Updated: Oct 8
By David E. Kirkland
In track, elite runners don’t compare themselves to other runners. Instead, they set personal targets (i.e., PRs) and measure themselves based on growth. This focus on growth stands in stark contrast to what happens in education, where students are often compared to one another—a significant misstep in our approach to improving schools.
At a glance, comparing students seems like a logical way to measure progress. However, as Daniel Family Collins rightly suggests, comparisons can mislead, obscuring our understanding of individual potential and growth. According to Family Collins, comparison “is, more often than not, the besetting hobble of critical labors on and interventions through cultural objects; a blind spot that subtends one of critical theory’s first principles: that all sentient beings possess the capacity to transform limitless space into nameable place, and endless duration into recognized and incorporated events.” More than just emphasizing differences, comparisons diminish the inherent complexity of our boundless similarities, mystifying the tension between difference and sameness rather than clarifying it. Comparison renders things based on some underlying, though deeply questionable, proportionality—a practice that ultimately breeds hierarchy.
Comparing students is not just flawed at a foundational level. It is also deeply immoral and harmful at a more significant social level because comparing students is not only rooted in biases; it tends to reinforce those biases. When educators set one group’s achievements, such as white students, as the benchmark for all students, we unintentionally cast other groups, such as Black students, in a lesser light. While the aim might be to underscore disparities, comparing students often reinforces the idea that one group is superior to another, placing the latter at a disadvantage from the outset. Thus, by holding one group’s achievement as the standard, other groups are inadvertently positioned in their shadows, marking them for inevitable failure.
For example, when educators and researchers have compared the performances of Black and white students to highlight the supposed “gaps” between them, they have also tended to reinforce the binary trope of Black inferiority against white superiority. Thus, it has so often been the case that when we compare students by race, white achievement standards become normalized—the measure against which all else is compared.
Of course, the issue with comparing students isn’t limited to race. Students are also compared based on other factors such as gender, class, ability, language, and geography that tend to perpetuate established power dynamics that position dominant groups as “normal.” This is why comparing students rarely works to interrupt education disparities. As a reflection of power, comparison merely functions as a lens, projecting the dominant gaze outwardly while overlooking the social roots of disparity. Rather than resolving disparity, comparison tends to reinforce it while feeding the ideological apparatus of hierarchy that breeds it. This fetish for hierarchy leads us to an understanding of educational equity that imagines one group as mirroring the behaviors and successes of a more privileged and dominant counterpart, overlooking the ideological and structural issues at play.
The reality is that students vary. They possess different learning styles, emanate from different backgrounds, have different histories, access privilege at different levels, operate at unique paces, and are influenced by distinct systems. By expecting uniformity, we’re not just setting unrealistic expectations but also disregarding well-established research that celebrates student differences and focuses on fixing systems rather than people. The recent discourse on education inequality exemplifies this point, where comparisons between students tend to lead to a human intervention conversation about transforming the vulnerable rather than systems that produce vulnerability.
In many of these studies, there's an underlying assumption that students should all progress at the same rate and in the same manner, disregarding the continuing history and longstanding effects of human subjugation. Numerous other studies have highlighted the flaws in this perspective, as we now know, and convincingly, that students are different and come to us with different needs. Their differences aren’t deviations from an ‘ideal’ but are unique and beautiful attributes. We also know more about the realities and results of persistent social biases that exacerbate educational disparities. Simply analyzing these disparities through the lens of comparison won’t help to bridge them.
So, why do we compare? At its core, comparison is an exercise of power. It makes those with power feel powerful, as those who hold the power to compare also hold the power to define. And this exercise of power—definition—doesn’t just have to do with erasing the presence of the marginal. It also applies to the use of the marginal to further reinforce hierarchies of inferiority/superiority while aiming to spotlight the marginalized. Through comparison, personas get fabricated as a means for the powerful to contemplate their terrors and desires without having to acknowledge these feelings as their own. Thus, comparison functions as both antidote for and meditation on the shadow of a much deeper erasure—a darker and more abiding shadow that hovers over all progress when educating our children.
Using a simple fruit analogy can help illustrate this idea. Expecting students to be the same is like expecting apples to be like oranges or thinking grapes should taste like peaches. Anticipating a melon to mature into a watermelon is a set up for disappointment. It’s an impractical expectation that doesn’t appreciate natural diversity.
And so many of our districts get hung up here.
In recent months, I have enjoyed working with several districts nationwide that have acknowledged how comparing students is a flawed approach to transforming education. Each has worked to shift their focus towards setting growth targets, moving beyond a race-to-the-top philosophy to one of personal peaks. By identifying where each student stands and setting achievable goals based on a student’s unique abilities, these districts have embraced concrete and evidence-informed strategies to support learning and nurture growth, emphasizing intrinsic progress rather than student-to-student or group-to-group comparison. Through this approach, they’ve actively pushed back against prevailing biases and ideologies—from white supremacy to patriarchy and beyond—avoiding the common pitfalls that hinder educational progress.
Envision an educational environment where the objective isn’t to bridge the racial achievement gap using comparisons but to establish individualized growth targets for every group and individual. Instead of striving for Latinx males to match the performance of their white peers, for example, the goal would be to advance Latinx male achievement on terms that make sense to that group. This tailored approach would benefit not just the group but the individuals in it as well. Indeed, the stigmas of being compared would disappear, and the pressures to conform abate, allowing room for educators and students to move at the speed of trust.
In my experience, districts that transition from comparing students to setting growth targets for them undergo significant positive shifts, particularly in areas with pronounced disparities. Students in these districts don’t merely meet benchmarks; they flourish socially, emotionally, and cognitively. They are sustained, affirmed culturally, and develop naturally rather than constrained by a predetermined mold.
Suggested citation: Kirkland, D.E. (2023). Stop Comparing Students, Set Growth Targets Instead. In forwardED Perspectives, https://www.forward-ed.com/post/stop-comparing-students-set-growth-targets-instead-a-secret-to-school-transformation.