Education Commentary

Winners and Losers in the School Game

By John L. Mahoney — December 16, 1992 5 min read

Children learn at an early age that they are being sorted, ranked, and classified according to “ability’’ in the daily competition for school’s rewards: teacher approval, smiley faces, privileges, honors, bumper stickers, top grades, membership in the top groups. Somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade many begin to accept the label of “loser,’' no matter how subtly it is applied, and turn off to learning. By the time they reach high school they have learned to play the game by working out unspoken agreements with their teachers: You don’t bother me by challenging me, giving me a lot of homework, making me think, and I won’t bother you by bucking the routines, asking pesky questions, acting out. Most, in recent years, understand that the diploma is one of the big rewards in the game, so they do not drop out of school. But in classroom after classroom, they are the ones who are not engaged. The natural human instinct toward learning, at least for now and in the formal setting of school, has withered up. They bring to school what John Goodlad in A Place Called School refers to as a “flat emotional tone,’' and they dominate the setting because they are the majority.

They also dominate the setting in most workplaces later on. With the winners of the school game off to collect their rewards in terms of college placements and subsequent higher-level jobs and professions, the losers become the rank-and-file employees in the businesses and industries of the nation. When employers determine that their new employees, products of the American game of education, don’t have the skills needed in today’s workplace, they criticize the schools. And school people, thinking of all the winners they have produced in the face of obstacles greater than at any time in the history of the country, do not know what to think. Is our college and university system not among the best in the world, they ask. And is not the bulk of the student population in these colleges and universities made up of graduates of our public schools? The same schools you are criticizing?

The answers are yes, yes, and yes. The problem is that school people want to be judged by the winners they turn out, and business people see only the losers who come to them for employment. The paradigm currently prevalent in schools, at least officially, promotes competition and excellence. But if one is to “compete’’ and to “excel,’' the implication is that others must lose, even fail. In a class of 100 students graduating from an American high school this June, how many regard themselves as winners? Since they all know their class rank, little is left to the imagination. Does number 35 consider herself a winner? How about number 65? Number 75 certainly thinks of himself as a loser in the game of school, and he brings this attitude with him to work. Then his employer tries to teach him the skills needed in today’s workplace.

And today’s workplace is very different from yesterday’s. The jobs that used to be in Lowell, Mass., at the turn of the century moved to the Carolinas in the 50’s, and are now in Mexico or the Pacific Rim countries. In order to make a decent living, it was not necessary to be a learner in 1900. One could do so with “the sweat of his brow.’' It was not even necessary in 1950. There were still plenty of blue-collar opportunities. But in the 90’s those opportunities no longer exist. We as a nation cannot continue to operate a system of education that turns out a majority of students who think of themselves as losers. The paradigm needs to shift from competition and excellence to cooperation and equity. In order to compete abroad, we must cooperate at home. In school, winning and losing must become irrelevant. Everyone graduating from an American high school must see himself as an active learner, a new kind of winner.

The alternative is not acceptable. We have witnessed in recent years a growing underclass in this country. If poverty, joblessness, homelessness, crime, drugs, and abuse are not to make a South Central Los Angeles out of our nation, the people who would have been identified as losers under the old paradigm of schooling must have hope. In these new times that hope can come through a new kind of schooling focused on learner needs, intrinsic motivation, and cooperative learning. There are schools throughout the United States where this is happening now.

But what of those who see themselves as winners under the present paradigm? Do they not stand to lose something when the rules of the game are changed? The answer has to be yes if by “lose something’’ we mean the old extrinsic rewards. But a close look at how the game is played in most high schools at present reveals not a high regard for learning among the winners, but a very high regard for winning. That is why high school teachers encounter so much cheating and academic corner-cutting. Reading “Cliff’s Notes’’ instead of the assigned literary work is common among their upper-level students. If the time-honored art of bluffing were added to the list and some recent graduates polled as to their behaviors in high school, the confessions would be shocking. So too would be the note of triumph in their voices if they were interviewed on the subject: They had figured out how to play the game, and they had won. What could be more American?

The casualty, of course, is learning. But the “winners’’ too are casualties in a very important sense because they emerge from school with a diminished sense of the importance of learning and of the integrity of one’s performance. They are likely to enter business and the professions with a continuing regard for rewards that interferes with the quality of their performance. We do not need more leadership in this country that is unable to see beyond the short term and the bottom line. The rules of the game have already changed in the great global marketplace, and the niche now available to American producers is substantially in the area of quality production. Hence all the interest in quality-management systems in this country. In the end, the world will teach our “winners’’ how important learning and quality really are. How much the better if they learn it in school first.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Winners and Losers in the School Game