Guest Column

A Sinking Feeling About Competition

by Joseph J. Cirasuolo

It would be difficult to find anyone who has not heard about the sinking of the Titanic. We have read about it and we have seen the story presented, albeit revised, on film.

One aspect of that story that has been repeated continuously is the alleged gallantry exhibited by the first-class passengers, especially the men among them. These passengers, the story goes, were representative of the leadership class of American and British society. They lived their lives in accordance with codes of etiquette and fairness that were truly exemplary.

On the night of the ship's sinking, the male first-class passengers made sure that whatever lifeboat space was available was given to women and children. These men, then, faced their inevitable death with all of the courage and class that was their hallmark.

That is the story we all have heard many times over. The facts, unfortunately, contradict that story to such an extent they render this aspect of the story itself a myth.

Actually, it is only one fact that matters in this regard. The percentage of male first-class passengers who climbed aboard lifeboats and were saved was greater than the percentage of third- class women and children who were saved. Whatever gallantry there was that night was extended only to female first-class passengers. Obviously, the lifeboats were not meant for third-class passengers regardless of age or gender.

Many historians have pointed to the sinking of the Titanic as a turning point in the history of Europe and the United States. The gilded age with all of the mythology connected with it could not survive an event that so blatantly revealed the hypocrisy that existed beneath a relatively thin veneer of respectability.

Familiar Refrain

What does this have to do with American public education today? It is similar to what is happening in our schools as some people attempt to take a value deemed central to the American experience, competition, and harness it to improve instruction and learning.

The arguments are familiar. High standards need to be set for student learning. Students, schools and school districts need to be assessed in terms of how well students meet those standards. The results of the school and district assessments need to be made public so the schools and districts whose students do not score as well as their counterparts will be motivated by the spirit of competition to do better. Conversely, those schools and districts that do not respond positively to this competition will be sufficiently exposed as failures that they will be dismantled.

These arguments have the appearance of validity. After all, competition is allegedly one reason why the United States has been so successful economically. Everybody loves a winner. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser.

This validity begins to fade, however, when some questions are asked. How will students fare in this competitive atmosphere? Will they benefit from a school culture where those students who are "winners" will be even more distinguished than they are now from the students who are "losers?" How will the students deemed losers be regarded by the staffs of the schools and districts that are being judged as failures because these students "lost?" Will anybody think these students deserve a seat in an educational lifeboat or should they, instead, be jettisoned?

Winners and Losers

If you think I am being an alarmist, I hope in the end you are correct. However, please consider the following arguments.

Most of what we have learned from the violent acts perpetrated by students in school settings of late suggests the perpetrators considered themselves losers in school. All of us want schools to be safe and secure, even those who advocate for competition as a means to increase learning. How is making schools safe, though, consistent with establishing a competitive atmosphere in which a noticeable number of students are identified as losers?

Most of what we know about the assessment mechanisms in place indicates that children who, through no fault of their own, are poor score much lower than students who, through no merit of their own, are not poor. Therefore, poor children for reasons over which they have no control are losers in much greater proportion than children who are not poor.

If the inherent injustice in all of this does not give us pause, we need to think about what will happen to entire school communities when students are made losers in a competition that they had little chance of winning in the first place. Students who have to face this situation every school day would have to be living saints if they did not engage in some form of disruption, passive or aggressive. Under these circumstances, are we not unnecessarily developing a hostile segment within the community that we should be serving?

Given the human tendency to stereotype individuals and given the fact that some races in our society have a larger proportion of poor children than other races, will we not begin to regard all students from those races as potential losers and, therefore, potential threats to the well-being of the rest of us? If we do this, will it not lead to the imposition of increasingly oppressive measures on these students whether or not they are potential threats? If we do this, will we not turn otherwise peaceful students into people whom we view as threats?

Our society is sufficiently fractured as it is. The results of the most recent presidential election have demonstrated this clearly. Fostering in our educational system an approach that will increase competition and thereby increase the number of identifiable losers will simply make the fractures bigger. The lines will be drawn between winners and losers. People will choose sides and in a short time will not even remember fully why they regard the other side as the enemy.

Blind Adherence

I hope I am wrong about all of this. When I see so much attention paid to academic standards and high-stakes assessment and so little attention being paid to what has to happen between the setting of the standards and the imposing of the assessments, however, I am not comforted. When I hear so many voices claiming that competition will produce a system in which everyone will be a winner—something that competition never has produced—I become downright worried. I would feel a whole lot better if I could actually count enough educational lifeboats for all of the students who need them.

The Titanic sank because its owner and its captain were arrogant enough to believe it could not sink. A collision with one iceberg destroyed the illusion that this arrogance produced. If we display a similar arrogance with blind adherence to competition, we too will collide with one of society's icebergs. Then the illusions under which we operate will sink.

As I have stated twice already, I hope I am wrong. But before you pronounce me wrong, count the lifeboats.

Joe Cirasuolo, immediate past president of AASA, is superintendent of the Wallingford Public Schools, 142 Hope Hill Road, Wallingford, Conn. 06492. E-mail: