When Schools Shun Competition, Middle Class Families Seek It Out After School

In the Summer 2010 issue of Ed Next, June Kronholz (“Competition Makes a Comeback”) writes that the self-esteem movement in the 1990s made many educators squeamish about competi­tion. In fact, American educators have had a love/hate relationship with it over the past century. For example, in the 1930s and the 1960s there was a conscious move away from competi­tion in schools.

But what we have seen is that as schools move away from promoting competition, those parents who think schools are not providing enough competitive outlets go outside of the traditional education system. Often these parents tend to be middle class or upper middle class, and they cre­ate or join extracurricular organiza­tions that charge participation fees. This development has led to increased inequality, as children who cannot pay to play are excluded.

Not only is there growing inequal­ity associated with afterschool com­petition, but increasingly younger and younger students are diving into com­petitive tournaments on sports fields, in dance and music studios, and in other venues, such as academic bees. Kronholz focused on middle school­ers (which is also a shift—it used to be only high school students who engaged in such competitive tourna­ments), but the reality is that elemen­tary school–age children now partici­pate in a variety of highly competitive and organized afterschool activities. Formal competition, tryouts, and practices are part of the everyday grind, as ever-increasing numbers of American children are being raised to play to win both inside and outside of the classroom. We simply do not know the long-term consequences of being engaged in competition from an early age, either psychologically or in terms of educational outcomes (i.e., Do competitive kids end up attend­ing “better” colleges and universities or pursuing more advanced degrees?). Education scholars should consider how to incorporate these types of extracurricular activities into existing theories, frameworks, and models.

Hilary Levey is a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy at Harvard University.

This blog entry was submitted as a letter to the editor.

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