Choice and competition seem to be a perfect solution for improving schools. The United States prides itself on a market-driven economy. We dislike monopolies in which bureaucrats operate organizations with employees who aren’t incentivized to offer good customer service because they enjoy unconditional job security. In addition, we believe competition improves efficiency and performance.
Given our enormous experience with markets and bureaucracies, it seems indisputable to apply choice and competition to education.
However, education is not a business. Children are not widgets upon which we can experiment. The future depends on our ability to make decisions based on the considerable research on what does work.
On the matter of choice, there is no research to show it’s effective in either improving student performance or school effectiveness. In fact, in places like Michigan where choice is offered in abundance, it leads to greater inequities and lower performance.
There are three basic assumptions driving the push for school choice.
1) Parents primarily choose schools based on academic achievement factors.
A study on what motivates parents in choosing schools reveals they want schools that are safe, close to home, offer extended hours, after school programs, and extracurricular activities. Poorer families, in particular, prefer neighborhood schools due to transportation and other factors.
There is no reason to believe that increasing choice will lead to schools being chosen on the basis of their academic program and therefore no reason to believe that choice will lead to improved student achievement. You can advocate increased choice because you value choice in a free society, but you cannot advocate choice because it will improve student performance. It won’t, either in theory or in practice. ~Marc Tucker, Choice and Markets: Theory and Practice
2) Parents are guaranteed the school of their choice.
The primary method of increasing choice and competition for education reformers, including President Trump and his nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, is to increase access to more charter and private schools.
The challenge here is that both charter and private schools have full control over the students they admit. They can exclude any child based on criteria they choose. Examples of exclusion criteria include not meeting academic or behavioral standards, disabilities, race, socioeconomic, religious, or any number of other factors.
Charter and private schools are not required to accept every child. On the other hand, public schools are mandated to provide a free education to all children.
If the idea is to increase choice, particularly for disadvantaged children, then charter and private schools must be mandated to admit all who apply. But, that’s not how it works.
Let’s be clear: Charter and private schools benefit the most from choice, not parents and children.
3) Competition improves school performance.
Education reformists insist that competition improves teaching and learning. However, not only does research not support the theory, it conflicts with what we know to be true about best practices for teaching.
Every set of standards, including the highly esteemed National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, emphasizes collaboration, not competition.
Teaching is a demanding, highly skilled profession. One cannot teach well without collaboration. Teachers depend on colleagues to improve practice and support. We cannot expect teachers to be comfortable taking risks, trying new methodology, or share knowledge if the only thing that matters is ranking higher than the teacher next door. Competition encourages teachers to cheat, avoid harder-to-teach populations, and take shortcuts.
Interestingly, competition has been the education mantra for over a decade: It hasn’t worked. Why do some keep insisting it does?
Finally, let’s look at one of the most successful school systems: Finland.
Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation — not choice and competition — can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement. ~Pasi Sahlberg, Learning From Finland
Education is the foundation of our democracy. Serious consideration should be given to any nation-wide change recommended by reformers who do not understand the impact.
“Any way you slice it, the market theory does not hold up in the light of either serious analysis of the premises on which it is based or the data on what happens when it is put into practice in education. If you want choice systems because you think there ought to be as much choice as possible in a democracy, go for it. But if you want choice and market-driven policies in education because you think they will raise student performance overall and lower the cost of provision, think again.” ~Marc Tucker, Choice and Markets: Theory and Practice
What is your experience with choice or competition in education? Was it positive or negative?