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Books: Competition Said To Diminish Academic Achievement

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The emphasis on competition in American education results in diminished achievement and alienation from school for many students, argues John G. Nicholls, professor of education at Purdue University, in The Competitive Ethos and Democratic Education.

In the following excerpts, Mr. Nicholls identifies elements in the schooling of older students that stress "ego involvement"--the desire to establish superiority over others--at the expense of the less self-conscious pleasure in learning and accomplishment common among young children:

The ego-involving characteristics of schools generally become more marked as students progress through the grades--at least this seems to be the case up to about the 10th grade.

School tends to become more formal, competitive, and evaluative. In the higher grades, standardized tests are more often used as a basis for assigning students to classes, and the calculation of cumulative grade-point averages and class standings is more usual.

Finally, as one progresses through the grades, teachers' assessments are less likely to reflect the students' effort or progress and more likely to reflect class rank on formally evaluated tests or assignments. In a similar fashion, the emphasis on winning in sport increases over the school years.

All of this would make sense in the context of a meritocratic, competitive society which requires that many people acknowledge that they lack the talents associated with positions of high status and be ready to accept roles with little freedom, influence, and income. A case can be made that our society is, to at least some degree, like this.

Too much alienation would be counterproductive for such a society, especially if it occurred in the early school years. In this social framework, it is appropriate that ego involvement should not reach high levels in the elementary-school years when students are still acquiring the "basic" skills that even occupations of low status require.

The development of conceptions of ability seems to parallel the age-related increase in the ego-involving properties of schools.

Most elementary-school students' conceptions of ability represent effortful accomplishment as competence. This should help maintain industriousness over the elementary-school years.

Adolescents, on the other hand, distinguish capacity from effortful accomplishment and are less likely than elementary-school students to value effortful over effort8less accomplishment. Adolescents are also more likely than younger students to show decreased accomplishment in ego-involving contexts when they expect to perform incompetently. ...

So, with age, developmental changes in the meaning of ability, combined with parallel increases in the ego-involving properties of schools, should make for growing inequality of motivation for intellectual development. These changes would make it progressively more likely that students who doubt their competence would seek occupations that do not require much schooling.

Harvard University Press, 79 Garden St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138; 261 pp., $35 cloth.

In an essay prepared for The Professors of Teaching: An Inquiry, edited by Richard Wisniewski and Edward R. Ducharme, Milton Schwebel contends that the research and scholarship of the education professoriate are too often marked by "distancing from schools, questionable relevance of topics, and limited usefulness of results."

Mr. Schwebel, a professor in Rutgers University's graduate school of applied and professional psychology, calls on education- school faculties to develop theories and methodologies that address contemporary problems:

Studies of per-capita support for education show that the society pays well for what it values most, that is, quality education in private and upper-middle-class suburban schools to reproduce its business and government leadership, its professions, and its knowledge producers.

It pays what it must to reproduce the rest of the working force in the more than 30,000 occupations that keep the economy and society moving in gear. It pays least of all to help those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

The contradiction between economic necessity and human need creates a tangled web of problems which stands then as a legacy to teachers and education faculties and others as well.

Education faculty are confronted with an overwhelming challenge: train the teachers and generate the knowledge necessary to educate all the children, including those who are destined to fall into the large category of the futureless population. ...

[O]ne function of education faculty is to reproduce the teachers who will reproduce the social classes that attend public school, including members of the class destined to live the demoralizing life of unemployment and welfare support. The other role is to produce the know-how to achieve this end.

[The] criticism that educational researchers engage in sophisticated research about not-very-significant problems can be seen in a new light.

The temptation to avoid [larger] problems is great. The possibility of bringing about noticeable change seems remote; the difficulties in experimenting with programs intended to achieve change seem overwhelming; the time required to give such programs a fair test seems unduly long; and the resources necessary to engage in vast projects seem not easily available.

These are reasons aplenty to avoid them. In doing so, however, education faculty are doomed to be failures in connection with the most troubling of education's problems.

This is the quandary facing education faculty: to perhaps become mired in finding ways to make the schools work for larger proportions of children, or to follow the safer, more traditional academic path. If ... their research is to be useful to the schools, they must choose the riskier course.

State University of New York Press, State University Plaza, Albany, N.Y. 12246; 172 pp., $39.50 cloth, $14.95 paper.

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