By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
The corporate viewpoint is that there’s nothing like “healthy competition” to improve quality. But should a school be run like a business where the emphasis is on winning rather than doing one’s personal best? And, when it comes to education, is the phrase “healthy competition” an oxymoron?
“There is too much focus on states competing for dollars rather than laying a solid foundation of resources on which states and local districts can count,” asserts CTA President David A. Sanchez. “Because of devastating budget problems across the country, states are laying off educators and increasing class size. A competition for grants is a cruel hoax on state and local taxpayers that desperately need a reliable stream of funding.”
A system that rewards “winners” and punishes “losers” based on test scores does not achieve the goal of helping struggling schools improve, adds Sanchez. “What would work better is a system built on proven reforms like smaller class sizes, more counselors and quality professional development for all educators. Reform works best when parents, teachers and principals work together to meet the needs of students in that particular neighborhood school.”
At the state level, the California Department of Education released a list of 188 low-performing schools, which were immediately labeled by the media as the “worst” in the state. Many of these schools are improving: 129 had a positive change in their API score from 2005 to 2009, and 20 had a change of 50 or more points in their API score from 2005 to 2009. Now they are threatened with one of four options: a loss of funds unless they fire staff; closing down; transformation; or conversion to a charter school.
When schools are labeled “bad” as the result of competition, it can hurt schools rather than help — and even become a self-fufilling prophency. Parents remove their students; the school gets less state funding due to declining enrollment; students and teachers have low morale; experienced staff leave; and members are stigmatized.
Charter schools can have an advantage, since they can choose students through strict requirements resulting in the most motivated students and families. They can exclude students with learning disabilities or limited English skills, and can drain students and dollars away from other schools.
“Increasing charter schools and promoting competition are very limited ways to improve education overall,” says Sanchez.
Promoting competition is not an effective means to achieve lasting reform, says Don Bridge, a CTA Board member and high school history teacher in Chino Valley Unified School District.
“I look at Race to the Top and other contests as a way for our detractors to implement rules and regulations that are not beneficial to us by dangling the carrot of money,” he says. “It is one-time money that will go away after these regulations are in place. How will that make for a sustainable reform or an ongoing successful school site, or make teachers successful in the classroom?”
Competitive funding will be a disservice to students everywhere, and that will ultimately decrease equity among students. When adequate funding is lacking in states across the country, the first priority should be to provide adequate funding for every student and every school, rather than creating more winners and losers.
Education scholar Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and author or editor of 20 books on education, no longer believes that competition helps schools and that schools should be run as a business, she told attendees at the CTA Urban Issues Conference in February. With the Obama administration pushing an aggressive program of school reform that relies on the power of incentives and competition, it could make schools worse, not better, she says, with public schools becoming the schools of last resort for those who don’t get into charter schools.
Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, takes issue with the philosophy that schools should be more businesslike and the notion that a business model, based on competition, can be successfully applied to education.
Cuban, the author of Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses, describes an incident in his book where Jamie Vollmer, CEO of an ice cream company whose blueberry ice cream was voted “Best in America,” addresses a gathering of teachers. He tells teachers that if he ran his business the way schools were run, he’d be out of business. A teacher then asks what he would do if he received a shipment of blueberries not up to snuff. He replies that he’d send them back.
“We can never send back our blueberries,” the teacher replies. “We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude and brilliant. We take them with attention deficit disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis and English as a second language. We take them all! Every one! And that is why it’s not a business — it’s a school.”
Desperate for money, schools could have to start competing against one another for funds if the Obama administration has its way. For example:
- Before even being allowed to compete for Race to the Top (RTTT) funds, schools nationwide were asked to pay and evaluate teachers based on test scores so they could, in effect, compete against one another.
- There was hope that Obama’s reauthorization of NCLB would provide stable funding for schools to meet high expectations. Instead, the administration’s “blueprint” for reauthorization relies on standarized tests to identify “winners” and “losers.”
- According to Education Week, the Obama administration’s proposal would essentially “flat-fund Title I grants, transform several other formula streams into competitive programs, cut the Title II teacher quality state grants by $500 million, and consolidate 38 smaller programs into a number of new competitive programs.”
- Education Secretary Arne Duncan maintains that the number of charters should be increased so they can compete with other schools for student enrollment.