It is an oft-stated truism-- competition creates excellence.
If you are running a race, you will run faster and harder to beat people who are also running fast. If you are playing football, you will train to be better than the team facing you on the field. It seems sensible.
There are some problems with this model just on its face. The people in the front of the pack, the winners, will get stronger perhaps, but the race will also separate out some losers, who will either have to either accept losing as their lot in life. Or they'll figure out ways to cheat. After all, if the definition of winning too narrow, like "being first to cross the finish line"-- well, there are plenty of ways to accomplish that without having to run the whole race faster than anyone else.
If we really believe that every student in America should get to attend a school that's a winner, then a competition that only a few can win seems like a poor model.
Competition may deliver excellence for a few, but it will not deliver excellence for everyone.
But there are other issues. If we make the reward for winning something important like, say, your food, then by losing, racers lose the very thing they need to compete. Competition will make them weak and hungry, the very opposite of breeding excellence.
But competition often does not breed excellence at all-- in fact, it can create the opposite effect.
Consider a market competition this way-- that vendors are competing for the chance to sell their wares. When prime customers are scare, competition favors those who lower their standards-- not those who raise them.
Colleges, for instance. As reformsters often point out while decrying the proliferation of remedial college coursework, colleges have responding to shrinking pol of college prospects by lowering their standards. They have competed for customers by admitting folks who would not have been considered customers at all in an earlier day, and since a college's customers are also part of their process and "product," they've competed by running away from excellence.
Wal-Mart did not conquer the retail world by pursuing excellence. "I want the very best product on the market, so let's go to Wal-Mart," said no consumer ever. Getting the greatest number of customers means lowering the bar as much as possible, both for the products on sale and the customers welcomed through the door.
The very term "exclusive" is associated with high quality. Clubs bill themselves as "exclusive" because everyone hears "selective" and "the best." Private schools and charter schools have long understood that "excellence" is achieved by being careful about who gets in your front door. Other charters have understood that "success" (as in "enriching the bottom line") can be achieved by lowering the bar as you open the front door.
In a system with too few resources, competition eats excellence and spits it out. In a city education ecosystem that contains many charter schools, where there are 200,000 seats for 100,000 students, competition for customers will be fierce, and schools will compete with whatever strength they have. If they can't compete for the academically oriented crowd, they will compete for the folks who want a convenient school or an easy school or a school without Those People in it. They will compete by using creative advertising that ignores the truth. They will worry more and more about getting people in the door and less and less about what is waiting for them inside. And while Wal-Mart can't afford to disappoint customers into never coming back, a school doesn't have repeat customers-- its customer base is always aging out every couple of years.
"Competition creates excellence" only seems true to people used to being in the front of the pack and setting the rules. For everyone else, competition is a reason to game the system, change the rules, move the finish line, or just lower the standards.
The goal of public education is excellence for everyone, but competition produces excellence for only a few, and sometimes not even that. It's a lousy metaphorical framework for education. Better, say, to talk about a garden on which we focus the full resources of the community to plant and water and tend living things to grow and mature without worrying about which one is tallest, sweetest or most vibrantly colored, or how we could best deprive one flower of water so that another can win a greenery contest. Education is not a race, and competition will not improve it.
I love the garden metaphor.ReplyDelete
I think about how the flowers got there. In recent history, it was no doubt ruthless culling of of the least vibrantly colored that have lead to the varieties that are in the picture. Before that the process of natural selection. It seems like the result of competition to me.Delete
It isn't "natural selection", even among animals; it's adaptation. Animals each have their own territory and things they're good at. Flowers and other plants generally don't "compete" at all; many different kinds thrive together in environments they're adapted to. People have created many hybrids, but in nature showy flowers and not so showy all thrive in the right environment.Delete
College admission has not been getting easier at my institution. When I began teaching, there was automatic admission to any high school graduate in the state. Early on this changed to automatic admission if you achieved a C average in a set of academic classes. Recently this was increased and a minimum standardized test score was added for automatic admission.ReplyDelete
And has that translated into a "higher caliber" student body at your institution? More knowledgeable? More able to think/question/problem solve? More motivated?Delete
Largely yes. I will be very interested to see if the increased admission standards have an impact on student efforts in high schools. Certainly some students will be motivated to work a bit harder on their academics in order to attend my institution, but I am not sure if enough will do that to make a difference in the high schools.
