“My/Your Students” vs. “Our Students.” Harm Caused by a Competition Mindset

Competition… Good or bad in schools? I’m not talking about school athletics, band, or other extracurricular activities. I’m talking about schools competing against each other for better test scores or other standardized measures of success. The verdict may still be out. Some researchers have found positive gains from competition in schools (though the validity of said research is now being questioned). Other researchers suggest that any gains from those studies are so small, they may as well be insignificant. Many conservative education reformers declare that schools and educators operating in a free-market system encourage innovation. Let’s look at the charter school movement. Some charter schools are doing amazing things. Some charter schools do sound very innovative. However, the research is fairly clear… charter schools perform no better than public schools when educating the same students (comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges). Whatever you believe, in the end, one thing is usually certain… when gauged through the lens of standardized measures such as test scores, attendance percentages, or drop-out ratings, competition usually leads to problems in education.

Don’t get me wrong… I like competition. I’m not very competitive myself. But, I love watching (certain) competitive sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and the UFC. What is more, I’m obsessed with the Olympics. The Olympics are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to competitive athletics. So, I don’t take issue with all competition. I’m not saying “all” competition is bad.

However, in my experience, when I’ve seen schools compete against each other for better test scores or better levels of student achievement, students and teachers suffer. Some immediately ask, “Why?” or “How can that be?” Because, as research has shown, competition leads to the privatization of professional practice. Competition, in this sense, hinders collaboration and the sharing of ideas among schools. Yes, Albert Shanker’s initial conception of charter schools and the sharing of ideas among all schools sounded promising. Under more ideal circumstances, that model may work. However, realistically speaking, competition has perverted his work.

When I hear about educators who embrace a competitive mindset so much so that it hinders collaboration, that always makes me wonder, “Aren’t we in this together?” “Aren’t these students ‘our’ students?” Rhetorically speaking, if the students in my building or classroom can benefit from something the students are doing in your building or classroom, but you erect barriers to the sharing of that knowledge, you’re hurting the children. What’s even more unfortunate, I see this as a disservice to children all in the name of professional, adult pride.

I read something from George Cuoros the other day. Along with some educators and cognitive neuroscientists, I question his work regarding the “innovator’s mindset” and his obsession with innovation. However, in this case, I thought he was right on the money. In one of his posts, he posed an interesting duality: Classroom Teacher vs. School Teacher. Cuoros states that, the “classroom teachers know their content amazingly well and are great with their current group of students. But, once they step outside of their classroom, the students they do not teach are ‘not their problem.’ ‘School teachers’ on the other hand, can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” In education, it would behoove us all to understand that these children are “our” children… The students at this school are not “their” children. The students at my school are not “my” children. They are all “our” children. We must constantly be thinking about what we can do to best serve all of “our” children. I’m going to take Cuoros’ duality a step further by arguing that competition enforces the classroom teacher mindset, rather than the school teacher mindset. Let’s remove competitive barriers and see ourselves as “school teachers.”

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