It’s About Quality, Not Victory

What follows is an actual conversation between me and a dear friend who is also an administrative colleague. His name has not been changed, since he is guilty and cannot be protected like the innocent.

Setting: About four o’clock on a wintry afternoon in Vice-Principal Jim’s office in NJ.  The office’s aged, mint green walls are adorned with motivational quotes from great NFL, NBA, and MLB coaches.

ME: "So Jim, what do you think the Superintendent is going to say about the proposed change to the school’s grade scale?"

JIM: "You know what, whatever gets the kids working harder.  I just think the weighting of AP and Honors courses is going to throw off the ranking system."

ME: "Good.  The ranking thing should go.  We’re not about competition – we’re about learning.  If it were up to me, I’d do away with grades, scales, ranking… all that."

JIM: "You’re nuts!  We have to keep ranks and grades.  How else do we know who is doing better or well in a subject?  And we rank to see who is the best in the class.  Besides, competition is good for kids.  They have to compete to get into college."

ME: "So you’re saying that it’s okay to have a number one student?  That means, Jim, that to have a number one, there must be a number two, then a three, and so on.  You’re saying it’s okay to have kids at number 100?  We shouldn’t have them compete, we should have them collaborate and learn.  The weak helped by the strong.  Competition is for the field, not the classroom."

JIM: "That’s why I’ll never work for you at a school you run."

I love Jim.  He’s an honest man, a good father, a great mentor for lost adolescents.  But he’s dead wrong about competition in the schoolhouse.   To make him upset and aggravated,  I sometimes use facts and ideas from Alfie Kohn to combat his arguments.  Jim listens, but thinks I am  too rebellious for my own good.

One article from Mr. Kohn that I use frequently to argue my point about the need to eliminate competition from the schoolhouse is entitled "Against “Competitiveness”: Why Good Teachers Aren’t Thinking About the Global
  Economy"
.  It appeared in the September 19, 2007 edition of Education Week.

Janet Swenson at Michigan State University points out that
  “we’ll all benefit from the best education we can provide to every child on
  the face of this planet.  Do you care if it’s a child in Africa who finds a
  cure for cancer rather than a child in your country?” she asks.

Bravo Ms. Swenson.  When NCLB was proudly announced as the law of the land, schoolhouses became battlegrounds; each school district against another, each factor grouping against another, each state against another – which really only translates into each child against the other.  NCLB may have "raised the bar" (whatever that means), but it also made schools places of gaming, not learning. 

And now for my close-to-home moment.  Try not to gag or vomit on your keyboard when you read the comments of one Dr. Larrie Reynolds, Superintendent of NJ’s Pequannock Schools.  Dr. Reynolds is a newly hired Superintendent from the great state of Texas (known for its educational leadership, of course).  Mr. Reynolds was featured in the February 18 Bergen Record.  The title of the story: "Pequannock Goes For Gold".  Here are some excerpts.

The Gold Academy will be the most rigorous and selective program the
high school has to offer. It’s more selective than honors classes,
which require only a teacher’s recommendation.

It was designed to address concerns that some of the best students leave the district after middle school for private schools.

"That is why our high school scores are not very good, or not as good as they should be,” Reynolds said.

Wait, there’s more…

He heard that 22 eighth-graders were considering leaving the
district in the next school year. In the last four years, 64 students,
10 percent of the high school enrollment, left for private schools.

"If those 64 students were still in our high school, how would our high school have been different?” Reynolds said.

"I
suspect we would have had better achievement results, higher SAT
scores, we’d have better results in the classrooms,” he said. "We
would have had a better school.”

He ends his unbelievable comments with this:

"If we can celebrate and recognize and honor talent on the athletic
field, then public schools had better be willing to do the same thing
on the academic field,” Reynolds said. "In many ways, it’s more
important.”

Rumor has it that if you call Pequannock Schools, you will be greeted by the salutation "Pequannock Schools, striving to be number one…".  Apparently, this is what anyone who answers a phone in Pequannock is ordered, by Dr. Reynolds, to say. 

So what do we do about ranking and competition in classrooms, in schools, in districts, in states, in our country?  Do we just ignore it and accept it?  Apparently so.  Not many states have given back the ransom cash Washington D.C. ponied up to get us to buy into NCLB.  Not many schools have stopped the practice of ranking students.  Monthly and weekly publications still sell out copies of the issues that rank colleges, universities, and high schools (NJ is famous for its yearly ranking magazine articles).  I think we like it.  We are Americans; we are supposed to thrive on competition.  The problem is, I don’t see where the competition is taking us. Or maybe I do – and that’s what I can’t tolerate.

As you embark on your journey to school today, I ask you one question.  Did you eat your Wheaties?

