“Compete Against Yourself”

Over the weekend, the edu-wife and I had the good fortune of seeing Kristen Chenoweth perform with the Philadelphia Symphony. If you don’t know who Chenoweth is, you might as well stop reading now … or start listening to the original Broadway cast recording of Wicked. Your choice.

At any rate, Chenoweth paused from her incredible performance to talk about her experiences, both as an artist and as a pageant performer. She spoke of how competing for both the Miss Oklahoma and Miss Pennsylvania crowns helped her develop her life motto.

When the four-foot-11-inch vocalist and actress realized was that she couldn’t compete — at least on the pageant circuit — against the six-foot statues she was standing next to. So she decided there was only one solution. She needed to focus on competing against herself.

Chenoweth offered that life lesson to a number of young women in the audience in Philadelphia that night, women who aspired to be like Chenoweth and wanted to pursue their passions in singing and performance. But it is a lesson that can and should apply to all students. And it is a lesson that isn’t all that foreign in our education debates.

For all the criticism of HOW it was measured, at the heart of adequate yearly progress (or AYP) was schools competing against themselves. Could they do better this year than they did in the previous? Could they build on previous years’ gains and continue to show improvement?

In the coming months, we will again hear a great deal about state tests and opting out and the proper role of state benchmarks in the learning process. Maybe we can take Kristen Chenoweth’s life motto and apply it to student assessment. Maybe, just maybe, we can use annual state assessments to help young learners see the progress over the course of the last year. Maybe we can use tests as the benchmarks they are supposed to be, helping students see all that time and hard work has paid off, and there is quantitative proof they know more this year than they did the previous.

Yes, the adults in the room often put too much weight into the “competitive” aspects of education. Let there be no mistake. Competition is OK. It’s not the end all/be all of life. But it is good to set a goal and achieve it. It is good to show growth and accomplishment. And is certainly is good to compete against yourself. It’s true for artists and performers, and it is certainly true for most children.

Growth is a good thing. Progress is a good thing. And competition, in the right frame, is a good thing. We should all be competing against ourselves,  whether as children or as adults.

Thank you, Kristen Chenoweth, for reminding me this. And it doesn’t matter if such competition makes one Popular or not.

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