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Are We Too Competitive?

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In a recent Education Week Commentary, author Alfie Kohn argues that the United States is too focused on competing against schools in other countries. He writes that there's little correlation between a nation's test scores and its economic vigor, nor between an individual student's academic performance and success in the workplace.

Rather, he writes, good teachers are thinking about ensuring all of their children learn, and not about the economics of their jobs.

What do you think? Is the U.S. too focused on how schools prepare students to compete in the global economy? Are the economics of schooling overemphasized?

29 Comments

With gas at $3 a gallon, our student loans running in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, more people getting degrees than ever before and a globally motivated and trained workforce, sorry if we're a little concerend about survival.

Alfie Kohn, despite his admirable humane values and often excellent insights about pedagogy, is, once again, off-base when it comes to broader educational policy. Like many people who consider themselves "progressive," he is so self-righteous about defending public schools against the evil influence of greedy corporations, that he fails to realize that helping students become "productive workers" not only increaases the "profitability of their future employers" and "the revenues of U.S. corporations," but also students' own future economic, social, and psychological welfare, not to mention their chances of getting employed at all.

Kohn says educators' primary loyalty must be "to children," but surely failing to help children become employable betrays that loyalty. Parents would rightly be outraged by a school that scorns this purpose. Luckily, there is no contradiction between such a goal and helping students become good thinkers, good citizens, and generally well educated.

Kohn seems to think it's smart and progressive to persuade people that "school achievement is only weakly related to subsequent workplace performance." OK, many people (e.g. teachers) often earn less than others who did less well in school. But, those who do poorly in school will generally have less opportunity to earn decent incomes and have satisfying jobs--especially in today's "competitive market" (that Kohn doesn't want educators to think about). It is a colossal disservice to encourage students to think otherwise.

Politically, isn't it also close to insane to persuade people that "the state of our economy" has no relationship to "how good our schools are at preparing tomorrow's workers"? It is not only untrue, but I can assure Mr. Kohn that if people didn't believe education was a good "investment" (another word he seems to hate), not only for the students involved but for the economic welfare of the whole society, we would have a much harder time getting taxpayers to support public schools (and it's hard enough already).

What Kohn is rightly concerned about is our perverse system of assessing school performance. This, however, is the product of our obsolete bureaucratic education system, not what good management practice would call for. And he takes his hatred of tests to such extremes that he gives the impression that any effort to raise standards and assess student learning violates the values of childhood.

To the extent that people think public schools are run with this kind of mentality (which too many people already do, thanks to educational screeds like Kohn's), they will withdraw their support from public education and look for alternatives that Mr.Kohn won't like, such as vouchers and privatization.

Alfie Kohn is also perverse about "competitiveness," but this posting is already too long, so I hope others will help counter his benighted thinking on that score.

To compete globally, I think we need to operate our school systems in a similar fashion. If you know anything about schools in other countries they begin training their students for careers by the eighth grade and that is not done in this country. Also, standardized testing should be done globally and that does not occur as a whole. There are many countries who provide education only through the elementary years and parents have to pay for education after those grades. In many ways we are superior and in many ways we could learn some things. Instead of trying to be the best and win we should learn how we can take a good system and make it better. Right now we are comparing apples to oranges and it just doesn't compare equally. Each school system in the USA is not even the same.

Competition, in and of itself is generally a positive motivater. Most people enjoy competition. It is important however to be certain that all competitiors are in the same race. It is also important to remember that the playing of the game is what is important, not the final score. Individual achievement loses some of its value when it is judged against outstanding achievement and with lower achievement. Being average is not a bad thing, but it has become a bad word in education.

Test scores constitute only one measure of a student or school's success. Also, we must compare apples to apples in competing in a global economy. I would hope that our goal would not be to "catch up" with other countries in their suicide rates among teenagers! The rate is much higher in countries with which we are competing. Also, we are not the same in other ways such as parental support, age at which teenagers may obtain a driver's license, pressure to have "stuff" which requires students to have a part-time job, etc. If we're going to expect our students to perform on the same level with the Europeans, Japanese, etc., let's give them the emphasis on their studies that these other countries do and take away the competitors for their attention.

