Friday, February 24, 2012

Why Competition Won't Work in Education

"Blasphemy!!!  Competition works in EVERY situation Jack!  If people have to compete against each other, they will automatically increase their performance.  What we have to do to get better educated kids in this country, is make all the teachers compete against each other.  That will get our kids to learn!"

This is what I have to say to that line of thought.

American education is never, ever going to improve so long as we as a society keep blaming the teachers.  Go ahead and look up the statistics.  Most failing schools in America are in poor, urban areas.  You can look at Columbus just as an example.  Not every public school in the Columbus City School district is a failure.  The nicer the area, the more successful the school is.

"Well how can you really prove that Jack?"  The kids who perform poorly are generally the ones that have very crappy home lives.  Their parents don't care, they're surrounded by drugs and alcohol, and crime is rampant in their neighborhoods.  My son is in first grade, he's 6, and he can read.  Not only can her read, but he can actually retell the story in his own words.

Has he reached this level of competency and higher order thought because the teacher is just absolutely amazing?  Only partially (she better be amazing considering how much money I pay).  The key is that he always has either me or his mother to help him with his homework.  His homework consists of practicing reading, writing, and spelling.  If she and I never helped him with any of that then he'd likely be behind.

I remember vaguely when I was his age my mother doing the same thing, helping my brothers and me with our reading, spelling, and writing.  And we three are generally intelligent adults.  So what about a kid who doesn't have mom or dad to help them?  What about a kid who doesn't have anyone to read with after school?  How well do you think that kid will do in school with zero reinforcement from home?

Guess what: it doesn't matter how amazing the teacher is.  If a kid does not have a positive, supportive environment at home, that kid will be stunted, and no amount of instruction will help pull that kid out of that hole.

"But Jack, not all inner-city kids turn out to be useless.  Some of them go on to succeed even without a supportive homelife."  That's true, but given the drop-out and failure statistics, how many of those kids actually break out of the cycle of poverty and/or ignorance?  Statistically, not many.  And that's because we can't expect every child to have the amount of drive and tenacity it takes to overcome such potentially debilitating barriers.

If you still don't believe me, then you must answer me this one question: if money is the solution then why do well-funded districts still fail?  Is it any coincidence that those well-funded but still failing districts are largely located in urban areas?  Why does Worthington City Schools continually outperform Columbus City Schools with comparable funding?  Well, for those of you who've never been to Worthington, OH (it's a suburb of Columbus) all you have to do is just look at the neighborhoods to tell the difference.

So sure, fire all the teachers and pit them against one another.  Let's ignore the real problem, because we know the real problem is politically incorrect to articulate and it's likely unfixable anyway.  Let's punish the teachers for factors that are completely out of their control, because that's what we're all about in America: finding someone to blame other than the individuals actually responsible.


KP said...

Good topic Jack! It's not all about the teachers. I urge you to read this post at Pressing Pause that supports you:

"Williamson’s quote is symbolic of the American public’s belief that private schools are inherently superior to public ones. As an undergrad, I worked part-time for two years in a public elementary, taught for four years in public high schools in Los Angeles, one year at a private high school in Ethiopia, and attended both public and private universities. As a teacher educator, I visit schools all the time, mostly public ones. If I’m an expert about anything, it’s secondary education. My daughters have spent 30% of their schooling in privates and 70% in publics."

The entire blog post:

Jersey McJones said...

Back to the "competition" subject, the reason it doesn't work (charter schools perform about the same as regular public schools) is that education is not an inherently profitable industry. It is necessary, but not profitable for the private sector. That's life. Not everything necessary is immediately, monetarily profitable as far as the private sector is concerned - nor should it be!


Silverfiddle said...

"Blame the teacher" is a red herring.

And unleashing free-market forces is not "fire all the teachers and pit them against one another," any more that welders, dentists or restaurants are "pitted against one another."

I know quite a few teachers, including family members, and they all gripe about the bureaucracy over-peopled with useless, overpaid administrators, and the ridiculous premium put on a teaching certificate over other degrees, along with the bizarro newsspeak and specialized vocabulary of the education realm.