Competition is about "me". Democracy is about "we".ReplyDelete
It seems to me that competition is about choice and democracy is about choice. The opposite of competition is dictatorship, not democracy.Delete
The opposite of competition is collaboration.Delete
Competition is about eliminating choice. Winning. Beating the competitors until yours is the only choice left.ReplyDelete
Competition might be about the attempt to eliminate choice, but that goal is always beyond our grasp unless the government uses its monopoly of physical coercion to allow it to happen.Delete
Backwards, I think. When the government intervenes, it has generally been to bust up monopolies. Corporate interests are able to gaps the elimination of choice just fine.Delete
Certainly true at the national level at times, but government regulations typically favor the incumbent over potential entrants. Uber and Lyft exist because most local governments restricted entry in the ride giving market.Delete
It would be best to think about educational institutions that have competed with each other in an effort to eliminate choice. Harvard University has been working to eliminate choice for 381 years now. How successful has it been? We might add William and Mary, working to eliminate choice for 324 years. Given that there have are currently 3,024 (as of 2012-13 according to NCES) colleges and universities started after those 2 institutions in the United States, I would say they have failed miserably at eliminating choice.
Do you think Harvard and William and Mary have succeed in eliminating choice in the three centuries they have been working at it?
I'm remembering why I so rarely engage with you. Either you can't understand what other people are saying, or you just don't want to so that you can "prove" you are "right."Delete
Colleges and universities are not businesses, nor have they viewed themselves that way for 300 years.
From the perspective of the individual competitor, you are right. Microsoft wants to out-compete its rivals (or make licensing deals) so that it's the only game in town. But if you look at the fate of companies that achieve this monopolistic precipice, price and service generally suffer. Why improve the product if you will receive the same revenue regardless ?Delete
The reality is that any education oligarchy should be very ephemeral. Schools are relatively easy to create since there are few fixed costs. Any "stickiness" from a brand name like KIPP can be easily tarnished. And as Greene points out, the competition for new students renews every year.
Me. Backman, your comment makes no sense. K-12 schools are not supposed to be for-profit businesses. They are to serve everyone for the good of society.Delete
Competition is an interesting topic. Peter, I believe that you are correct when you note that competition automatically creates a ranking system that allows some to rise and others to either quit or accept their station. I've found that competition works best when I compete against myself and my goals. Not when I compete against other people. I'm a board gamer and there are specific games that I just don't grasp well. I enjoy these games because they challenge me. But my standard is not whether I win the game. It's whether I exceed my own previous best scores.ReplyDelete
But the other type of competition can be dangerous and gamed. TE noted that beautiful flowers were the result of culling the less vibrant ones. If we were to make a metaphor for students, does that suggest some sort of elimination of low achievers. Mike Petrilli would love that metaphor.
Competition among schools bothers me for many reasons. One is that not all schools play be the same accountability rules. And DeVos has no desire to see equal accountability which she made more than clear during Tim Kaine's questioning. True competition can only exist where all rules are the same for everyone. So in a sense we don't have real competition.
Plus, as you noted, competition brings out scheming and strategizing. Think about college football recruiting and all of the below board practices there. Think of free I-pad giveaways to get kids to attend a K-12 school. Marketing is the future of education. Because people like their schools once they know the adults in them. Caring adults outweigh academic achievement for most parents.
Hmm. browser error. let me try again.ReplyDelete
I agree with the points brought up by Mr. Greene. To those, I would like to add my own view of creativity, which is that it suffers under competitive pressure. In other words, I really don't believe that necessity is the mother of invention, though it may be the extractor of inventions that already existed beneath the surface.
Many studies have shown that creativity is adversely affected by stress and pressure. I can't help think that creativity would flower, both in students and in teachers, if there weren't such strong pressures to get a high score. In fact, I lived this increase in creativity back in the seventies and eighties, back when the emphasis in phys ed was on finding games where "everybody wins," back before the current mania for competition and scoring caught on. It was glorious.