Search DC's Musings

Monday, November 16, 2009

Winners and Losers

Friday night our girls' school had a Talent Show. Over sixty students participated in about thirty acts. They were divided into groups, solo dance, group singing, etc. There were judges and every group had one act singled out as the winner. As we waited for the judges to arrive at their verdicts one of the parents, whose children are close friends with ours and one of whom was entered in the show, leaned over and said, "I don't think they should have winners."

One of George W. Bush's first moves after elected in 2000 was to work with Congress and with the help of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy passed the No Child Left Behind Act. The basic premise of the Act is that schools that raise their test scores, reduce the number of failings scores and increase their high scorese, would be eligible for Federal assistance and aid. Schools and Districts that do not show improvement in their scores would be subject to denial of funds and other measures. Teachers and many parents complained because they feel teaching to a test is not teaching everything a student needs to learn. They complain that too much emphasis is placed on the outcome of tests, they complain that education is hard to measure.

Our youngest daughter is on a local youth soccer team. A couple of the teams are very good, passing the ball, listening to their coach, scoring goals. Our team has one game left and is winless. This past Saturday our girls lost five or six to nothing, not unusual for the Green Monsters this Fall. Not once have I heard one of the parents complain about the score, or about the other team running it up; it helps that none of the other teams or players have done any excessive celebrating after scoring their third, fourth, fifth....goals.

Every year I come across one study or essay on how American students are falling behind other Western nations in education. Their math and science skills are considerably lower and their international competition is outpacing them in engineering and science studies and skills. Our melting pot nation has shown us the cultural importance of education in some recent immigrant groups. Outpacing "native" American students, first and second generation children of immigrants lead in academic scores, achievement tests and scholarships. For them losing is not learning, winning is getting degrees and careers.

Last week our kids' school had elections for Student Council elections. My daughter ran for Treasurer ("Money talks and it speaks my language" was the slogan). She lost, as did most of the children who ran since every office had more than one candidate. Some students evidently cried or were extremely upset when they learned they did not win.

California has established criteria that must be met to graduate and obtain a diploma. There was significant lead time with the criteria for students, parents, teachers and administrators to be prepared. The first year the criteria were in place there was an uproar over the number of students who missed the criteria and did not graduate. We heard people, students, parents, pundits, saying, "it's not fair that Sarah went to high school for four years and won't graduate."

Where has the competition gone for our children? Why is it not okay for children in elementary school who have volunteered to participate in a Talent Show to be in a contest? What is wrong with testing to show who is learning and who is not, and over time who is teaching well and who is not? Is just participating enough? When is "fair" replaced with "worthy?"

The insidious effect of lack of competition, lack of winning and losing is the creation of generations of Americans with little understanding of consequence. Little preparation for the cold, harsh competition of business and raising a family. Lack of consequences for bad decisions, bad habits and bad preparation.

Our colleges and universities admit students who spend their first year in remedial English and math classes. Think of the millions of dollars wasted to re-teach what should have been learned in their prior decade of schooling. Rather than hold students back or put them in remedial classes in elementary, middle or high school, districts pass along students barely "proficient" so they can slow down another thirty kids the next year, and the year after that. To hold them back is to tell them they failed, and that would damage the child's self-esteem; instead he is passed along and we damage his future.

Our report cards do not have the letter grades we grew up with, no "A" in math, "B" in English or "C" in Social Studies. We see "AP" for Advance Proficient, "S" for Satisfactory, "P" for Proficient. The grades have even softened. Thankfully I feel the teachers our kids have had thus far have been very fair in their assessments and grading, communicating where our kids do well and where they need work. Overall the other parents have their kids education as a priority and I greatly admire the parents who have voluntarily held their little ones back to repeat a grade so they can gain that academic foundation. Too bad more parents don't have the long term vision for their children, or the courage.

Going into the Talent Show I felt pretty certain neither of my kids were going to win their division, I think they had an idea as well. I was proud they took the stage alone in front of a couple of hundred people and performed the best that they could. I was proud they participated and applauded and hugged the winners. I applauded the winners as well, they deserved their awards. That night sixty kids learned about winning and losing, some better than others. Let's hope the lessons stay with them.

My response to my seatmate was, "I'm glad it is a competition and I wish they had more of them. I wish there were more opportunities for my daughters to learn about winning and losing so they can be prepared for the many competitions they will face later in life."

Paying the mortgage is a competition. Raising kids with morals and ethics is a competition. Getting and keeping a job is a competition. Doing what is right is a competition. For each of these has a positive and negative consequence depending on our decisions and our actions.

The long term consequences of generations of American children not learning about winning and losing, succeeding and failing, and the consequences is harming our nation. Increasingly they are raised to depend on others to make things right, to look to someone to give them a hand up or hand out, to be rewarded for participating just as well as for winning.

I read or heard something a while back a comment from some woman who had been successful at something. She was asked how she became such a success and she replied, "Every day at dinner my father would ask us, 'What mistakes did you make today?' He taught us that we would make mistakes, but also that we can admit the mistakes and learn from them."

Let's let our kids make mistakes, let's let them learn about winning and losing.


Bob Schilling said...

I think I understand your aspirations for excellence and your desire to teach kids that there are real consequences to their actions. I agree.

On the other hand...there's a selection process that goes on in kids' sports programs. The "good" kids -- those with a bit more skill -- get more coaching and attention from an early age, while the "less talented" are gradually left by the wayside. This creates a nasty sense of elitism among kids that peaks in their early to mid-teens. It also results (see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell) in unintended discrimination against kids born early in the year -- discrimination which may bleed over into academics as well. We need to be aware of this, and manage it expertly, so we don't lose a whole quarter's worth of young men and women.

Sean said...

I totally agree with Dennis. Competition is healthy and should be encouraged; it's how the best get better. One of my favorite lines from any movie in recent memory is in The Incredibles when Dash says, "Saying everyone is special is just another way of saying no one is."

True that.

Bob, Gladwell wasn't arguing that competition is a bad thing. If anything, I believe, he was arguing that competition is one of the primary ingredients which cast those outliers as truly remarkable - they rose heads and shoulders above everyone else, not only because of their unique set of circumstances, but also because they were willing to put in their 10,000 hours in order to sharpen their skills to a finer point than all those around them.

Yes, there can be a lot of elitism in sports, or just about any other extracurricular activity you could think of that doesn't involve lanyards, but perhaps that's where would be athletes find out they are more suited to become poets or painters, or realtors or architects.

People learn to excel and find their best selves through the spirit of healthy competition. Collectively, competition helps to make a nation great. Lack of competition can lead to dispassion and cultural languor. Competition doesn't need to be synonymous with conflict, and it certainly doesn't need to be vicious, but there is a tremendous amount of value in both winning and losing, if approached from the right angle. I know in my life I've learned as much from my failures as I have from my successes, if not more.

Didn't mean to ramble, but my daughter was also on stage that night and I too see both the competition and her loss as positives to celebrate.

Sheryl said...

I agree with a lot of what you say about competition. My kids are on their school cross country team. They both work hard and support their teammates - but neither are one of the "stars"

I think you're muddying the water about test scores though. Its not about competition because everyone could/should "win" and pass the high school test. An important issue in looking at elementary school score is to see how many of the students are the same from year to year. Or even from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. A teacher or school shouldn't be penalized when there is a lot of transients in their classrooms.