Last week, I spent an afternoon with some of Vermont’s best educators talking about the topic du jour: proficiency based learning (PBL).
We discussed a reservation that our students have about PBL: they can’t separate themselves as well under a 1-4 system as under the old 0-100 system. There’s a big difference between an 80 and an 89. But under the new system, those are both ranked as a “3”: no difference. There’s a huge difference between a 70 and an 89. But under the new system, those might be scored as a 2 and a 3, respectively. To students, there’s not a lot of difference between a 2 and a 3. In their minds, why try so hard?
Like it or not, we are a nation obsessed with competition. It’s hardwired into our DNA. We’re obsessed with the idea that America is a meritocracy. If you work hard, take risks, and make the most of yourself, you’ll prosper. There’s no rigid caste system, only open, unfettered competition. The sky’s the limit. That’s the American Dream.
Of course, it’s a dream steeped in a long, complex story of racial hypocrisy. There is, in fact, a rigid caste system, and the playing field is about as level as the north face of the Matterhorn. Some players show up without shoes. Some players aren’t thrown the ball. Some aren’t even allowed into the game. But that doesn’t mean we’re not still obsessed with competing. Capitalism is the name of our desire — free markets, survival of the fittest, the up-by-your-bootstraps, the self-made, the self-reliant. We worship at the feet of Adam Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We may lie to ourselves about how fair it all is, but deep down, it’s who we are.
It’s tied up, of course, with our obsession with equality. We have high-minded and noble ideals about all Americans being created as equal. This too is bound up in an infinite web of hypocrisy and hidden, system discrimination. And yet, even this high-minded goal is inextricably tied to competition. We want to believe that everyone is equal . . . but for the purposes of being able to compete in the same no-holds barred capitalist arena.
Look at our language in education. It’s all about “giving students a chance to compete in the global marketplace.” Look the major moments that have driven our perception of public schools: Sputnik (economic / scientific competition with the Russians), a Nation at Risk (economic anxiety about Japan), the standards reform movement (more economic anxiety). Any reformer worth his salt from the last 30 years has loved to point to our international test scores as evidence that, in our former Ed Secretary Arne Duncan’s words, “South Korea kicks our butt in everything educationally” or as former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee said, “You know what you should not like? The fact that China is kicking our butts right now. Get over feeling bad about the federal government and feel bad that our kids are not competing.”
Hell — the word “competitiveness” is right there in the mission statement of the Department of Education:
“[Our] mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”
Look at that. Nothing about fostering a democratic republic. Nothing about preserving freedom and liberty. Nothing about living fulfilling lives, or nurturing empathy and understanding between citizens. It’s all about competition. You might say that’s practically our national educational goal.
So why are we surprised when our students — who we’ve trained to value competition — object to a new grading system that deemphasizes it? We can certainly *say* that we want to give rid of GPAs and tracked classes and a traditional 1-100 scale, but what I’m suggesting is that competitiveness is so integral to who we are as a nation that any educational system that doesn’t satisfy that need is doomed to fail.
In the end, there’s a lot that’s good about PBL, but like many reformers, we in Vermont are in danger of trying to make change too quickly. We must be honest with ourselves about what Americans really value about education — and how we can turn this desire for equality of competitive opportunity to our own ends. PBL can, if done correctly, help everyone compete more effectively — by ensuring that all learners are proficient before graduation. But we’ve got to make sure that we recognize the reality of the system we’re operating in. Let’s not forget that PBL was voted down in Maine because of these same competitive anxieties. We’re a different state than Maine, but not that different. We’re still Americans.
And Americans love to compete.