The teachers unions have hijacked the joint.

Privatizing education and running it like a business would shed all of that and free up the people on the front lines, the teachers, to break the shackles and do what works for the particular group of kids they are teaching.

Reform and results like those featured in these two articles are rare in public schools.

Jack Camwell said...

Privatizing and running schools like a business has not proved to be any better. Do you know what administration is like in charter schools? The administrators are largely people with MBAs and what not.

Charter schools are run like a business, and although I can't speak for every charter school everywhere, the ones here in Columbus are fairly awful. If you think the beurocracy in school administration is ridiculous in a public school, you haven't seen how awful it is in charter schools.

Several teacher friends of mine have seen it first hand, and they refuse to ever work at charter schools. The problem they face is that the administration has no background in education, and no idea how to teach kids.

I agree that public school administration is ridiculous, but privatization is definitely not going to solve anything.

The way I see it is that there are 3 major problems facing American education:

1. Not enough teachers, resulting in bigger class size (trust me, that matters).

2. A decline in the perceived intrinsic value of education (ie. education is more about making more money in the long-run than it is about learning and becoming a critically thinking human being).

3. Standardized testing.

4. Yes, the educational NEWSPEAK.

These are problems that are not fixable with anything but a fundamental change in how society perceives education and its problems. And actually, I think American education is unfixable, given how people are not willing to be honest with themselves.

Jack Camwell said...

Furthermore, competition in education is just plain stupid, because there's no real way to measure success.

How do we decide which school is better? Is it based on how many of the students go on to college? No, because college is not for everyone.

Should it be based on standardized tests? Definitely not, because all teachers have to do is start teaching to the test to boost scores, which is what they do now. It's fairly common for 4.0 high school students to do extremely poorly in college, because no college uses standardized testing to assess their students.

Also, a student can do average or poorly on a standarized test, but go on to produce amazing results in college.

Fostering competition between schools only promotes schools to drop the idea of real education. We all know that standardized tests mean virtually nothing other than proving that a kid can study for and pass a test. Big deal.

Silverfiddle said...

I just gave you examples that contradict your argument. Did you read them?

A little more googling will reveal parochial schools all over the nation who take in disadvantaged children and teach them when public schools could not.

How would schools measure success? They way any other business does. The ones that go broke are a failure. The ones that don't are not.

You're still thinking inside the big government box. Yeah, it's broken, but more of what broke it won't fix it.

Jack Camwell said...

No, I'm not thinking inside the government box. I want the government to get out of it, ie. stop trying to fix the problem with ridiculous solutions.

But I also want business type people to stay out of it, because they're generally idiots. For every charter school that is successful, there's probably 10 that are a waste of space and time.

How do we measure success? It was a rhetorical question, because in education you can't really measure success on a wide-scale.

And privatizing schools solves *nothing*. All it would do is give some kids a better shot. When I say some kids, it would only be a few. Most parents of the failing kids in urban areas simply don't care.

And yeah, lets let schools close down so classroom size can increase.

Money is not the problem. Teachers are not the problem. The problem is societal, and will likely never be fixed.

Anonymous said...

Face it, it's RACIAL. Some groups are inherently superior to others.

All efforts to disprove that obvious truth have failed miserably, which is why we are where we are today.

Brown and Henderson had it pegged and got it right decades ago when they wrote:

Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That's why darkies were born;

Someone had to laugh at trouble,
Though he was tired and worn,
Had to be contented with any old thing,
That's why darkies were born;

Sing, sing, sing when you're weary and
Sing when you're blue,
Sing, sing, that's what you taught
All the white folks to do;

Someone had to fight the Devil,
Shout about Gabriel's Horn,
Someone had to stoke the train
That would bring God's children to green pastures,
That's why darkies were born.

Sorry! The truth is often unpleasant and unpalatable.

~ FreeThinke

Jack Camwell said...

