Competition — the old-fashioned kind with winners and losers — is making a come back, writes June Kronholz on Education Next. Despite educators’ qualms, smart kids are signing up for bees, bowls and academic olympiads.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is using harder and harder words — Laodicean, Maecenas, menhir, apodyterium, herniorrhaphy in 2009 — because more and more competitors are working harder and harder.
Today’s teachers generally cringe at everything about that development. All those hours spent on one narrow academic focus! All that rote learning! All that stressful competition! And if some children shine on that national stage, what about the self-esteem of every other child whose luster is publicly shown to be not as bright?
Still, the National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Bee are booming; so is MATHCOUNTS, sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers and technology companies. Then there’s “the National Science Bowl sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, a Bible Bowl, grammar bowls, and an International Brain Bee, where finalists identify the parts and functions of the brain—using human brains.”
Bee contestants tend to be high achievers in everything, Kronholz writes.
They challenge themselves with the toughest courses their schools offer, and still make time for sports, Key Club, Boy Scouts, piano, or the school robotics team. Some claim Rolodex memories; others attribute their success to hard—really hard—work.
But educators dislike competition because they fear many students will see themselves as losers and quit trying.
Susan Brookhart, a former education professor turned consultant on testing and motivation, says competition is good only for the winners. Competition “creates this idea among students that there are winners and losers, and ‘puts them in their place’ in that universe,” Brookhart added.
That thinking has reshaped teaching over the past two decades. Classroom work is more collaborative and team-based, especially in math and science, where girls in particular are said to have benefited. Tracking and ability grouping have fallen into disfavor, easing the slower-learner stigma. Portfolio assessments are gaining ground. Report cards set out individualized goals.
During the self-esteem movement of the 1990s, “schools dropped honor rolls, the class valedictorian, and assemblies that recognized academic stars, but not, of course, assemblies that recognized football or basketball or golf stars. . . . Everyone got a ‘good job’ sticker, good job or not.”
For top students, there’s little public recognition. The best students usually can find gifted-and-talented programs and accelerated classes, Kronholz writes. But some want more challenge — and a chance to impress elite universities. They love to win, but they’re not crushed by defeat. Competing is “fun,” contestants tell Kronholz.