Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Competition is NOT a Silver Bullet for Schools

Conservative political pundits have been saying for decades that competition is what is needed to improve schools.  Part of this is based on the mistaken view that parents will always know which school is the best, that somehow they will know the methods and programs that work best for their kids and how well those methods and programs are working in a particular school.  The reality is that they probably have no idea WHAT methods or programs are being used in the school, let alone whether they are effective!  If they have an opinion on it, it is most likely based on what the school has told them rather than what the truth is.  This is true regardless of which school you refer to, district, charter, or private.

With the emphasis on competition that charter schools and the voucher movement have brought, combined with the personal ambitions of policy makers and the media's insatiable appetite for news, we see more and more spin on "new" ideas, programs, and educational schemes, all of which are attractive but untested.

Competition is based on pride.  It is not based on being good.  It is based on being better than certain others.  There is no satisfaction in being good, but only in being better than others being compared.  This leads to seeking for more things to entice parents with, to get them to bring their kids to that school.  Those things usually end up being warm-fuzzies that lack substance, because that is what is attractive or what sells.

Those warm-fuzzies could be anything from programs that claim to teach "higher-level thinking," to open classrooms, to more technology, or fancier gadgets or buildings.  Most of the time these things add much additional work to the teacher.  There are only so many things they can do in a day, so these additional things begin to take away from the ability to provide other more important things, like foundational skills that take work from both parent as well as teacher, physical exercise, subjects not tested, or money for what is more important.

I have listened in faculty meetings where the discussion was based around how to make the school more attractive, so parents won't go to another "new" charter school coming next year.  The suggestions were mostly things that for the teacher would be additional work, questionable as to its value, but the vogue thing at the time, like more iPods, etc.

This phenomenon undermines being good and turns efforts into becoming more attractive instead.  It ends up being a lot like having a garden and thinking that introducing competition from the "natural influx of competing plants" (weeds) will improve the garden.  Yes, some plants will "step up" to the competition and put out more growth, but their efforts go into competing for light and space instead of producing food.

Competition between students can be motivating when used properly.  I've used it a lot with things like knowledge bowl quiz competitions.  It can help businesses, though unbridled, or ruthless competition can also eliminate healthy competition establishing monopolies that cost more and provide less.  Competition between schools is proving to not be improving them.

The more we introduce "competition" between our schools, the more we push them into spending their time and energy in competing rather than producing, being attractive rather than building a solid foundation.