~ Mike Parent – guest blogger

11 Responses to “It’s About Quality, Not Victory”

  1. I’ll admit I haven’t delved much into the movement to eliminate grades and rankings. I know each spring my own school has a small group of highly competitive honor students who collapse as the final rankings are unveiled. It does seem a little nuts. On the other end I’ve had parents individually request that I remove their child’s class ranking from their report card because it causes them to lose hope. I also find a number of honors students who are reluctant to take non gpa weighted classes as electives. I know one student who is very interested in psychology but doesn’t take the electives we offer because they are not honor points ranked. I look forward to reading the Alfie Kohn article.

  2. (Cross commented on Parental Guidance)

    Mike,

    Good post. As a fellow Jerseyean, I read your quotes with great interest, as both you district and the other you quote are located reletively close to mine.

    An interesting discussion indeed. On one hand, most of society is focussed on who is “#1”. Look no further than the NFL, NBA, MLB, American Idol, the Iron Chef, Dancing with Stars, and the Oscars. America wants to know who “the best” is, and who is eliminated along the way is entertainment to some.

    Of course, competition breeds many problems. Look no further than the current sports headlines witht he Mitchell Report to see the way individuals respond to the pressures of being #1. For school, Sparks Notes, plaigerism, cell phone text cheating and more are possible illegal off shoots. Tutors, SAT prep classes, and summer enrichment are legal ways kids have been trying to get the “edge” for decades.

    What does this all mean? On one hand, I agree with you that competition causes problems. On the other hand, competition does bring out a desire to push oneself harder if you see value in the competition.

    Our district has eliminated class rank in favor of percentiles. (Top 10%, Top 20%, etc.) While this eliminates grade grubbing for the #3 or #4 rank, competition still exists. I don’t think this is the best solution, but eliminating grades isn’t either.

    Instead, professionally developing our staffs to see and use grades as a learning tool and not a weapon or diagnosis may be the best way to go.

  3. I left public school at the end of 8th grade for the very reasons cited and it was long before NCLB. Maybe the legislation is a symptom of a cultural competitiveness not the other way around?

  4. Barry – I am so tempted to call Pequannock and ask questions about this program. However, I take solace in the fact that he is getting his head handed to him on the http://www.nj.com forum (under Morris County, Pequannock). The town doesn’t like his comments. Do you know of anyone who uses grades in the manner you suggest? Furthermore, do you know of anyone who can assist a school in shifting from grades as ranking and punishment to grades as indicators? Real indicators?

    Mrsdurff – I am sorry to hear you were bullied out of school. Can you tell us more about your story? Also, I like your thought that the legislation followed the culture. Perhaps we are in a tempest that has no end.

  5. What you propose is a form of academic communism – give everyone the same education and we are all better for it, right?

    The problem is that when people are not motivated by self interest, they are not motivated at all.

    Your ideas are sound in theory and look great on paper, but in practical application? Why should i bother trying hard in school, studying for hours, doing that research project, or whatever, when I can sit at home on my butt playing video games and achieve the same end result?

  6. Craig- What I propose may be “communist” in some arenas (though I hardly think education can be equated with a form of economics), but what we see in classrooms is not nowhere near the level of collaboration and teaming that the new “flat world” requires of our students. I would hope that you would agree that that the new world our children will inherit will be one where shared knowledge and the ability to collaborate with such knowledge is demanded, not merely suggested or “a nice idea”. I suggest reading Wikinomics or The World Is Flat for starters. In my eyes, competition is absolutely necessary and good for people – but not when it comes to learning. Wisdom (grown from information and knowledge) is a commodity that all of us would benefit in sharing. How else can you explain the popularity of Wikipedia, wikis, shared and open source code? Wisdom is free -as it should be. It is no longer good for wisdom to be hoarded and kept for the self.

    Regarding your assumption that kids could get the same graces from sitting around playing video games, I’m not sure what you mean by that. I assume that you mean the incentive students need to do well in school relies and depends upon the rewards? What is that same end result you referred to?

    Some food for thought for you:
    1. On tasks requiring varying degrees of creativity, Israeli educational psychologist Ruth Butler has repeatedly found that students perform less well and are less interested in what they are doing when being graded than when they are encouraged to focus on the task itself (Butler and Nissan 1986; Butler 1987, 1988).

    2. Even in the case of rote learning, students are more apt to forget what they have learned after a week or so — and are less apt to find it interesting — if they are initially advised that they will be graded on their performance (Grolnick and Ryan 1987).

    3. When Japanese students were told that a history test would count toward their final grade, they were less interested in the subject — and less likely to prefer tackling difficult questions than those who were told the test was just for monitoring their progress (Kage 1991).

