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Feel Good Schools
by Robert Soloway

My daughter has been in four elementary schools, all academically “non-competitive” to some extent. Some had no grading. Some didn’t test at all. One day she came home from one of these schools with a spelling test. She had gotten a grade of 110%. I was, of course, proud. She explained the grading this way: There were 10 words on the test. Five correct got you a grade of 100%. Each additional word correct got you 2 more points. I’m sure all the students felt good about their results. After all, the point of non-competition in academics is to make all the students feel good about how they are doing.

Before I go any further, I want to assure you that I am not competitive by nature, that my political leanings are left, even socialist, and I am outraged by the level of competition in our society, the most competitive on earth.

Unfortunately, that is why academic non-competition is not helpful.

Our society has made it perfectly clear to all, children too, that we value success above all else. If ever there were a winner-take-all country, it would be ours. We reward the top athletes, performers, CEO’s, and celebrities with huge prizes. Everyone knows who the winners are.

Every student in my daughter’s class knows who the brightest kids are, but they are not being rewarded in the manner our society rewards: no accolades, no prizes, and no celebrity. This can only convey one message, that academics are not important.

When I was a boy growing up in a Jewish/Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, academic success was prized. The school gave awards and acknowledgements at every opportunity. My folks paid me cash for A’s. It couldn’t have been clearer to anyone, child or adult, which kids were “successful”. The academically gifted were envied by most of the other children. We were considered the “in crowd”. Did I feel pressured to achieve? Yes. Did some kids feel bad about not achieving? I’m sure.

But the question remains, does eliminating academic competition help any of this?

In any classroom, a hierarchy will form among the students. It is natural to have a social order. Whether or not the school is academically competitive, a social structure will form. So if the students in a classroom are going to form a hierarchy around some attribute, what would you want that characteristic to be? In all my daughter’s classes, the children leaders, the role models were based on everything but academics; the prettiest, the best athletes, the loudest, the toughest, the most fashion conscious, the one with the most knowledge of teen singing groups, the one with the biggest then the smallest radio, and of course, the richest. It is everything but academics.

I, for one, think that as long as competition cannot be stopped in the midst of our crazed society, why not at least dictate that in schools, the role models are the bright kids. Maybe it will remain true that everywhere else “smart” might not be fashionable, but let the schools be where the bright kids get stroked. The athletes, the pretty kids, and the bullies can find their domains elsewhere. That’s what schoolyards and malls are for.

My daughter, a good student, is nobody’s role model. She’s a nerd. I think she calls her look, “sweet geek”. She sometimes feels cursed that she’s bright.

Perhaps, if at a young age we make it clear that academics are respected, noteworthy to adults, and important, we wouldn’t relegate the bright kids to geek status. Of course, as a society we pay our adult geeks okay, but we don’t give heap fame and fortune upon them. Can you name the inventor of the computer chip? Can you imagine what our schools would be like if teaching paid $100,000 a year and more, and a “teacher-of-the-year” could make a million bucks and be on TV? You think it’s dumb to pay the best teachers a million dollars? No, dumb is paying almost every professional athlete more than a million bucks. Could society have a better role model than a celebrity teacher? Do you prefer, maybe, Mike Tyson?

If you can’t kill the competition in a society, at least make the playing field even for all. The bright kids are certainly being shortchanged. Every other “gift” has its arena, its prizes, and its glory. Why shouldn’t school be a place where a bright kid can shine? If you are a parent right now, ask yourself, which peer is your kid emulating? Is it the school “jock” or the best-dressed little girl? Is your child one of the millions who think they are going to end up professional athletes? Or maybe you’ve got one who is going to be a supermodel or a movie star.

How many want to win a Noble Prize in Chemistry?

I believe that children should be given every opportunity to find their unique gift and develop it. If that gift is academics, that too should be acknowledged and rewarded, no more, but no less, than any other.

Published: Jul 15,2008 21:14
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