"Elementary is doing this pretty well, but we need to have it more in middle and high schools," Starr said. "We need to convince folks out there that competition might not be the most important thing for our kids."
Responding to questions at a town hall meeting at James Hubert Blake High School in Colesville, the superintendent acknowledged that "healthy competition" can help kids reach their potential, but said it can go too far.
"I'm a little concerned about the level of competition that exists these days," he said. "There's something in the American value system where we value competition over collaboration and cooperation, and if you look at how problems are actually solved in the world, many more are actually solved through cooperation and joint teamwork."
Starr said it's something he would like to talk to families about, and is thinking about holding a community forum about the role of competition in the spring.
Montgomery County Public Schools are consistently ranked among the top in the nation, and recently received a presidential honor for success as an organization. Its emphasis on college readiness is embodied by a seven-step process emblazoned on many a school pamphlet and handout; to that end, Blake, for instance, offers more than 20 Advanced Placement courses.
But it's also a school system that eschews competition in some forms: None of the district's 25 high schools rank its graduates, and extra credit is forbidden from factoring into students' grades.
In a survey on school climate last school year, 51 percent of Blake students said they "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with the statement: "Students care about each other in this school." But 61 percent of students "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that "students help one another in this school."
Michelle New, a Gaithersburg clinical therapist who treats adolescents across the county, said the Washington-area culture of competition can affect students. "If they're not at the top of their class, they feel like they're failing even though they're taking extra-challenging coursework," she said. "They stay up too late to study and do homework and get all A's."
Certain kinds of competition can, of course, be healthy, New said. It's just a matter of why a student is competing. For example, holding oneself to a high standard engenders healthy competition. "But if it's all for the same event or award and you don't get it, teenagers don't have very good coping skills and they just crash -- they can't cope with not winning."