    4. Children told that they would be graded on their solution of anagrams chose easier ones to work on — and seemed to take less pleasure from solving them — than children who were not being graded (Harter 1978).

    5. As an article in the Journal of Educational Psychology concluded, “Grades may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and undermine interest” (Butler and Nissan 1986, p. 215).

    More sources:
    Butler, R. (1988) Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 58 (1988): 1-14.

    Campbell, D. N. (October 1974) “On Being Number One: Competition in Education.” Phi Delta Kappan: 143-146.

    Kage, M. (1991). “The Effects of Evaluation on Intrinsic Motivation.” Paper presented at the meeting of the Japan Association of Educational Psychology, Joetsu, Japan.

    Moeller, A. J., and C. Reschke. (1993). “A Second Look at Grading and Classroom Performance.” Modern Language Journal 77: 163-169.

    Main source: alfiekohn.org

  7. The term “communist” was used loosely to represent an arena in which everyone is rewarded equally regardless of quality of work.

    While I agree that wisdom and education should be free – we have to draw some kind of line. In the end, it boils down to a conscious choice from the child combined with an engaging and exciting teacher.

    You can only place the child in the classroom – you cannot make him learn.If the child chooses to ignore what is being placed in front of him, or the teacher does a poor job of keeping the students engaged, you cannot blame the system.

    My “ends” that i refer to are the “American Dream,” to grow up, get a good job that allows you to support a family, and move up the corporate ladder. The post-education arena is certainly one in which students (people) will be graded, evaluated relative to each other, and rewarded or punished based upon these evaluations. Is it fair to show our students a childhood of coddling and fair play only to thrust them into a world that is anything but?

    We agree on the fact/idea that teamwork and collaboration breeds innovation, improvement, and success, but at the same time, even within those workplace teams, there is the inherent individual, working for himself. The teams success = his individual success, and thus explains his motivation.

    Furthermore, what would you argue is the “necessary” characteristics to have to work well in a team? Open-mindedness, willingness to be criticized, honesty, etc. Social skills. Why do we need to teach our students these skills in the classroom? Extra-curricular activities are there for a reason. It teaches students the benefits of working in a team for a common goal, teaches them to socialize and relate to their peers, as well as learning to work with (and against) others.

    Why monosaturate their education like this? Allow them to learn the social skills necessary for teamwork in or out of the classroom, i don’t care, but don’t teach the same life lesson in both arenas.

    If we stop grading students at their desks, then we need to stop giving everyone a “participation” trophy at Field Day.

  8. Craig- I like the way you think. This type of discourse is exactly what I was hoping for this week. I admire your convictions and your poise.

    I think we both agree that the carrots have got to change. I also think we both agree that competition is healthy, needed, should be encouraged, and important… but we disagree that it belongs in learning. As I said to my colleague, “Save it for the field (the court, the pool, the track, etc.)”

    My four year old son begins tee-ball this Spring. I will throw away the trophy if every kid gets one for just putting on the team hat. I think that philosophy sucks, too. He can keep his trophy if he wins.

    Thanks for the sparring. No link to your blog?

  9. I admit the studies don’t impress me; I’d rather look at actual schools that are gradeless. For example:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4618720

    or

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/24/AR2006122400706.html

    If I give a puzzle to the students I claim is just for fun, it is almost trivial to say they’ll like it better than if they’re graded. Sometimes I need to teach “completing the square” or “factoring this really difficult equation”, which are by their very nature painful, so there is no natural incentive.

    (On the other hand, once I got many students to factor an extremely difficult expression — it took them on average an hour to solve — just by telling them it would make up two of their missing homeworks.)

    My main worry is that assuming a “no grades” system will work with every student is a mistake. (See Washington Post article above.) Different students have different needs; Universal Philsophies always make me uncomfortable.

  10. I’m reluctant to post, as the claim of “academic communism” pretty much invokes Godwin’s Law. 🙁

    The obvious solution, to me, is to let students compete against their past selves. Compare an individual student’s skills in May against that student’s skills in last September. It’s positive — students have to have gained _something_ in a year. It’s applicable to all students, regardless of initial skill (as long as the system anticipates growth opportunities for even ultra-high achieving students). It’s much easier for a student to understand their personal achievements in terms of themselves.

    My favorite part: it encourages students to think in terms of “hard work by me = improvement” rather than “genetics and similar things beyond my control = what I can ever hope to achieve”.

  11. I almost certainly would not have contemplated this was helpful two or three years ago, yet it is interesting how age evolves the manner you respond to stuff, thank you for the weblog post it really is great to see something wise here and there instead of the regular rubbish masquerading as blogs and forums over the internet. Cheers

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