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Scott Harris: Dodging Reality

Attempts to protect children from the pain of competition eliminates its rewards.

It all started with dodgeball. Most of us who are older than 30 played dodgeball in school. We picked teams based on arm strength, foot speed and popularity, and then we spent our lunch hour trying to cream as many people as possible. On rare occasions, someone got hurt, as kids do in almost any physical activity.

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Scott Harris

A few years ago, a trend of banning dodgeball started in public schools. Reasons included the physical danger of being hit by a ball and the emotional stigma attached to being picked last. In a few extreme examples, some schools banned any activity that required “picking” teams, avoiding the pain of not being selected early, or even at all.

This adult sensitivity to children’s pain now has worked its way into the classroom. In the past few years, many school districts have taken to banning red pens for grading purposes because some believe that their use causes undue stress and demoralization. The politically correct color for correcting tests and papers is purple, which is seen as a more soothing, calming and less judgmental color than traditional red.

Some public school districts have found that even the gentleness of purple grading still leaves some children feeling uncomfortable. It seems that students who score less than 50 percent on a test or paper are discouraged by their marks. In response, many districts have established a minimum score of 50 percent — even for students who don’t actually take the exam.

Hillsboro, Ore., school board member Hugh O’Donnell advocates a slow rollout of the 50 percent minimum plan in his district, aiming for full implementation in a couple of years, “once we educate the teachers.” One has to wonder why O’Donnell doesn’t devote those years to teaching students so that they actually score better than 50 percent, rather than teaching teachers how to give artificial grades.

The fully predictable extreme of this silliness was a principal in the Dallas Independent School District who wanted to raise the minimum to 70 percent. Why not 80 percent? Why not 100 percent and give everyone an A?

The danger in all of these programs is that we deceive the children. Some kids are faster, some are stronger, some are smarter and some work harder. All children are smart enough to know these truths and exactly where they fall relative to their peers. When we attempt to avoid the pain of competition, we eliminate its rewards. Children need to learn how to win — and lose. They need to establish self-esteem, but honest self-esteem.

When they leave the cocoon of school and enter the real world, they will be judged — in some cases, harshly. They will win jobs, earn raises and land promotions based on how they compare to their peers. In preparation for this reality, it’s OK to lose when young. It motivates children and adults alike to do better, work harder and hopefully win next time. We don’t all make every team, we don’t all win the championship and we don’t all get the promotion.

But don’t tell that to the folks in Fairfax County, Va. That’s where you’ll find Oakton High School, which now has eliminated the class valedictorian. Actually, they can’t eliminate the valedictorian (defined as the student who ranks highest academically); they simply choose not to acknowledge the student. In this case, senior Tom Nysetvold is denied the honor he worked so hard for and deserves, because highlighting one student as the best apparently makes some students feel inferior.

I remember class valedictorian being a point of pride, a badge of honor and a motivating factor for many students. Maybe if Fairfax County and other districts around the country trumpeted their standout students instead of coddling failing students with fake grades and purple pens, they would end up with more achievers. In the meantime, I’m going to take my kid outside and play some dodgeball.

Scott Harris is a political commentator. Read his columns and contact him through his Web site, www.ScottHarris.biz, or e-mail him at [email protected]

 

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