Win Some, Lose Some

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 2/20/2020

Win Some Lose Some 1

One of the hallmarks of BVT is encouraging our students to take pride in their work—to compete even when no one is looking. Our students encounter success in life because they have experienced competition and deeply understand the value society places on merit. They also learn to be resilient in failure. Let’s face it, you can’t win all the time. Our students are strong and have the fortitude to try and try again (and again...). We WIN SOME; we LOSE SOME, but we never give up the fight.

I’ve always enjoyed the spirit of competition. I might even say that competition is what makes life worth living…or at least enjoyable. Charles Darwin would argue that all life on our planet owes its existence to competition, but let’s take a less scientific focus on the sociological aspect of human fulfillment.

I posit that the human need for competition is so innate that we are hardwired to engage in it even as a solitary endeavor. Have you ever toiled at something seemingly unimportant to others for your own satisfaction? Sure, you have—that beautiful house plant, that greener lawn, that clean car, that elaborate recipe you cooked for yourself. You took pride in it, and you did it for yourself, but subconsciously competition was at play. Striving to be better, to do our best work, is innate. And, when others take notice—it scratches that primal itch to engage in competition. If this were not true, we simply wouldn’t try—we didn’t really need a house plant at all, and a brown lawn will still hold the dirt down, just as the dirty car still gets us there. And, as long as we have sustenance, is the elaborate recipe and thoughtful presentation really that important?

Consider how excited we get about competition when it involves others. Examine our culture around individual and team sports—the determination of the athletes, the intense rivalries, and the screaming fans decked out in team gear to signify they are part of it. Sports are obvious examples, but our whole existence revolves around competition in one form or another. Perhaps Darwin was correct on an evolutionary and biological level, but humans have cultivated the spirit of competition on every level imaginable. We adore excellence in every form and will gather like moths to a nightlight to experience (and hire) the best musicians, orators, writers, barbers, carpenters, designers, chefs, manufacturers, doctors, and so on and so forth. We strive to earn our way into the best schools, and ultimately to be hired by the best companies in our chosen vocations. Some of us start our own businesses and strive to build the best mousetrap, so the world beats a path to our door to buy one. It goes without saying that we seek the best service we can afford, whether it’s the doctor standing over our hospital bed or the plumber fixing our water leaks.

Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Education (DESE) took issue with the state-regulated admissions process for all vocational-technical schools. Six vocational schools were engaged in the initial discussions to amend the statewide regulations, and BVT had the distinction of being among those chosen to participate. Some who clearly don’t understand career-technical education have suggested DESE abolish the state approved and regulated competitive application process to vocational schools in favor of lottery admissions. The primary rationale is that 8th grade is too early for students to experience meritocracy. In other words, a student’s effort to have great attendance, discipline, character, and grades (his or her merit) should yield to the luck of the draw because it is presumably fairer. I stand with virtually every career-technical educator in the state to say that I am vehemently opposed. Here’s why:

First, let’s rule out a few things. If eliminating our waitlist would solve the concerns, we would gladly admit every student who applies. But, in our case at BVT that would be roughly 3200 students, which is an unrealistic solution for many reasons. Another option is to create more career-technical programs throughout the state, and that effort is well underway. Nonetheless, demand for career-technical education far exceeds capacity and will for the foreseeable future. That brings us back to pondering the lottery.

I disagree that 8th grade is too early for students to experience meritocracy. As an 8th grader, I pursued military and maritime options for high school. I didn’t get into my top choices and accepted that other applicants exhibited more merit than I. I made the next best choice, you know, Plan B. I wasn’t sunk for life, and it was very indicative of what to expect four years later in college admissions. I learned from it. I’m afraid that lottery-style admissions not only lack that inherent lesson that our society rewards merit, but also creates an inexplicable blip in meritocracy for a moment in time. Let me explain.

Immediately after students enter BVT via the lottery, they would begin on day one competing with classmates for shop placement through the Exploratory process. One-quarter of a student’s career GPA would be in the books, and class rank is already a reality by the end of freshman year. By sophomore year, the bulk of the state MCAS exams are administered, and ironically the state will award John and Abigail Adams Scholarships to the top 25% of performers in the class—not the bottom 25% and not a random 25%. By junior year, students will be filling out college applications, none of which are based on a lottery. Juniors and seniors are also setting their sights on Co-op employment, and once again competing for the best opportunities. SkillsUSA will roar into town in March, and by summer, we will know who the best regional, state, and national champions are in every trade conceivable. And finally, in June, graduation will be upon us, and we will declare that we have prepared our seniors “for the real world.” We will also proudly proclaim that they graduate ready for “the world of work.” I’m curious—were you hired for your current job because you showed up on time every day, took your training seriously, gained valuable skills and experience, and worked hard—or were you hired by a lottery?

Lottery admissions defy every notion of our mission to make our students college, career, and life-ready. It is not “the real world” and certainly has nothing to do with “the world of work.” Furthermore, lottery admissions do not solve the severe supply and demand issue for quality career-technical education. Even in the lottery, there are winners and losers. All that lottery admissions will accomplish is the fantasy that for a split second, merit doesn’t matter.