How to Start Winning Again

Getting back to basics.

“He took nothing for granted. He began a tradition of starting from scratch, assuming that the players were blank slates who carried over no knowledge from the year before… He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a pigskin in his right hand, “this is a football.”

Those inspiring words were an excerpt from author David Maraniss’ best-selling book, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi.” This was in reference to Lombardi’s yearly ritual of bringing the team he coached to five Super Bowl wins back to the basics: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

In order to retain the focus of why you do what you do, it is always wiser to go back to the standard with which you began. In football, the focus should not be the money, the brand deals or kneeling; it is the sport you play. As such, the same applies to education. It shouldn’t be what you wear, the nicest car, or even the latest cellphone, but rather the academic knowledge you retain.

Within the last several years, America has had an unprecedented front row seat to the unraveling of academia. From the change in the rules concerning fair play, to the ever-changing standards of education, the modus operandi of the system many of us once knew has metastasized into an unrecognizable attempt at leveling a necessarily uneven playing field.

The Participation Trophy

Those of us that grew up experiencing being picked last or not at all in team sports, or coming in last in a competition, understood all too well the true meaning of the expression, “you win some, you lose some.”
As a result, we learned how to be “good losers” and “gracious” winners. But what happens if you get what winners get-even though you didn’t win?

One of the best examples of this was the federal government’s “Blue Ribbon Schools” program. Created in 1982, its initial declaration was that “it would not merely single out the highest-achieving schools but would also recognize other forms of excellence.” While this sounds harmless and benevolent, it was destined to be potentially problematic.

In an editorial entitled, “In Praise Of Mediocrity for All!,” ‘’ writer Steve Salerno submits the following in reference to the ‘Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’ (CASEL), or SEL for short:

“It strikes me as ironic that in a realm like education, the lesson America’s scholastic visionaries never seem to learn is also the most simple lesson of all—that education should be about educating.”

Mr. Salerno posits(and rightfully so) that the educational process should have more to do with what students retain, rather than their emotional demeanor. He continues on: “The Brookings Institution 2006 Brown Center Report on Education found that nations in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem cannot compete academically with cultures, mostly throughout Asia, where no one worries much about cute emojis or those ‟non-cognitive” factors. As psychologist and author Michael J. Hurd once told me, “Kids don’t feel better about themselves and then do better in school. They do better in school, then feel better about themselves.”

Educational researchers also learned that those temporary relaxations in standards had to be institutionalized systemically after students who were shunted on to the next level couldn’t do the higher-level work, either. The fallout lingers: today, the number of incoming college freshmen who need remedial courses in order to handle college work hovers at an abysmal 50 percent.” Or how about when it comes to handwriting; cursive, in particular?

The Writing on the Wall

Although cursive writing has either been dialed back or dismissed altogether, professor of educational leadership and innovation at ASU, Steve Graham(among others), has concerns in reference to this increasing
trend from an article in by columnist Liana Loewus: “Being able to handwrite quickly makes it easier for people to get their ideas on paper. Students who struggle with handwriting “may have to devote other cognitive resources to this low-level task, which takes away from other higher-level aspects of writing like thinking about how you’re going to organize a text,” he said. Having good handwriting also helps students in school, where teacher surveys have shown the majority of writing is still done on paper. “A reasonable amount of research suggests if your handwriting is not very legible, people will form opinions about the quality of what you say,” said Graham. “The more legible paper will get higher scores for writing than the less legible paper of the same quality.” Then of course, there’s that word we hear repeatedly in mainstream media, as well as academia-equity.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, the word equity is defined as, “without bias or favoritism.” Now, the Declaration of Independence reminds us that, “All men are created equal.” In a nutshell, all that basically means is that although there are some surface differences(barring sex), we are all basically the same, and deserve the same chance. History reflects that this premise works, regardless of race. Unfortunately, equity in 2022 doesn’t stop there. It offers that economic, racial, and certain non-immutable characteristics conclude that because some people are smarter, faster, stronger, and better in some areas- we must change the rules. In other, words, if Tommy doesn’t learn as fast as Michael or doesn’t understand the material as well, under normal circumstances, Tommy would simply receive a lesser grade or have to study more. Instead, we now change the questions or adjust the challenge, so that Tommy is equal to Michael. The truth is, while both boys are basically the same, Michael is simply better at the subjects at hand than Tommy.

Equity vs. Merit

Equity, much like the Affirmative Action program years before(which was once considered merited), ultimately does more harm than good. It unpropitiously propels the student beyond the challenge of the test, while simultaneously forcing them into a place where chance has placed them, but only merit will maintain them.

Suffice it to say, we have gotten off track. Despite the sometimes altruistic(or not) desires of some, shortcuts and moving the goalposts are never solutions to getting ahead. We must get back to basics. Much like Coach Lombardi and the football, educators need a reminder of their purpose in teaching year after year: the betterment of the student. Likewise, students must be reintroduced to their purpose as well- gaining the tools for success. Without such goals in mind, regardless of all of our “well-meaning good intentions,” our children- as well as society, will indeed reap what we have sown. -Lawrence Johnson

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