Education Opinion

Winners, Losers and the American Way

By Nancy Flanagan — May 30, 2014 3 min read
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It looks--at first glance--like something most American parents would be familiar with: a note from school, outlining the purpose and activities of an end-of-school Field Day.

The purpose of the day is for our school to get together for an enjoyable two hours of activities and provide an opportunity for students, teachers and parents to interact cooperatively. Since we believe that all of our children are winners, the need for athletic ability and the competitive 'urge to win' will be kept to a minimum. The real reward will be the enjoyment and good feelings of participation."

Been there, planned that, got the wet sponge and tug-of-war rope burns to show for it. And can tell you that “all of our children are winners” is a wall-poster ideal that most schools try (often unsuccessfully) to live up to.

I get it: let’s just have a good time, together. Make a happy memory. Spend a couple of hours outdoors in healthy physical activity. End the year on a fun and upbeat note. And so on.

But that’s not what happened. This little memo from school was re-interpreted as evidence of the wussification of American children--courtesy of your hometown school district. One mother was “speechless” over this note. Speechless!

Bennett Staph, the "speechless" woman referenced in the headline, reportedly found the words to express her outrage on Facebook. "The 'urge to win' will be kept at a minimum," she reportedly posted, questioning, "What are we teaching our kids? Everyone isn't a winner, there are winners and losers. The kids that win and get awards drive those that don't to do better."

And then Fox News got involved. American schools! Wussifying kids left and right! Not letting winners win, thereby driving pathetic loser kids to do better!

Want to bet which kind of kid Bennett Staph assumes she has--winner or loser?

It’s just a little story in a hyper-local news outlet. But this mindset plays out every day, in schools and classrooms and playing fields across the nation. Somebody has to be best. Somebody has to come in last, even in meaningless Field Day games.

Ms. Staph is flat-out wrong: the kid who repeatedly comes in last is driven, usually, to declaring the contest is “stupid” or giving up. Picking dandelions in the outfield. Or deciding for himself what he’s good at, which may well be disruption.

The Center for Michigan periodically collects feedback from citizens on current issues--a terrific idea, which they make even better by assembling data to inform these discussions. I participated in a series of their community conversations--and was surprised by what parents said about schools and competition: Kids need to learn to fail.

Generally, I agree--learning to persist after initially failing is a critical human skill, like learning to take honest criticism and learning to work cooperatively with folks who may not share your viewpoints.

But that’s not what I was hearing. There was this undercurrent of resentment toward kids who got “undeserved” awards (or grades). There was a lot of hostility toward a “curriculum of self-esteem.” And when people started sharing illustrative examples, it mostly came down to coaches who put in kids who couldn’t score, and teachers who passed underachieving kids on to the next grade for “social” reasons. There was lots of agreement around the idea that schools just needed to be tougher, to identify those who couldn’t make a layup or read at grade level and give ‘em the boot.

It should be noted that nobody in the group of about two dozen parents shared a story of how their own child benefited by being cut from a team, failing a grade or being labeled as needing remedial instruction--all of which are common, everyday occurrences in all public schools.

American education is rife with competitive, winners vs. losers practice, beginning with the traditional spelling bee and ending with mandatory third-grade retention for kids whose reading skills are below “grade level” (whatever that means).

Think about the race to get into limited-admission charters. Think about urban districts that hire Teach for America teachers, because of their competitive pedigree, rather than fully prepared teachers who grew up in the neighborhood. Think about pep assemblies to prepare kids for standardized testing--which has now turned into another stack-ranked statewide competition.

Leave Field Day alone. It would be nice to have a day where “good feelings of participation” were celebrated.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.