Proposals for Increasing Student Achievement

Stuart Buck has two interesting proposals for increasing educational achievement among minority students, based on his book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation:

I do suggest one idea that I think has some promise: eliminate individual grades, and let students compete against other schools in academic competitions.

This idea is far from original. Rather, it comes from the eminent sociologist James Coleman. Coleman observed the striking fact that while students regularly cheer for their school’s football or basketball team, they will poke fun or jeer at other students who study too hard or who are too eager in class: “the boy who goes all-out scholastically is scorned and rebuked for working too hard; the athlete who fails to go all-out is scorned and rebuked for not giving his all.”

But this is odd, is it not? Why are attitudes toward academics and athletics so different? Sports are more fun than classwork, of course, but that does not explain why success would actually be discouraged in class.

Coleman’s explanation was disarmingly simple: The students on the athletic teams are not competing against other students from their own school. Instead, they are competing against another school. And when they win a game, they bring glory to their fellow students, who get to feel like they too are victors, if only vicariously.

But the students in the same class are competing against each other for grades and for the teacher’s attention. Naturally, that competition gives rise to resentment against other children who are too successful (just as students will hate the football team from a cross-town rival)…..

Coleman’s suggestion, therefore, was that if you want the students’ attitudes towards their studies to resemble their attitudes toward sports, you should minimize the role of grades — which involve competition against one’s classmates. In his words, we need to get rid of the “notion that each student’s achievement must be continually evaluated or ‘graded’ in every subject.”

Instead, such grades should be “infrequent or absent,” and should be replaced by “contests and games” between schools, such as “debate teams, music contests, drama contests, science fairs, . . . math tournaments, speaking contests,” etc. Then, the students in any one class or school would have a greater incentive to encourage their fellow students to study hard, and to take pride in their fellow students’ success.

I agree with Buck’s proposal for increasing the role of interscholastic intellectual competition. I have defended that view myself, though on somewhat different grounds. As I argued in my post on high school debate, interscholastic academic competitions help overcome the problems caused by the short term orientation of most teenagers. Getting into a good college or getting a good job are valuable prizes. But they are beyond many teenagers’ time-horizons. On the other hand, trophies and prestige acquired from winning competitions have little objective importance, but do provide much more instant gratification.

I doubt that debate or math team victories will ever get as much prestige as sports victories do. There are many more nonathletes who enjoy watching basketball games than nondebaters who enjoy watching debate rounds. But they can provide enough prestige to motivate participants to strive for higher levels of intellectual achievement. It certainly helped turn around my own high school academic standing, which was mediocre at best before I got into debate.

On the other hand, I think abolishing grades will do more harm than good. The abolition of individual grades actually was tried in the USSR in the 1920s and communist China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In both cases, it predictably led to plummeting student achievement as incentives to study hard declined. Even committed communists recognized this problem and soon went back to assigning individual grades. Grades are also of value to colleges and potential employers in evaluating student applicants.

More generally, I am skeptical of James Coleman’s and Buck’s claims that students view academic achievement more negatively than sports achievement because the former involves competition with your fellow students, while the latter is about competing against other schools. To get on a good high school football or basketball team, you have to beat out many of your fellow students who also wanted to be on the team, but weren’t good enough. Successful high school athletes are often objects of resentment and envy. That does not, however, prevent them from having high prestige and social standing in the high school world. Students also often compete against each other in informal athletic competitions, and there is no stigma attached to winning.

If anything, I suspect that the low academic achievement is more commonly the result of students not caring whether their classmates are doing better than they are, than of caring too much. A class full of competitive grade-grubbers isn’t always admirable. But it probably has higher academic achievement than a class full of people who are happy to get “gentleman’s C’s.”