Focus on competition destroys students’ lives

American education system forces children into endless competition

Female student with head on desk

Emma Uffelman

Acalanes student stressed with the over competitive nature of school.

For the vast majority of Americans, high school is a critical precursor to college and adult life. Students’ experiences and choices in high school often dictate what they will do for the rest of their life. At the very least, these experiences impact the people they associate with, the college experience they may have, and many of their core beliefs. 

The importance of high school is not lost on students. They see reminders of this everywhere ─ from their parents, their teachers, and their peers. As the workload piles up, school becomes the sole focus of many students’ lives. 

This focus destroys students. 

If they aren’t achieving perfect grades, they feel like they are essentially failing at their one job: school. Furthermore, in their quest to achieve such perfection, students feel as though they must be better than their peers in all aspects of life. 

This pressure builds into competitiveness. Essentially, the American education system forces children into a vicious and endless competition to outperform each other.

This competition begins at a very young age. As soon as students enter middle school, they are graded on the antiquated letter-grading scale. Teachers grade every minuscule thing a student does, which serves as a reflection of the student’s understanding and effort. On a larger scale, each grade is tangible evidence of a student’s intelligence, work ethic, and overall ability to perform. 

The concept of this omnipresent grading system is one of many aspects of the school system that adds to its competitiveness. In the vast majority of jobs, workers aren’t constantly graded. While jobs may have high standards for quality and hard work, these standards are entirely different. 

For instance, if someone owns a restaurant, their customers grade them on a daily basis. However, one customer complaint doesn’t make or break the business–the success of the restaurant depends on the overall quality of the food, service, and environment. 

Imagine if a single customer complaint or one-star Yelp review could destroy the business. Imagine that all this person’s peers have the same type of restaurant; imagine that this person amongst all his or her peers is the only one who received the complaint.

This metaphorical restaurant is not different from our education system, which forces competition between students to achieve ever-elusive perfection. This competition is ultimately out of their control, despite any hard work they may put in to ensure success.

In high school, this competition only increases in light of college applications. Students who want to be hyper-competitive–as many feel obligated to be–take extraordinarily hard, time-consuming classes. 

In Lafayette and at Acalanes, this competition is absurd. While at many public and private schools around the country, taking one or two Advanced Placement (AP) or honors classes is all that’s allowed. In the Acalanes Union High School District, many students feel obligated to take a course load of entirely honors or AP courses. 

Given the course description, AP classes require multiple hours of homework each day, so taking six or seven of them would be physically impossible. 

Combining this immense workload with constant judgment only leads to stress, anxiety, and an interest in school and the competition itself. As if this is not enough, students then face pressure from colleges through standardized tests and applications that are often rejected in a matter of seconds. 

The question that students must then ask themselves at one point is: “What have I learned? Am I happy? Do I even want this?” Will the answer really be something to the point of “a great variety of important, interesting tools that I will use the rest of my life?”

For me, it’s this pointlessness that makes competitiveness so hard. If I felt like I was actually striving towards something, toward a goal other than to do better than my peers, then maybe this competition would be fun, interesting, and merited. 

To have a productive, effective, and rewarding education system, middle schools, high schools, and colleges need to revolutionize how they grade their students. Schools need to give students more control over their own choices and future.

This requires a combination of changes. First, students’ grades should depend on several individual conversations with their teachers. While there may be some exceptions, this could allow all students to most effectively communicate their understanding of the material. 

Humans communicate most effectively face to face, one on one. Communicating learning with teachers should be no different. This will prevent needless grading and misunderstandings that plagues students with stress. 

Additionally, students need to have the option to specialize in high school whenever they feel ready. Essentially, if students can take classes they find interesting, school will not just be about competition: it will be about learning, which ultimately should be the goal. 

And lastly, expectations have to change. Teacher expectations, college expectations, and even employer expectations have to change. Performance in a variety of subjects during one’s teenage years cannot be allowed to set up their whole life. Education needs to be about learning, not judging.