I sincerely hope you're joking FT.

Jersey McJones said...


My wife was a very successful parochial school teacher, but I was able to earn enough money to allow for her to do that. Had I had a lesser job, she'd have had no choice but to teach in public school, and in your world, she'd have had to simply find another profession, and all those kids would not have had the benefit of such a fine teacher.


Anonymous said...

Good education is and will always be about the capacity and willingness to nurture students. Money, poverty and class-structure are only modifiers to the end result but the ultimate base remains the same, the capacity of the teachers and the willingness of the education system/authority/board/district to nurture students.

Like over here in Britain, social issues, class-structures and even bigotry can make it all so harder for some to get a good eduction. I have seen personally great and dedicated teachers working their behinds off to provide as best as they can, encourage their students to not only learn but desire it, and yet not have the resources that could have made a situation ideal.

I am, admittingly, from a priviledged background and was private schooled both in Spain and in England. In those days (I am old) there was a spirit to learn. My youngest son "should have" got what I got and I know he has not receieved the same and at a price that we can say was three times the cost in comparison. The facility was certainly there, but the emphasis was on being the best and well qualified teachers were more interested in pushing and meeting criteria instead of actually nurturing, encouraging and creating that desire did not exist. He did well, continuing his further studies for his speciality (Medicine - Pathology)but I think it was the hunger that my wife and I placed that was the inspiration, not his teachers.

As for government vs private - I think that is a sad reality that some people can afford to get more than others - what is important is that we set a minimum standard and ecourage an environment of educational desire. India has that desire and look what it is producing!


Damien Charles

Silverfiddle said...

Jersey: "In my world" education bureaucracy would be slashed, with more of the money going to the teachers.

In your world, which is right now, teachers unions own public education and reward the most obedient with cushy non-teaching administration positions.

It's really working out well, ain't it Jersey?

Jack Camwell said...

I think perhaps you're missing the point Silver.

We can fix EVERYTHING with the actual system, but it would still largely be for naught.

Get rid of the beurocracy. I saw a charter school in which there was one principle, and the rest of the administrative duties were divied up among the teachers. 95% of the student body in that school goes on to college, many with scholarship moneys.

The reason it worked, however, is because ths students there were motivated to learn and succeed. Many failing students are not.

So you can fix everything we do about education. We can get rid of standardized tests, unions, beurocracy, all of that, but none of it will matter if we don't fix the larger issues behind student success.

If the students don't care, they won't learn. If the parents don't care, the students won't care. If society doesn't care (ie society think education is simply a ticket to better income) then why would the parents care?

Silverfiddle said...

I agree with your last statement Jack.

I was refuting your categorical statement that "competition won't work." I can and has worked, but I do agree with you that that it is not a magic bullet.

That appeared to be your central thesis, so that is what I zoomed in on.

Yeah, apathetic students + apathetic parents = failure. Some really brilliant, energetic teachers have actually overcome that, but we can't expect such a heroic effort from every teacher. I know that I would not have it in me.

Jersey McJones said...

Silver, I don't think you can back up this statement: "It(sp) can and has worked,..." Where? Overall, charter schools perform about the same given the same demographics. If anything, you would be encouraging segregation, by class, race, ethnicity, and religion, in a purely competitive system. You would be dividing the children. It's nutty.

The public school system as we know it today is a product of ancient civilization, of the founders of modern democracy, republicanism, constitutionalism, philosophy, religion, music, literature - you name it. The institution is a foundation of all civilization and it must be as unfettered of private interests as possible.

In other words, don't think you're smart enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. You're not Aristotle, or Jefferson. Neither am I.


Anonymous said...

Well Jackie, here we go again eh?

Yes I fear that making schools competitive is a bad idea, because like so many other facets of life, people will cheat to win.

I feel that a big problem plaguing the public schools is that they have failed to adapt the prussian model to something that works now. Japan has it down pretty good, however they put their students under tremendous pressure.

I have a somewhat unique experience with school, I went to public school until 7th grade, was moved to a catholic school in 8th, and went to a catholic high school.