In my school district, competition rears it's ugly head in almost every situation. In elementary school, students compete to see who can write the fastest paragraph, who can memorize their math facts first, who can read the most books and who spit out the names of the states and capitals quicker than their peers. Our principal runs a contest to see which class can be the quietest on the way to the lunchroom.

Teachers post the names of the winners and the loosers on classroom bulletin boards for all to see. Competition in the classroom creates a false sense of rightousness for the winners and devastating blow for the loosers. Instead of working together cooperatively, schools are pitting children against each other in the name of increased learning.

Many children, and adults, detest competition. It may motivate those who are used to winning, but it's a strong demotivator for those children who struggle. How many times do you have to loose before you feel like a looser?

My community is even worse. Children as young as 4 and 5 play on competitive (and very serious) soccer teams. Parents pit their children against each other to see which middle school basketball teams can shoot the most baskets every day. Nothing is just a fun game -- it's all a serious competition.

For many children, the intense pressure of constantly competing against their peers causes anxiety, depression, and fear. Alfie Kohn is right. Competition is ruining childhood.

When I taught foreign language in US public schools, I cringed each time I read that I am supposed to prepare students to compete globally. I want them to be able to collaborate globally, to understand and appreciate other cultures and countries so peaceful relationships can be established. Excellence, in my opinion, should not be achieved by the desire to beat the other in a race. This attitude pits person against person, country against country. I have seen children being happy and proud about quality work they did themselves and about quality work others did. There was no need for competition as an extrinsic motivator.

Dave Seeley's, "What Kohn is rightly concerned about is our perverse system of assessing school performance. This, however, is the product of our obsolete bureaucratic education system, not what good management practice would call for. And he takes his hatred of tests to such extremes that he gives the impression that any effort to raise standards and assess student learning violates the values of childhood." is on target.

We need to do something about this rather than just talk about. My pet project for several years has been to change the negative event of scoring multiple-choice tests by just counting right marks to identifying mastery at any test score. See How Multiple-Choice Tests Work at www.nine-patch.com/How.htm.

A test score of 60% (and 40% wrong) can become a test score of 70% with no wrong. You can honestly tell a student, "You did great on the part that you completed," just as you do with essay tests.
This turns the test into a positive experience, "I know what I know and I can do more next time".

Once again Mr. Kohn is providing ear candy for the products of education schools that have replaced a proven worthwhile information and knowledge based curriculum with one that is based on emotion and a lack of accountability.

I will not argue that much of what we learn in school will not be used in our adult lives. However, as I have explained to my children, the self discipline it takes to learn what may not be interesting or fun is what will help make them better employees, friends, and partners as adults.

Mr. Kohn and others have done our children and education industry a great disservice by negating the benefits of testing and competition. We need to prepare our children for the real world, not the world Mr. Kohn would like to have.

In response to Prof. Hart, what we learn through fun, positive experiences pales in comparison to what we gain by learning how to effectively deal with, persevere through, and eventually complete difficult, less enjoyable tasks. That is one of the biggest problems I see with young adults in my business; they expect everything to be fun, positive, and exciting. Unfortunately what I see all too often are young adults in the workplace and college who have little tolerance for frustration, little self-discipline, and an expectation that the world will accommodate to them, just as their schools bent over backward to do in an attempt to make everything "personally relevant" and positive

If the field of education had done a respectable job of monitoring itself over the years, there would not be the need there is now for outside intervention and testing. However, they chose to replace a good classical education with the psychologized curriculum and classroom; and the results for many disadvantaged and middle achievers has been devastating.

Let's hope teacher and school administrator prep programs begin to prepare teachers and administrators for the world we have, not the one they have the luxury of believing exists as they peer out the windows of their ivory towers of academia.

Be careful not to mix up the words fun, interesting, positive, and easy. Something does not have to be easy or come easily to be fun. An endurance athlete, training for a marathon for example, will not decsribe that training as easy, but it is, to the athlete, fun. When the effort, the sweat, the time spent or the work is worthwhile to the individual, the activity is fun, positive and interesting. learning opens doors, big heavy doors. The effort is worthwhile and leads to new doors, heavier doors. Perseverance comes from enjoying the trip and learning the value of work.

