Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Losers and Winners and Cancelling Honors Night at Cole Middle School

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9

In his weekly monologue on Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor always closes his report on the news from the fictional Minnesota village of Lake Wobegon by describing it as a place “where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

In my little town of East Greenwich, you can argue about how strong the women are and whether the men are good looking, but you can’t argue about the kids, they really are above average.

That’s not just my opinion, it’s a fact. At least according to the standardized test scores. Students at the Archie R. Middle School, just a stone’s throw from my front door, scored twenty points higher than the state averages, in every grade, in math and reading and science. You can look it up.

So it was a little startling to see Cole singled out as a prime example of why American schools are failing. The problem in our schools can be traced to the “idiotic,” “ridiculous,” “socialist,” “stupid,” “progressive,” “pathetic,” decision by the folks at the Archie R. Cole Middle School to cancel their annual awards night.

Alexis Meyer and Dan Seger, the Principal and Assistant Principal at Cole, sent a letter to parents last Friday, explaining that the traditional “Honors Night” would be discontinued. They went on to say, “Members of the school community have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night. Therefore, we have made the collective decision to recognize students during team- based recognition ceremonies and graduation. This will afford us the opportunity to celebrate the individual and collective successes of all students and their effort, progress, and excellence.”

My initial reaction to the Cole decision was negative. Why should we have a problem with celebrating the best and the brightest? Shouldn’t we reward academic excellence?

But then social media and the blogosphere immediately lit up with a tsunami of negative commentary.

Reading the comments on a news story can often be disheartening and sometimes it is appalling. But it can also be wonderfully clarifying. One of the recurring themes in the commentary on the decision to cancel honors night was that teachers and administrators are people who could not succeed in “the real world.” They are, to put it bluntly, “losers.” Another theme was that in life there are winners and losers, and there is no such thing as collective excellence. Excellence is by its very nature exclusive and individual.

Oh. My. Goodness. Time to rethink my assumptions.

In the first place, anyone who calls someone else a “loser” is, by definition “a loser” (Matthew 5:22).

In the second place, didn’t Bill Belichick build a whole coaching philosophy around the concept of collective excellence? (Those of us with very long memories may want to give original credit to Red Auerbach or Vince Lombardi.)

But in a broader context, why are we so obsessed with winners and losers? Excellence is not necessarily exclusive. The quest for excellence is not a zero sum game.

And why do we have such a low view of educators?

I was pondering all of this when I discovered this morning that Cole will reinstate their honors night. Our long national nightmare is over. Sanity has been restored.

If you read the letter carefully, you will see that they still plan to make some changes. The celebration will be at night, as in the past, rather than during the school day. And it will be called “Honors Night.” But it looks like they will still introduce some team honors, as well. Sounds good to me!

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