“The present structure of rewards in high schools produces a response on the part of an adolescent social system which effectively impedes the process of education.” So concluded sociologist James Coleman in a classic article published by the Harvard Educational Review in 1959 (and excerpted by Education Next in 2006).
The problem, as Coleman’s saw it, is that grades and most other academic performance metrics are relative indicators, ranking students against their classroom peers. Because one student’s improved achievement reduces the position of others, social norms emerge which discourage and even denigrate academic success. In athletics, in contrast, the structure of competition ensures that individual and team success bring glory to the school as a whole. Effort and accomplishment are a source of honor, not ridicule. The “obvious solution,” Coleman concluded, “is to substitute interscholastic (and intramural) competition in scholastic matters for the interpersonal competition for grades which presently exists.”
A half-century later, Coleman’s account of peer culture in American high schools still rings true. Yet his solution remains largely untested. Sure, a few of his specific suggestions – debate teams, drama and music contests, and science fairs – are not uncommon in American public education. But they remain, for the most part, extracurricular add-ons in which only a limited number of students participate. As Coleman recognized, “If the activity, whether it be debate or math competition or basketball, receives no publicity, no recognition in the newspapers and by the community generally, then its winning will have brought little glory to the school, and will bring little encouragement to the participants.”
Could technology change this picture? That’s the theory behind Interstellar, a new venture launched by recent Harvard Kennedy School graduate Tim Kelley and ably profiled this week by USA Today’s Greg Toppo. (Disclosure: Kelley took one of my classes, and I have served as an informal Interstellar advisor.) The Interstellar platform allows students anywhere to compete in real-time against similarly skilled competitors, in pick-up games if they like but also in structured leagues and tournaments. The Mathematical Association of America recently partnered with Interstellar to pilot the concept, pitting math teams from 16 high schools that regularly excel in its annual American Mathematics Competition against one another in an NCAA-style tournament bracket. (The Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, N.J., took first prize.)
Interstellar is in the process of developing a range of applications of its technology for specific schools, districts, and charter management organizations. In the meantime, it plans to expand the AMC-based competition to 1,000 schools next fall. The hope, as Kelley told to Toppo, is that the competition will “bring enough glory to the math department, or enough glory to the math students, that everybody else says, ‘I’d like to try this too.’” James Coleman would approve.