You supported my point perfectly. Much of what is presented in an academic environment is not seen as immediately worthwhile to the student. Therefore, it will be seen as difficult or uninteresting. If we only present what will be seen as worthwhile to many children, it would be what will make them happy and engaged right now. Many are quite unwilling or unable to see the long term benefit of persevering through a difficult task. Instilling that concept of "delayed gratification" in our young is part of our responsibility as adults. In accomplishing that task, they get a feeling of success like none they will ever feel by doing something easy. And the discipline and perseverance it took to accomplish that task will help them deal with other difficult tasks in their lives.

We don't really need to worry about kids having fun doing what they like. What we need to teach them is that the better they get at doing what they are not too crazy about, the greater the chances they will have more opportunities to do what they do enjoy in the future.

The very definition of persevere (to continue in some effort, course of action, etc. in spite of difficulty, opposition, etc.) negates your last statement. I will give you this, it sounds great, just like so much of what passes as educational thought these days.

I also believe you are confusing the words fun and satisfying. I know many runners and weight lifters, and other athletes who will tell you that they have endured many hours of tedium in order to achieve a goal. Sometimes it is enjoyable, usually a struggle, but the successful outcome is always satisfying.

Anyone who can argue that perseverance, tolerance for frustration, self discipline, and self control will not enhance a student's chances of living a productive, fulfilling life needs to look at the research on "Self-Esteem" (Baumsister for instance).
Your response represents exactly what worries me, and many others, about what really goes on in schools these days.

Every year school boards are faced with asking their governing bodies
for revenue they need to continue the services they provide and every
year they are short changed.
By giving school boards taxing authority, school boards would have
the authority to decide what is going to happen in their schools and
to generate the revenue necessary to make that happen.
Revenue for K-12 public schools comes primarily from state
governments, local school districts and the federal government.

The answer lies within the late Justice Thurgood Marshall’s descending opinion in U.S. Supreme Court SAN ANTONIO SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ, 411 U.S. 1 (1973)

Is this gentleman insane or merely been living in a cave? The focus on mandated educational mediocrity for the last several decades has become a "self-fulfilling prophecy" in our country. Witness the state of our "Global Comptetitveness" (American Competitveness Initiative and Innovate America)!

God save our country because we are woefully unprepared to meet such an URGENT overwhelming challenge!

Wake-Up America the "feel good" folks among us are about to report of the onset of a severe headache! One which "two aspirins and call the doctor in the morning" will be both inane and potentially economically devasting simultaneously.

End of Rant (forgive)!

Take Heart, but no prisoners.

It's easy for your generation to talk about working together, collaborating and so forth, although those practices do have value in certain context.

Most of you did not face a world where most of your peers had similar/higher education. Some of these comments reflect a disturbing ignorance of global realities -- other countries are out to supplant our economic supremacy, not help us maintain our status (earned by hard work and competition).

What makes your children most angry is your stubborn refusal to acknowledge the reality of the world you are leaving us. This is obviously because you know, deep down, that most major institutions in our country failed under your leadership. On top of this state of affairs, you have promised yourselves unprecendented government benefits.

You have lived your lives profiting from the work of your parents. Most children and young adults today will spend their lives undoing the damage done by theirs.

Sorry for not making myself clear. Peter Young's, "In response to Prof. Hart, what we learn through fun, positive experiences pales in comparison to what we gain by learning how to effectively deal with, persevere through, and eventually complete difficult, less enjoyable tasks." is not where I have been going.

It is by providing students with fair, accurate and honest test scores that they can learn to "persevere through, and eventually complete, difficult, less enjoyable tasks". Good instruction with timely formative feedback is the key to promoting student development.

A struggling student at the pass/fail point only gets a count of useless right marks with traditional scoring. With Knowledge and Judgment Scoring (KJS) the student is rewarded for what is known, mastered, and for the good judgment to use these questions in reporting it. This requires using all levels of thinking rather than just marking and waiting for the teacher to report the right answers.

I have observed failing students being enlivened to see for the first time, "I actually know what I know! I can learn this stuff. I will study for a better score next time." as a consequence of receiving a mastery level quality score in addition to the traditional quantity score.

Changing scoring methods does not make the work any easier, but KJS provides a narrow clear trail, of what the student can trust, through the swamp of learning new things.

