Column: Education shouldn’t be reduced to a cutthroat game of winners and losers

During a recent conversation with a college-level educator, I was struck by a comment she made.

My teacher friend, who was raised outside the United States, observed that intense competitiveness is an intrinsic feature of American education, and she sometimes found that particular attribute peculiar.

In her native country, she explained, education isn’t seen as a contest to be won or a prize to capture. Rather, she said, education should be viewed as a right, equally accessible to all, and as a means of attaining personal growth and professional fulfillment.

Of course the competitive spirit is baked into the American DNA, so it’s hardly a mystery why those instincts extend to our academic pursuits. And, to a certain extent, the drive to come out on top can be beneficial. Competition can spur us to work harder and reach higher and to strive to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

But it can also be toxic if taken too far, and we arguably passed that point a long time ago. Education has become a metaphorical blood sport, and many of us are obsessed with playing it to win.

Take standardized testing, a source of all-around agony. The point of these tests when they were first dreamed up wasn’t to create winners and losers. It was to provide valuable information that could be used to improve our schools and help students.

That’s not how we view them, though. We judge our students and our schools based on their test scores, even going so far as to call some schools failures, while we inadequately respond to the underlying economic and societal conditions — poverty, housing insecurity and hunger, among other factors — that typically lead to their lagging educational outcomes.

Students early on are taught to treat education like a race, with certain benchmarks that must be achieved by specific points in time. Parents with the means to do so invest heavily in tutors and extracurricular activities to give their kids a better chance of meeting established targets.

Meanwhile, too many kids who fall behind in reaching what are often narrowly constructed definitions of proficiency quickly become disillusioned. Lacking the necessary support, and punished by a system that deems them slow or flawed, they check out. Once kids opt out, it’s monstrously difficult to get them back.

The competitive bug infects us in other ways.

Consider the case of Newport Beach’s Mariners Elementary School, which became embroiled in controversy in 2016 over what many of the school’s teachers believed was exaggerated and sometimes inaccurate information in an application for a coveted California Gold Ribbon Award.

An investigation into the matter that was commissioned by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, and conducted by an outside investigations firm, concluded that Mariners’ then-principal included inaccuracies in the application. It also found that some concerns were unsubstantiated or embellished.

Regardless of the findings, the Mariners episode does serve to illuminate the feverish way that school administrators pursue such academic accolades and the lengths to which they might go in order to win a shiny trophy.

The great college sweepstakes is another glaring example of our how our competitive natures can pollute education.

We’ve geared much of our educational system toward college admissions. On its face, this would not seem to be a problem. Who could argue with the value of a college education, or the desire of students to set the bar high for their academic aspirations?

But any student or parent who has been through the college admissions process in recent years knows just how crazed the experience has become. We start prepping kids for college while they’re still in diapers; by the time they’re in high school many students are riddled with anxiety and plagued by worries that they’ll be stigmatized if they don’t meet some socially dictated standard of achievement.

Colleges feed the frenzy with marketing blitzes and outreach campaigns. They publicize their national rankings — why we even need to rank universities is another question worth examining, particularly given many schools’ shameless jockeying for position — and engage in manipulative practices to gain a competitive edge over other institutions.

None of this behavior enriches the educational experience; it merely adds to the perception that education is a battle. Conquest is all that matters.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem, but I think the road back to sanity must begin with a major shift in attitudes. Parents and students can lead the way, by pushing back against a system that values high test scores over true knowledge and understanding; and over qualities of substance, such as character, wisdom, tenacity, compassion and the ability to work well with others.

I’m reminded of a remark that another teacher friend once made. Kids don’t need to be encouraged to be competitive; that fire already burns inside them, she said.

Education shouldn’t be reduced to a cutthroat game of winners and losers. When we make it more about the prize and not the journey, we all end up losing.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, and is the coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.