Everyone loves good, fun competition. For many, opportunities to prove one’s greatness, fully display admired talents, and beat out a friend or rival are just irresistible. I can take that shot better than her… His writing is mundane. Let me show him how it’s done… That blueberry pie was tasty, but mine is delectable.
For several decades now, education reformers have tried to design policies that tap into this competitive nature that humans and their institutions are prone to exhibit under the right conditions. Whether it’s through the creation of charter schools, federal grant competitions, or “Teacher of the Year” contests, policymakers have rightly recognized that teachers and principals need systems and incentives that bring out their “I want to win, I can do that better” spirits. (I can hear the booing and moaning of education school professors and Deweyites in the background.)
But during this same period of time, after countless conversations about competition and incentives, teachers and principals haven’t made the drastic gains and improvements that we’re all hoping for. You’ve heard it: Student achievement scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are essentially flat (except for small gains from a few subgroups). The U.S. continues to be outranked by its Asian counterparts in science and mathematics achievement, even though there has been some recent growth. And crime rates remain too high in schools that serve mostly poor, minority students.
Why is this? Well, at the elementary and middle school levels, I partly blame pretty bulletin boards like this one:
The truth is, as a son and fiance of elementary school teachers, I genuinely like and appreciate school bulletin boards. These masterpieces are often colorful, witty, and creative, and sometimes they’re even used to reach legitimate learning outcomes. But, geez! From what I’ve witnessed in schools and heard from teachers, the social and professional pressures to decorate these 4′ x 6′ rectangles, along with the rest of their classrooms, is intense. Around the start of the school year you can feel the almost-ruthless spirit of competition in the air as teachers cut, glue, staple, and pin with the serious goal of producing the very best piece of art on the hall.
And this kind of competition among elementary and middle school teachers isn’t limited to bulletin boards. Teachers face pressure from their principals and peers to pull off impeccable school plays, make beautiful outdoor gardens, and stylize their doorframes in ways Van Gogh couldn’t imagine. The trouble with all of this is that teachers are competing to be the best in creating the illusion of learning rather than focusing their energies and resources on actually helping students learn.
Education reformers love art, theater, gardens, and bulletin boards, but we also want students to master core academic knowledge and skills that will help them become informed citizens, productive workers, and free thinkers. To see how far the U.S. has come towards achieving that end during the NCLB Era, an academic researcher should take up this topic. I want to know if the pressure to design bulletin boards and make glittered posters is greater than the pressure to ensure that students know how to write and solve linear equations. Have teacher incentives begun shifting away from pretty and illusory objectives and towards concrete academic goals? Are teachers now competing to have the highest science scores and the best reading lessons?
You see, teachers have always been, and will always be, somewhat competitive. One key challenge for policymakers is ensuring that teachers are involved in the types of competitions that truly benefit their students and society.