Stanford Dean Takes Aim at Culture of Competition

By Debra Viadero — June 23, 2011 2 min read
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The competitive pressures being placed on U.S. high school students to get into top colleges are “damaging many otherwise promising lives,” writes Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford University’s school of education, in a high-profile editorial published today in Science.

Stipek takes issue with the competitive culture that surrounds young people in some high schools across the country, especially those that serve high concentrations of students from well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class families. Drawing on 35 years of research on academic motivation, she says such pressure can lead to “debilitating anxiety,” cheating, and “take the joy out of learning,” as well as exacerbate achievement gaps between have- and have-not students.

“For the most part, high school has become for many of our students not preparation for life or college but preparation for the college application,” Stipek said in a telephone conference call with reporters this week.

Today’s editorial doesn’t mark the first time that Stipek, an expert on student motivation, has spoken out on this topic. She was featured in “The Race to Nowhere,” the independent documentary released last year on student stress due to test-heavy school demands and the competition for slots in top colleges. Stanford’s education school launched Challenge Success in 2007, a project that seeks to combat the culture of competition by enlisting experts from a range of academic disciplines to create “a coordinated approach to helping schools, parents and youth develop alternative success models to align with what is known about healthy child development.”

Stipek says there are steps that educators can take to alleviate some of the stress on students and better engage them in learning. These include involving students in lessons that connect to their personal lives, collaborative studies, experimenting and debating the implications of findings, and solving multidimensional problems and teaching them to value learning skills over nailing high scores.

Schools can also help by using a master calendar to space out testing so that diligent students aren’t pulling all-nighters, giving students multiple opportunities to earn a good grade (such as by rewriting papers or retaking tests), and creating advisory periods during which an adult is available to monitor students’ homework and offer extra help. Some schools are also surveying students to find out how stressed they really feel and how long they are actually spending on their homework, Stipek says.

“We have gone into schools where they say this is not a problem and then they do a survey of the students and they are just blown away by what they get back,” says Stipek, who will be stepping down as dean later this year.

Her editorial concludes by saying, “A valuable science of teaching and learning exists that should guide efforts to improve students’ interest, engagement, and intellectual skills, as well as reduce the debilitating stress that is becoming epidemic.”

The word “epidemic” could be a stretch. Certainly, there are plenty of low-performing and middling schools where teachers complain of students lacking ambition. But, in lots of relatively well-off communities around the country, a culture of competition certainly is pervasive. My question is: Is there a middle ground somewhere that everyone can occupy?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.