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The Victor, the Spoils and the American Way

About a year ago, the local newspaper reprinted one of my blogs as Sunday editorial. It was a piece whose core message can be summed up in a sentence: We need to improve schools in Michigan, but increasing competition in the classroom is not an effective way to boost student learning.

I expected there would be a few negative responses in the on-line comments, mostly from successful Vince Lombardi types--and maybe a couple of thank-yous from parents of kids who aren't perennial winners in school.

Response was overwhelming, with sentiment running roughly 99 to 2, pro-competition and anti-Flanagan. I taught middle school for 30 years, so I could deal-- even with comments like the first one that popped up: "Ms. Flanagan is exactly the reason that our children are failing in the worldwide arena."

Comments ranged from sweepingly vicious (see above) to dismissive ("everyone knows that lack of competition breeds apathy") to irate but seriously off-topic ("lousy driver training makes kids bad drivers--like no competition ruins school bands, Nancy Flanagan"). I'm not making that last one up, by the way.

For the record, I am entirely in favor of pursuing rigor and excellence, school sports and recognizing outstanding student work. Nor was I writing about use of rewards--although a number of posters seemed to feel either a) we're giving kids too many unearned rewards or b) we need to give kids rewards because that's how people are motivated. Both a) and b) seemed to think I was wrong, however.

I am opposed to sheltering kids from reality. I am also against indulging kids, giving them everything they want. Like limos for the prom. (Another accusatory post --and by the time that one went up, I was beyond pointing out that most people who rent limos for their 15-year olds are competitive parents, trying to one-up the Joneses and their 15-year old.)

Most disturbing to me? Comments about how we shouldn't even attempt to leverage more school achievement in Detroit, Michigan's largest school system (and economic linchpin, for better or worse)--because those kids were the real losers.

The discussion morphed so swiftly and in so many directions that I came to understand the vein I hit was untapped anger and fear over a number of issues, including a challenge to long-held beliefs about a personal drive to compete being virtuous, and maintaining a sense of superiority over poor people in a weak economy.

Whole books and hundreds of scholarly articles have been written about competition, and the negative effects of increasing stress on performance. The research on motivation and execution tells us that people perform best when they are challenged and excited by the work, and operating in a comfortable social setting.

The highest levels of excellence in science, technology and business generally come from collaborative work effort and products. This is not mushy school-speak. This is straight out of Deming. What do sports psychologists say to premier athletes in a slump? Stop focusing on winning.

Nor is the urge to compete (which always means besting someone else) a natural, human trait. Most primitive societies developed through cooperation. It was conflict that brought mighty civilizations down. Early and strong emphasis on competition in schools (including developmentally questionable practices like teaching reading in pre-school) is uniquely American. Most countries at the top of the list in international academic achievement comparisons spend the first few years of school nurturing cooperation. Ironic.

From the comments:

• A grandmother writes in to say that she is tired of having her (high-achieving) grandchildren forced to work with "lazy, slacker kids who don't care" in cooperative learning projects. She inspires a round of 35 corroborating messages excoriating group work, leading one to believe that half the kids in the county are useless slackers, sponging off the academic brilliance of their classmates. What she doesn't address is what we should do with kids who "don't care" or how they got to the point of not caring.

• A teacher buddy tells me his principal is trying to cut down on the number of awards given at Honors Night. Last year, three students were awarded the departmental prize--all had aced the AP exam, done extraordinary community service and were part of a winning team at a statewide academic competition. This year, he only gets to pick one, because the principal thinks it will "mean more." Mean more to whom?

• A seventh grader sends a letter to the paper, asking why "good kids" should work at all if their superior work products are not going to be highlighted and rewarded--inadvertently serving as poster child for the Entitlement Generation. Why should you learn something or put forth effort unless someone confirms that your work is "better"? Possibly because it's the right thing to do and you're lucky to be getting a free, high-quality education?

This wasn't a dialogue--dialogue implies give and take. Some people want to find collaborative solutions to life's persistent problems. Others write manifestos.

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