Many economists assert that competition is a driving force that catalyzes improvement in businesses. BusinessDictonary.com defines it this way:
Rivalry in which every seller tries to get what other sellers are seeking at the same time: sales, profit, and market share by offering the best practicable combination of price, quality, and service. Where the market information flows freely, competition plays a regulatory function in balancing demand and supply.
I am no business expert, but I think I have a basic understanding of this concept. Let’s use an analogy to help make this clear. Apple’s iPhone has driven the market in cellular phones. Samsung, LG, Tracfone, and others have had to improve their combination of price, quality, and service when it comes to the smartphone movement. As Apple has linked several of its’ other devices to the smart phone-think Apple Watch, Ipad/Ipad Pro, MacBook, it has created a community of consumers who more often than not own multiple products. By making sure the smartphone they design changes the way we work, live, socialize, and entertain ourselves, they force companies like Samsung and LG to create products like the Galaxy that can perform similar functions for a more reasonable price. This theory works well for products, for actual things because it diversifies the market, ensures that company innovations match consumer needs, and creates an opportunity for everyone to have a smartphone, even if they can’t afford iPhone X.
Some believe this same concept can help create better schools, and force educators to improve their practices to remain relevant in the market. They argue that adopting this philosophy to teaching and learning can help create better-prepared teachers, more motivated students, and force school districts to improve the quality of learning they offer when parents have other choices for their child’s educational experiences. A fundamental reason for competition is its effects in creating a diversified marketplace for better schools. After many years of a great deal of advocacy for a competitive mindset to be applied to American schooling, one has to ask, have all of our schools improved and gotten better as a result of this competition mindset we’ve adopted?
Hart and Figlo answered that question this way in their 2011 Education Next article, Does Competition Improve Public Schools?
It is notoriously difficult to gauge the competitive effects of private schools on public school performance. Private schools may be disproportionately located in communities with low-quality public schools, causing the relationship between private school competition and public school performance to appear weaker than it actually is. If, however, private schools are located in areas where citizens care a lot about educational quality, the relationship will appear stronger than it truly is.
Other scholars now say that competition improves not only the quality of public schools but can also improve outcomes for students. In Bozzo’s 2016 article, School Vouchers: A Vehicle to Induce Greater Competition In Public Schools, she concludes:
“Many previous voucher studies have found that programs are successful at increasing competition and student academic outcomes but only on the lowest and highest performing public school students and in the most competitive school districts. Therefore, voucher programs are not an education reform that will work for all student groups and for all states, and vouchers will not be the panacea that will help all low-performing students to catch up. Moreover, precautions must be taken to ensure that heightened scrutiny and competition do not lead to negative unintended consequences, such as cheating and increased stress for students. Despite these limitations, greater competition has led to increases in student achievement in public schools in Ohio and Florida, particularly among the lowest performing students. Future studies and efforts should continue to identify the distinctive populations and contexts that can successfully use vouchers to foster greater competition and promote improvements in educational performance, particularly for vulnerable populations.”
The question I am left with is who are the children that end up on the downside of this competition? Unlike second place smartphones like the Galaxy when compared to the Iphone X, I believe none of our children deserve a second place education. When competition comes into play, it means there are winners and losers. It means someone has to be the best and someone has to be the worst. It means some schools have to be exceptionally better than others and some have to be exceptionally worse. That troubles me greatly because I believe all children deserve a high-quality education and none deserve to be on the lower end of the competition chain in their educational experience. What happens to those children whose parents don’t have the means or capacity to choose? What happens to the children whose mothers and fathers happen to not be engaged at all in their education? Who deserves the Iphone X education versus the Tracfone education?
The competition concept is a myth because I am uncertain as to whether it makes us ALL better. Instead, I believe it creates exceptionally great access and educational opportunity for some while others are left behind. I worry often that choice, which sounds good in theory, leaves some students with no choice at all. I think the education of students is far too complex to apply a broadly based business theory to an exercise in human interaction. I may be too utopian and idealistic in my beliefs, but I can’t help but think about the children on the bottom of the competition and what it means for them.
I think we’d be wise to look at this concept as something to be applied based on context, if and when it can be helpful, instead of broadly across public education. I remain uncertain as to how this impacts teacher and leadership retention, and how it impacts the rhetoric that some public schools are failures when in reality the idea of competition means someone has to fail in order for someone else to succeed. I have no answers for this myth, except to say it is something that stays heavily on my mind. What I know for sure, is that I believe all means all and that all students deserve the absolute best education we can offer them and I am not sure that is something we should make competitive.
Until next time- Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!