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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

America needs strivers

Rewarding mediocrity is a losing strategy for America, writes Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion 3.0, on Education Next.

U.S. schools have inflated grades, devalued test scores, discouraged hard work and told students that stress is "toxic," he writes. Elite colleges aren't looking for the hard-studying, high-achieving kids who might do break-through research in 10 or 20 years. Too nerdy. (And too Asian.)

"Ella" regrets working so hard in high school, she told Lemov. When others were partying, she was studying. She got A's, but so did her less-capable, less-motivated classmates, and her school had eliminated class rank and a GPA boost for honors classes. She aced the SATs, but colleges had made scores optional.

An athlete and a violinist, Ella chose to stress academics in her college applications. She was rejected by colleges that admitted classmates who'd taken easier classes, and stressed their parent-funded community service trips and well-roundedness.

Ella is in college, majoring in biochemistry, Lemov writes. She's OK. But the lesson she learned was: Don't go the extra mile. Your "drive to excel" will not lead to opportunities. Party more, work less.

That's not what the bright kids are doing in China, Lemov writes. America needs to "reinvigorate the culture of meritocracy and achievement in our schools."

His first step is to restore the SAT and ACT, which are far more objective measures of achievement than classroom grades. The tests aren't perfect, he writes, but "an explicitly academic measure is far more just and meritocratic than a system of nebulous, inchoate incentives that reward students who have the resources to curate their lives around that system."

More testing would be even fairer, writes Lemov. In England, students take subject-specific tests in a variety of subjects they choose allowing more opportunities to show readiness for further learning.

He also suggests empowering parents with data. Tell parents how their child's grade compares to the class average. "Does 'emerging mastery' mean a warning light is flashing for my 3rd grader?" (Yes, it does.)

"The idea that lower standards are an equity win" is foolish and dangerous, Lemov writes. "Equity means ensuring that each child has the fullest opportunity to reach the highest possible standards in a fair way."

Americans need to "overcome our fear that competition and stress will hurt young people," he argues. "While we don’t want to create a pressure cooker for our youth, being able to handle stress, challenge, and competition is a valuable skill for creating a life of meaning."

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