Book Excerpt: Competition vs. Collaboration

By and large, middle schools are currently choked with the expectations of meeting AYP, showing high growth, and reaching arbitrary objectives as prescribed by state boards of education.  Teachers complain about the loss of creativity and fun, principals are closing arts and physical education in order to make room for interventions ordered by corrective action, and students are exhausted and bored.  Our current traditional middle school experience doesn’t lead to achievement; it leads to high-school dropouts and stressed-out adolescents.  That’s right: competition drives ultimate failure for too many of our kids.  It has to.  That’s how the system is defined—a few winners outrunning a majority of losers.  This has nothing to do with “kids these days,” since it’s always been this way, but with lower stakes.  This is a dangerous way to lead America into the global economy, and the powers that be don’t understand why that is or how to change it.

Instead of the “every man for himself” variety of competition, our goal will be leading students to thrive in the “every person for the team” competitive/collaborative model.  We have to start changing our middle schools to prepare students to become the adults they want and need to be.  That looks much different than what many people might think—it certainly looks different than what we’re seeing in classrooms now.

Teaching middle school is a research-based, yet heart-driven practice and it’s getting more complex.   Middle school educators and administrators are stuck in the power play happening between publishing and assessment companies and the politicians who feed them.  These people aren’t specialists and they aren’t (usually) educators.  They are businesspeople who are concerned with making a profit by raising test scores using their products.  This will not prepare students for the future—it will most likely have the opposite effect.

There is, thankfully, a large team of specialists who have the energy, the drive, the ambition, and the experience to reform our schools the way they need to be reformed.  That team should be moving us forward with the know-how that our students need and deserve.  That team is made up of the millions of students and teachers in this country.  It’s time to revisit—and restructure—our middle schools to prepare our students for high school, for college, for work, and for life.  Since we’ve seen that the “top-down” model hasn’t worked and will not work, let’s start from the bottom up. Let’s use our real, collective expertise to make a real difference in the lives of our students.  We got into teaching for this reason; it’s time to stand up, take it all back, and make it count.

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About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

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