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A Conversation on Competition


Seeking to improve and inform about opportunities for students. Big supporter of stationery, animated movies, and Chow Chows.

In a large public school, students are bound to compete with each other. To some extent, this is a good thing. It can be a motivator or a source of inspiration. But in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one public school shows what can happen when competition goes too far.

Washington High School’s educational philosophy is represented by the “Circle of Courage,” which consists of four pillars: belonging, where “each individual is recognized as a unique human being to be treated with dignity and respect”; mastery, which values “attainment of personal goals”; generosity, which emphasizes how “acceptance and collaboration are essential in a positive learning environment”; and independence, which promotes leadership and self-discipline. But when we foster an environment that overemphasizes competition and success, we create problems that are detrimental to these four ideals, inhibiting our vision of collaboration and personalized learning.

Competing and Comparing

It’s okay to be good, but it’s better to be the best.

This was the common mentality I found when I talked to a group of competitive students at Washington. They shared the struggle of taking too much on at once, which negatively affected their mental health. The pressure of wanting to constantly improve and challenge themselves led to levels of stress that hindered more than it helped. One student experienced so much pressure and fear of failure that there were days when coming to school itself was a challenge. An overly competitive environment damages the school climate and creates a space where students are more inclined to win than to learn.

Washington is not the only high school with this problem. Teens nationwide are experiencing unhealthy stress levels during the school year. Obviously, there are plenty of factors that contribute to this phenomenon, like homework, college planning, or even run-of-the-mill teen drama. These things are unavoidable. But one key contributor to stress is avoidable: the expectation that a student’s worth relies on how “successful” they are compared to others.

As a result, students push themselves to do more. “If you feel like you can do well enough, you feel like you want to take AP versions of classes,” said one junior who occasionally felt overwhelmed from his schedule jam-packed with five AP classes and a Calculus II course at a local university. “It’s like, ‘what one little thing can I do different to try to put myself ahead of someone else?’”

In the midst of this competition for status, students can get caught up in getting a good score over legitimately learning the material. Even worse, students can lose themselves in trying to attain the image of a perfect student to the point where they don’t engage in their interests.

On the flip side, there are students who view competition as a reason never to apply themselves. “I’ve met a lot of kids who are so afraid of competition that they don’t even want to try because they’re afraid to fail,” said a student who struggled with mental health because of her tendency to compare herself to her peers. “It puts those kids in a bad place. And they’re smart kids; they’re not stupid. And it’s sad, because everyone has that potential, and I feel like it’s not emphasized enough that everyone learns at their own pace.”

After reaching a consensus that competition in school has overstepped its bounds, we still had an important question to address: what are students competing for in the first place? As I started asking questions about the college admissions process, a sense of uneasiness spread throughout the room. It became clear that to these high achieving students, getting into college is the ingrained goal of high school.

A Narrow Image of Success

Our schools like to define a successful student as someone who is curious, driven, creative, kind, or whatever vague positive descriptor we can think of. In theory, it sounds like we should be promoting well-roundedness and individuality. In practice, we don’t. Instead, students view success as doing what “looks good” in the college admissions process.

Students feel pressure from the belief that colleges prefer applicants who fit a certain profile. When I asked my peers why they continue opting for AP classes even though they claim to feel overwhelmed, they said that although it was partly because of the challenge, it was also because of how valuable they believed AP classes were in the eyes of admissions officers. They suggested that because colleges take AP classes, GPA, and standardized test scores into account, students might overestimate how important these factors actually are and can sacrifice their wellbeing in pursuit of high scores and hard classes.

“You’re not promoted to do the things that interest you the most because it feels like you’re wasting an opportunity, so you’re pressured to take classes that you think colleges are looking for to make yourself the model applicant.”

Colleges are not unaware of this issue. “Turning the Tide,” a report published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and endorsed by many colleges, points out a common misconception concerning the application process:

“While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.”

Even Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president of Advanced Placement and instruction, tweeted that students shouldn’t feel obligated to take AP classes for the purpose of standing out to colleges, and that taking more than six AP classes over a student’s entire high school career has no statistically significant effect on first-year college grades or four-year degree completion.

Still, these institutions have failed to effectively communicate this concern to students. On Harvard’s Frequently Asked Questions page, they write that “there is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them.” While the disclaimer at the beginning is certainly comforting (and slightly contradictory), what follows is a dangerous incentive for students to overload their schedules with difficult classes. The College Board’s “What is AP?” page similarly states that AP classes “could give you an advantage in college” because “‘AP’ on your high school transcript shows colleges you’ve tackled college-level work.” Even if reports and studies criticize packing schedules with certain classes just to impress colleges, the information most readily available to students promotes it.

Potential Solutions

“You have to make learning a more collaborative space instead of a competitive one.”

This is the conclusion we came to when we tried to tackle the most difficult part of this issue: how do we solve it? Much of our conversation centered around making the school environment more supportive. This can mean several things.

It can mean promoting different paths and embracing individuality, especially by deconstructing the common interpretation of success.

It can mean recognizing that some students are still going to choose an incredibly challenging path. To alleviate the stress that accompanies this, teachers should try to create engaging classroom environments where students feel comfortable asking them for help or striking up a conversation. As one student put it, “there’s a difference between being good at teaching and being a good teacher.” Going through information is one thing, but creating memorable lessons and lasting connections is another. A different student elaborated on the positive influence this can have on the learning experience, saying that “it’s nice to feel treated like a human instead of a robot in an assembly line.”

It can mean accommodating to different learning styles. I asked my peers what method of learning works best for them, and there was no concrete answer. Lectures worked for some and not for others. In a public school, it’s impossible to completely tailor lessons to each student, but we should try to get as far as we can. We discussed how some parts of class could be standardized to initially learn a subject, but students could be given more freedom in choosing how they learn for mastery, whether that be through a group project or a worksheet.

It can mean investing in a more effective counseling system. Each student I spoke to rarely, if ever, made appointments with their counselors. Clarifying to students that the counseling department is a valuable resource available to them (e.g. by sending an automated email or by including a one-sentence reminder in morning announcements) is a step in the right direction.

So, when we look back at the educational philosophy Washington advocates for, we should critically consider how well we realize our rhetoric. Do we recognize each student as a unique individual? How can our conventional definition of success reconcile with “attainment of personal goals”? Does the learning environment promote collaboration or obstruct it?

It isn’t until we answer these questions that our schools can begin moving towards a more positive learning environment.