Fair , honest test scores and achievement evaluations are one thing. Comparisons are another. Students need to know how they are doing compared to how they did do. They require real, positive, truthful and, if necessary, corrective feedback. Parents and students alike find themselves in a fog when scores are reported in percentiles, and overeall scores, even when broken down into general areas, are still rather meaningless. Students need to know what was wrong and why it was wrong. They may have had no clue and took a guess. They may have confused one distractor answer with the "correct" one.
Relying on standardized achievement test scores to measure student progress is a cop-out. It hands off the respononsibility to teach each student to the student's potential. Accountability is not being gained; it is being steadily lost. The mediocrity is growing as the standards and standardization replace responsible teaching.

Again, asking the wrong question leads us in the wrong direction. Maybe we should ask why we are now forced to push our students to compete in a global marketplace. When government policy makes it profitable to outsource good jobs in the wealthiest country on earth to the poorest, how can we then blame the schools, teachers and students for failing to accept such an arrangement?

The single largest source of new jobs in this country continues to be small businesses. If anything would help our community, economy and country, it would be teaching more about starting and running your own business.

I agree with many of Mr. Kohn's comments. However, I believe that his central position is somewhat skewed. He states, "Is it the main mission of schools really to prepare children to be productive workers.....to increase the profitability of (corporations') future employees?" Not exactly. But it IS the primary mission of schools to prepare their students to make a living as capable adults.

By "making a living" I don't mean just be able to make money - drug dealers make money, but not really a living because you don't find many of them over the age of 40 as they're either dead or in jail.

But if a child grows up and does not possess the requisite skills to make a living, everything else falls away; stability, self-esteem, positive outlook and all the other intangibles we strive to lay the foundation for.

That the global economy is becoming more competitive IS a reality. It is also a reality that in order to function productively for ourselves (not just for bad-guy corporations) we will increasingly be required to think, create, and communicate effectively - abilities that are much more difficult to measure through data acquisition as opposed to more empirical methods of evaluation.

NCLB and "tougher standards" focus on the lowest common denominator, sideline the relationship of teacher to student, and rely on mathematical indicators of success. It is ironic that in a conceptual economy which relies increasingly on ideas and innovation, we continue to focus our efforts on social rectification and the three "Rs" of recognize, repeat, and replicate.

"U.S. too focused on how schools prepare students to compete in the global economy"? If someone else has already said it, my apologies. I don't have time to catch up on all this reading! I don't think our schools are at all focused on preparing students to compete in the global economy; if they were, they'd be teaching problem-solving skills instead of how to score well on a test.

Every school I visit these days--urban, suburban, rural--is struggling with achievement as defined solely by standardized test scores: Teachers and schools now use narrowly focused, unchallenging, uninspiring curriculum to make AYP under NCLB--nothing else matters.

Politicians and education policy makers need to spend several weeks sitting as a student in some of these oppressive classrooms! I'll bet no education policy maker remembers the joy of the score they received on their elementary standardized achievement tests--but that they remember what they learned from teachers who made learning come alive using plays, art, outdoor classrooms, and hands on learning.

I am in complete agreement with Bob and Cheryl that NCLB test scores are useless, meaningless and damaging at the student level. The right-mark only scored test is a lottery at lower scores.

By scoring multiple-choice tests for quantity and quality, or knowledge and judgment, they produce useful information on each student and each question, not just class averages for comparisons.

“Students need to know what was wrong and why it was wrong. They may have had no clue and took a guess. They may have confused one distractor answer with the "correct" one.” This is not the case scoring for quantity and quality. A student only selects a question to answer if it can be used to report what he/she knows at all levels of thinking, not just guessing.

“I don't think our schools are at all focused on preparing students to compete in the global economy; if they were, they'd be teaching problem-solving skills instead of how to score well on a test.” Scoring for quantity and quality turns every question into two questions that require the use of all levels of thinking, including problem-solving.

The student must first decide if the question is related to his/her preparation which requires higher order thinking. Secondly, decide if one of the test options is strongly related to the answer in mind before reading the answer options. If it is, the right answer is in hand. If it is not, the student can try to fault each option. When only one is left, it is, in general, the right answer.

This is a far different set of skills than just looking for “the” right answer. Instead it is more comparable to editing a paragraph on an essay test. It puts the student in charge of reporting what is known, editing his/her own test.

The point I wish to make is that scoring right marks and knowledge and judgment scoring are two very different things. Right mark scoring yields easy and difficult questions. Knowledge and judgment scoring adds student discriminating and misconceptions that are very useful to guide instruction and in counseling at-risk and struggling students (the group I worked with for many years). They need to know what they know, and can trust (judgment), and do not know, not just a test score. Success at this point starts them on the road to being self-motivated, self-correcting scholars functioning at all levels of thinking.

It was fun to see this happen. They started to enjoy school and to get higher scores in all of their classes. They understood.

Several thoughtful people have reminded us that collaborating globally is wiser than competing globally. This is very true. We tend to forget that public education was not originally developed to create a competitive workforce, nor a competitive economy. It was intended to create competent (not competitive) citizens. We educate people, not machine parts. We need to look back at the original intentions for public education (see Franklin and Jefferson) and remember that as educators, our first goal is to help our students become competent, critical, and creative thinkers and lifelong learners. We are absolutely not in the "business" of developing competitors!

For those supporting NCLB and standardized testing, please spend a year in the average classroom. With NCLB and standardized testing, teachers are expected to have all children meet the same standards. We are ignoring our best and our brightest, because we have to spend so much of our time and resources bringing up the lowest. We are no longer supposed to ability group students, so a third grade teacher may have students reading anywhere from a first grade level to an eighth grade level. How can a teacher meet everyone's needs with that kind of discrepancy? I am not advocating ignoring or leaving the lower children behind. I am advocating taking every child where they are and pushing them as far as they can go, rather than push everyone to the middle. Students who are able to read in Kindergarten shouldn't have to wait for half the class to learn the alphabet before moving on.

Dave Seely's and Richard Hart's (both University Professors) responses are suspiciously worded alike. Is this blog monitored?

I'll try to keep this short and sweet. The only thing that a student should compete with is himself/herself. I really like the comments that point out that rather than competing with the world we should be collaborating with them. What a concept! Unfortunately due to the pressures of AYP and NCLB, teachers don't even have time to collaborate with each other. They are too busy getting ready for the next High Stakes Test. I also agree with the comments that point out that students don't need to be told what they don't know (they know that), what they need is to be shown that what they do know is meaningful and that they can learn even more through hard work. But that opens up another can of worms...by and large students do not know what hard work is because too many of them are given everything they want. Gone are the days when parents said "save your money and buy it yourself". Now it is "here is the credit card". We are a society of the priveledged, where children are overindulged on all levels and grow up way too quickly. There, I am off the soapbox.

Alphie Kohn speaks passionately against competition. He makes some salient arguments but is not convincing enough. Too much of what he says flies in the face of everything our country runs on and believes in. Everything/everyone in our society is competitive and that's what makes us the greatest free market economy in the world. Schools and teachers should be the ones walking our kids through the degrees of competition; what's appropriate and what's not. I tend to agree with the writers from above who support the notion of kids competing with themselves, that's code for doing the best they can, all the time.

We are too competetive at the younger grades. Children need time to aquire the foundations; we are asking our younsters to learn and MASTER material that should be taught to much higher grades. If your children are will jprepared with the foundations, then it will be possible to build rigor, depth, and competition into curriculum.

“I tend to agree with the writers from above who support the notion of kids competing with themselves, that's code for doing the best they can, all the time.” is a very good way to state the situation. They need timely, honest, accurate feedback to do that (meaningful formative assessment). That is not what NCLB testing provides nor does test preparation at the lowest levels of thinking either.

That is why I have been promoting Knowledge and Judgment Scoring the past few years as a way to upgrade preparation for NCLB multiple-choice tests and this past year upgrade the NCLB test scoring too. Right-mark scorings creates an unnecessarily competitive environment with a discouraging list of wrong marks for low scoring students. A large portion of the right marks do not represent what the student actually knows. No value is given to the student’s own self-judgment, the very skill a student needs to function at higher levels of thinking.

Knowledge and Judgment Scoring isolates what a student has mastered and can trust as the basis for further learning at any test score. My remedial students first tried to boost their quality score above the 80% point, to experience what it means to “know what you know”. That is “competing with themselves.” They also consistently requested a “written recitation” every two weeks using Knowledge and Judgment Scoring.

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