Public schools are much better funded. The problem isn't money however, it is the fact that the kids have zero discipline and honor. The teachers have way more problem students, and most of the time way more students in general.

Going to a catholic school really opened my eyes, for the first time I was dared to do more. The bar was set way higher, and while I did fairly well, I realize that my fairly well would have been 4.0 in public school.

I do not feel that kids are being challenged any more, either at home or in the classroom. In fact, having a college degree now is so common it is near worthless unless you can back it up with experience. I do agree with Jackie on the fact that is is largely a social thing. Somewhere in the shuffle, it has gotten lost that education should be the highest priority of the young people, all these distractions in their lives now makes life complicated. Being exposed to mature concepts and technology too early is only fueling the fires of failure.

Silverfiddle said...

"Yes I fear that making schools competitive is a bad idea, because like so many other facets of life, people will cheat to win.

We have teachers cheating right now. In every facet of life, non-competition breeds sclerosis and failure; competition puts people on their game and ends up producing a better outcome.

Why would education be any different.

I still agree though that competition alone won't improve things.

Jersey, I already provided examples...

Go google Ben Chavis or American Indian Schools.

It has worked, so you're wrong again, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Silver, education would be different because if the education system turns into a competition the children will become the pawns the board... their welfare secondary to the survival of the school.

The goal of k-12 education should be to inspire people to learn and grow. If you only had one skill, and that skill was to learn things extremely quickly... then you would only need time and experience to learn anything, and thus from that one skill you have a potential mastery of all.

Learning how to learn, in whatever way works best for you, is the most important skill you have.

Silverfiddle said...

"education would be different because if the education system turns into a competition the children will become the pawns the board... their welfare secondary to the survival of the school."

We have that going on now.

Jersey McJones said...

Silver, anecdotes - especially those with such peculiar demographics - do not prove general rules. That's why they are scientifically useless. Sure, we have all sorts of public and private alternatives to mainstream schools, but for the most part the determinate factors of educational achievement have to do with economic class. Getting rid of public schools does nothing to address that. If you want kids to do better in school, then work to make for greater upward mobility for the working class.


Silverfiddle said...

Jersey: Do you think before you type?

Jack made a categorical denial that competition works and you agreed.

I provided evidence that negated your categorical assertion.

You challenged me to back up my statement, and I did.

Now you switch over to "general rules," which has nothing to do with the conversation but does provide a smokescreen.

Think before you speak, or at least bring some data instead of just blowing hot air.

Anonymous said...

I feel there is a very real difference between children who naturally want to learn and those who do not.

For a historical example, common people in the revolutionary war era were not very well read nor were they particularly scholarly. What they often did have however were honed tradeskills that even some of the greatest minds of the time probably never mastered. There is a lot to be said for hands on learning or apprenticeship.

You don't need to know Newtonian physics in order to apply the skills to build a house, in other words.

I think we all agree the system as it is right now is not very efficient, while this is true you should also realize that it does work for those children that work hard and take it seriously.

What is the solution then? Make the requirements of teaching less stringent and hire more teachers? Turn the schools over to corporate types who would care more about profit than community benefit? Perhaps the solution lies in a combination of the two systems, such as hiring outside consultants and contractors specializing in certain areas of expertise. After all you can learn more in an hour one on one with a genuine expert on a subject than you could in a week of being in class. I do not pretend to have the correct solution to this problem.

I believe that teaching is one of those rare professions that is more about intangible benefits and a sense of life purpose. When you teach someone anything, anything at all, and you realize the moment that "they get it" one would hope it to be a sense of pride for the teacher. If that pride was turned into more of a financial accomplishment then surely the motivations for teaching would not be the same, and something would be lost.

I can see where the argument can be made "that is exactly what private colleges do, and look how well they operate and hardly never go broke." and you are right. You also have to realize that all college graduates are NOT equal and you are back to square one where the inherent differences of human potential show themselves no matter who or what is driving them.