When We Strive for Excellence, What Do We Lose?

Dr. Rona Novick

“We Strive for Excellence.” This wonderful motto would seem to inspire teachers, students and families to do their utmost, try their best, and aim for superlative performance. Clearly, there is much to be gained by creating a motivational tone in our schools, and setting high standards. Are there, also, however, some critical components of education we stand to lose? Before we adopt this seemingly motivating paradigm, perhaps we should explore the beliefs behind it. What are the unintended messages that such a focus on striving for excellence conveys, and how might they have a negative impact on some students, teachers and families?

When we embark on the journey towards excellence we assume, in subtle ways, a democratic, egalitarian distribution of talents. We assume that not only are all of us equally capable of striving for excellence, but with the correct amount of effort, practice and perseverance, excellence is within reach for each of us. However, excellence is, by definition, superior and out of the ordinary. It is neither commonplace, nor is it accessible to all in all situations.

Educators know that students may demonstrate the potential for excellence in one area, and yet struggle to achieve even moderate success in another. Who among us is, or strives to be, excellent in everything we attempt? As adults, we generally choose those areas in which we will strive to do our best, and those we have determined are either not sufficiently important to us, or in which excellence would require too much effort, or even with extensive effort be impossible to achieve. In those realms, we settle for acceptable albeit mediocre outcomes.

In schools that “strive for excellence,” wise educators likely understand that unlike adults, students have little choice, and are expected to expend effort and strive for excellence across the board. Although teachers and parents may appreciate the diversity of capabilities in students, will youngsters living and learning in a “we strive for excellence” environment internalize an awareness and acceptance of the differences among us, and of their own diversity of talents?

The impact of striving for success as a schoolwide mantra may have particularly potent impact on those students with significant challenges. At a time when the benefits of inclusive practices in education are well documented, and in Jewish schools where the middot of caring for our fellow are taught and hopefully embodied, do we want an educational slogan that hints at elitism? Can we provide moral education in a setting where those who strive and excel are somehow seen as preferable, better, more desirable, than those who do not? How can we balance the drive towards excellence with the need to create truly welcoming and supportive environments for all students?

Striving for excellence impacts teachers as well as students. Jewish day schools generally have been exempt from the national movement towards performance based teacher pay, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan labeled his department’s “highest priority.” Regardless of whether driven by “official” policy and payment, or simply the result of teachers perceiving that striving for and achieving excellence is valued in their setting, such a belief will inevitably influence how they define their goals and expend their efforts. This may decrease teacher receptivity to inclusive classes and teaching challenged students.

The merit pay issue raises another caution in embracing the strive for excellence movement. How do we define excellence? In the above-mentioned move towards merit pay for teachers, the evaluation of student excellence has been limited to the easiest type of student outcome to measure: scores on standardized achievement tests. As the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development argues, “If we want students to develop as well-rounded human beings who are empathetic, thoughtful, and creative, we will have to include these characteristics among our goals for schools and seek ways to gauge our success.”

Will students, teachers and parents read “We Strive for Excellence” banners and mottos to mean we value citizenship, mentschlichkeit, sportsmanship or creativity? Or, in schools where what is most often measured is academic knowledge, will a focus on striving for excellence contribute to a limited view of valued outcomes?

The final issue I would like to consider is the place and prominence of failure in an educational setting that focuses on striving for success. It is intriguing that a Google search on “strive for success in schools” links to numerous articles on preventing perfectionism in children, and helping those students who already struggle with it. We know that when our focus is on winning the gold, getting the A, etc., rather than on the process of training, learning and striving, there are important lessons we miss. Adults may understand that the emphasis in the “strive for success” needs to be on the striving, not on the success.

Adults may recognize the critical role of mistakes and failures in the learning process. Adults may be familiar with the extensive and growing positive psychology literature on the benefit of grit and perseverance in supporting healthy, resilient development. Last summer, I attended a multiday positive psychology training for Jewish educators, including a segment on grit and perseverance. We watched an advertisement which included a female racer taking a serious fall during a track event. The woman not only stood up, but went on to win the race, accompanied by swelling music and a cheery sentiment about the power of persistence. The sophisticated educators in the room were highly disturbed by this commercial message, voicing complaints such as “perseverance doesn’t always result in a win” and “a better lesson would be learned if she finished the race in fifth place, and survived not getting a medal.” These educators understood the value and importance of failures for genuine learning and building resilience.

The challenge for schools that tout “We Strive for Excellence” is to both make failure acceptable, and to teach students how to fail and how to keep going when they do. The challenge is to ensure that striving for excellence resonates with students as a journey, with bumps and detours that are as important as the destination.

One might argue that the concerns I am voicing are all a matter of semantics. I am reading into the pursuit of excellence, the strive for excellence, elements and intentions that are not meant to be there. In Jewish tradition, we understand the power of words to hurt, to motivate, to comfort. We have the paradigms of lashon hara, evil speech, and ona’at devarim, harmful words, to teach us that words matter. We have the prescriptive statements we offer to the mourner, and the format and formula of our prayers to demonstrate the power of a phrase. It may be semantics that communicates more than we intend, or less, when we announce “we strive for excellence,” but those are semantics we need to consider carefully. In fact, we should apply the same semantic microscope to all elements of our mission and vision statements, meticulously exploring how they are heard and understood by our constituents, and how they impact the teaching and learning in our schools.

I have suggested that we do a disservice when we focus exclusively on excellence, on outcomes alone, without considering efforts expended and obstacles overcome. I have argued that we risk fostering in our teachers, families and students, a one-dimensional view of learning and success, that may leave some feeling they are failures, or excluded from our community of strivers and successes. I am not suggesting that we turn off our efforts to strive; rather, that our goals be broadened. We strive for excellence, and for goodness, and for citizenship, and for an array of other valued characteristics and skills. Most importantly, we strive for positive growth. Rabbi Nahman of Breslov wisely asked, “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?” Our schools will truly be excellent places when we all strive to contribute, in myriad ways, to the growth of every student and the promise of his or her personal tomorrow.

Dr. Rona Novick is the dean of the Azrieli Graduate of Jewish Education and Administration, co-educational director of Hidden Sparks and a child psychologist whose work with children, educators, schools and parents often centers around the promotion of resilience. [email protected]

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015