Debate Magazine

Send Us Winners and We’ll Make Winners out of Them

By Stevemiranda

There’s an old saying in the world of private school admissions: “Send us winners and we’ll make winners out of them.”

It’s meant sardonically, and the point is clear: many private schools require prospective students to take an achievement test; often, the students who do best on the achievement test are the ones who are admitted to the school.

Then, the school gets to boast when a high percentage of its students go on to attend an Ivy League college.

Education theorist Martin Haberman says this another way: “The children we teach best are those who need us least.”

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I observed this same phenomenon as a public school teacher, although it wasn’t exactly the same.

But it was maddening, for sure.

I would give an assignment. Some students would do the assignment, and they’d get an A. Others would not do it, and they would get a zero.

The problem with this was that I could predict in advance what the outcome would be. For example, one year I decided to give students a multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble, scantron test for their final exam. The results were remarkable: they mirrored almost exactly what the students grade had been up to that point. So, if the student’s grade was an 87 percent entering the final exam, her percentage on the final was almost invariably between 85 and 90 percent. It was uncanny.

It made me think: if the outcomes are so predictable, what’s the point of engaging in this ritual? I’m not sure of the point, but I have a pretty good sense of the impact: kids who experience success at school get the joy of more positive feedback; kids who don’t experience success at school get to feel even worse about themselves.

I’ve written before that so I’ve heard many parents tell their kids, “School is a game, just learn to play the game.” While I’m not fond of that particular sentiment, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. School is a game. All the kids who are good at school, line up here to receive your “A.” Send me winners and I’ll make winners out of them.

The corollary, of course, is horrifying but no less true. All the kids who aren’t good at school, here’s your list of required classes. Please report to the rooms listed on the right to receive your F.

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Instead of encouraging students to play the game, I’d like to encourage all of us to rewrite the rules of the game. Instead of setting kids up to fail by demanding that they conform to the institution’s definition of success, we can ask them how they define success. We can ask them what they’re interested in. We can ask them what their goals are.

When every kid is pursuing the things that make them special and unique, everyone wins.

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