the students’ test scores and report cards.

See test scores and report cards below:

Harriet passes out the ballots listing the three names. She counts the votes and then announces, “Five votes for Lin, four for Arthur, and two for Meg.”

Using his best radio-voice, John intones, “China 7, America 0.”

A chart listing US data on race/ethnicity and science education

Harriet speaks with Dr. James Farndale, the principal, to report on the science award meeting.

“We had our meeting yesterday and the department voted for Lin Wonting,” Harriet says. “It was close.”

“Another Chinese American student as the winner,” Jim responds. “What’s that, seven years in a row?”

Harriet is about to speak when Jim continues. “You know, having those students in our school is wonderful. The kind of seriousness that many of them show for their studies is exemplary.”

Harriet pauses again, collecting her thoughts, wishing she’d planned more carefully what she wants to say to Jim.

“I’m troubled by some comments at the meeting, Jim. I know they mean no harm, but all the same…”

“What do you mean, Harriet? What are they saying?”

“Oh, it’s just a couple of people. Ron and John made some Chinese jokes yesterday…” her voice trails off as she recalls the comments. “It was really uncomfortable. And if that’s how they really feel, I’m sure it shows up in the classroom.”

“I can’t imagine Ron and John are explicitly racist or anything like that,” Jim says. “But maybe some of this griping is inevitable when one group of students wins the award year after year.”

Harriet taps her finger nervously on the table, takes a breath, and nods. “Maybe the whole school needs a workshop or something about understanding and appreciating differences.”

“I don’t know, Harriet,” Jim replies. “Remember that multicultural workshop a couple of years ago?” He shakes his head. “Everyone just ended up feeling guilty.” He shrugs. “Maybe we should bring it up at the next Academic Council meeting. Because I’m not hearing this just from you. The head of the Business Roundtable said something about getting an American to win this year. All very joke-y, just like you said.”

Five Break Falls High School PTA board members meet to talk about the upcoming announcement of the coveted science award.

Murray Chase, president of the bank, begins. “I didn’t call for a full board meeting because not everyone shares the issues I want to talk about. Not everyone has top students in the family!” He laughs and then is serious. “I’m concerned about the science awards. Every year, a Chinese American wins.”

“Whoa! I get it. We’re here because we’re white and the other board members aren’t!” Sylvia Ferber stands. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but I am definitely not going to be a part of it.” She walks out the door.

Mildred Atwater clears her throat. “I’m not sure what you’re proposing, Murray, but I don’t want to set us against any group in town.” She takes a sip of water. “But I am worried just like you. Kids think they can never win because the Chinese American students are just so strong. I have nothing against Lin; he and Arthur are friends and do lots of things together. They should probably share the award!”

“That’s a great idea!” Dr. Helen Newman observes. “Scientific research is a collaborative process. Maybe we should propose a shared award for next year.”

Murray interrupts, “That isn’t getting us anywhere on the issue of all these Chinese winning the award year after year.”

“Where is it you want to go with this?” asks Andrew Hanson. “It seems to me the faculty handle the awards very fairly.”

“I don’t know about that,” Murray says. “The teachers call it the Chinese dynasty! Hardly seems fair to me.”

“Murray,” Mildred says, “You’re a good friend and I trust you. If you believe something inappropriate is going on, and if the teachers believe it, then something’s probably wrong and we should meet with Dr. Farndale.” She looked around the table. “But I want to be clear: I do not favor raising this as a racial issue.”

Parents meet with Principal Farndale to talk about the award.

“Dr. Farndale, we want you to understand we are not in any way prejudiced toward the many Chinese Americans in our community,” Helen says. “But we are disturbed by the pattern of only Chinese American students, year after year, winning the science award.”

“Yes,” says Mildred, “I have no prejudice. Lin and Arthur are very good friends.”

Murray adds, “I know Meg’s competitive as well. Our children work very hard and then, in the end, someone from another group wins the award, year after year.”

Jim thinks about immigration, equity, affirmative action, and a recent Supreme Court ruling before replying.

An article about the 2003 Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action

“First of all, thanks for your concern and your honesty,” Jim feels strange saying these words he doesn’t believe. “I’m a bit puzzled about what you’d like to see done. Are you proposing teachers consider race and ethnicity in their voting? Because I don’t think teachers see students as coming from one group versus another.”

“The award is going to be announced soon,” says Murray, ” and frankly I’m tired of seeing our kids lose out to these foreigners.”

“Wait a minute!” interrupts Mildred, “They’re American citizens, Murray, not foreigners.”

Jim intervenes. “Let’s see if we can slow down a bit and focus the issue, decide if it is a problem, and if it is what we can do about it.”

Andrew responds, “We need to do something so students believe that they have a chance to win awards. I don’t think they feel that way now.”

Mildred adds, “It’s just that for the past few years the Chinese American students have been superb.”

Jim tells the group, “You all know that the science award guidelines state that the award must go to the student with the highest academic performance. That’s it, sole criterion.”

“All right, all right,” responds Murray. “I’ll accept that it is based totally on merit and that for the last several years the Chinese have done the best work. But why can’t we have some way that our kids get awards?”

“They’re Chinese American, not just Chinese.” Mildred says. “And maybe the award could be shared. That would increase the chances of a Caucasian student getting an award, if that’s what everybody wants.”

“That could be a solution,” responds Jim. “As I recall, the original grant included funds for the award, but didn’t say anything about the number of students who could win. But I’ll have to talk to my teachers on this one. I don’t want to undercut their integrity and autonomy.”

“Aw, you’re the boss!” Murray jokes. “Either they do it your way or they hit the highway!”