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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Turning the Tide: Taking Competition Out of School Reform

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

The overall education policy and even more strongly, in my home state of New Jersey, encourages the development of charter schools. Often, support for charter schools is framed in the context of competition being good for education, as it is in business. It is difficult for me to understand why we want, need, or should tolerate competition for a public function such as education.

We don't have competition for police and fire services. These are required to be uniformly excellent and equitable. They are not always, but when they are not, they must be improved directly, not by siphoning funds for alternatives.

Parents should not have to take children out of public schools to put them into what are, in essence, experiments in education -- charter schools. We have a department of education in every state that should be responsible for upholding every child's right to a free, appropriate public education. This needs to take place with support and guidance, in a spirit of continuous improvement, not a punitive or punishing one. Perhaps it is not the local schools, but the departments of education, toward which greater accountability should be directed.

Valuing Teachers

Punishment, sanctions, and incentives (sticks and carrots) for educators have not proven to be successful, and in fact, may be harmful. (Please check out Barry Schwartz's talk at TED.com for a succinct summary of why we are moving in the wrong direction.) Just this week, an independent arbitrator has just found that Michele Rhee's 2008 firing of seventy-five teachers in Washington D.C. was unjust. That district must re-instate those teachers and pay their lost wages.

The vast majority of educators go into the field because they care about children and want to have a positive impact on the lives of children. They do not go into the field for fame or money. And children enter school with excitement and great enthusiasm about learning because they have no real sense of any limitations about what they can become. We must align our education system with these powerful motivational forces.

Working Together

Schools are and must be resources in their local communities. It hurts schools when parents of the most savvy are moved to take their children out. And what hurts schools also hurts their communities. It's not about the money, and no system outside of public education will ever have the widespread impact necessary to touch the lives of the majority of students.

Let's stop playing politics with children's lives and futures and provide the resources necessary for every public school to be a source of excellent educational opportunity, social and emotional learning, character development, and community pride.

What are your thoughts on this post? Please share with us.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Mick M's picture

This commentary is nothing but Union talking point which are in direct conflict with the facts. Choice has worked everywhere it's been tried and is extremely popular with parents and students. Just like every profession in the real world, public schools and teachers should be held accountable for the results of their work and the 4.3% of our GDP that is spent on them. It's staggering to think that a student entering first grade in 2004 could expect approximately $111,000 to be spent on his or her elementary and secondary Education if the student completes high school. Is it not unreasonable to think there are more efficient ways that money could be spent? Frankly for the alleged "education" students in some districts are getting, the money would be better spent on a video game console to keep them busy and put the rest of the money into a 12 year annuity at market rates. At least then they'll have a quarter of a million dollars in their account when they turn 18 so they can buy a surf board and chase an endless summer.

Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, Macalester College's picture

Let's see - people get to choose whether to attend Rutgers, right? Of course, choice in higher education is destroying America, right Dr. Elias?

Of course not. Just to be factual, the charter public school movement started in Minnesota when a group of liberals, including a variety of people of color deeply frustrated with the resistance of districts to family and community involvement decided to create public school options.

Despite Dr. Elias' assertions, parents don't have to take their youngsters out of public schools if they attend charters - because charters are public schools.

When I helped create a k-12 public school option in 1970, we had the same silliness from some college faculty. If state governments don't allow public school options, then only wealthy people will have options among schools. And by the way, I completely agree that there are some great district public schools - we should learn from the most effective, whether they are district or charter.

Mick M's picture

And let's not forget you can get a Federal Pell Grant to attend private religious school like Notre Dame or Georgetown. I guess this shouldn't be "tolerated" either in Mr Elias' World!!!

Philip Cooper's picture
Philip Cooper
High School and Community College math teacher

Mick M: Where's the logic in the notion that since we have choice in college we should have choice in high school? Don't you see a difference in the respective roles played by high schools and colleges in being part of a local community?

Sure choice can be popular. So what? Does that mean we should have choice in schools? If money is too tight to mention? And by the way, where do you see Mr. Elias saying choice is the issue? So Mick M, who is quoting "talking points?"

Charter schools that offer something unique (my daughter's chinese immersion charter school, for example) do offer a valuable choice. (btw, attending the school was not my daughter's choice.)
But adding a public (charter) school, to a community that is not growing in student population, that effectively offers the same academic/college prep curriculum as is already available, is obviously going to reduce the availability of resources to the original school(s). How can that be good?

Imagine for a second that the teachers in all schools were active, interested and hard working. What would be the point of adding a charter school? I'm afraid too much of this discussion revolves around preconceived notions and assumptions. And you know that saying attributed to Oscar Wilde: "when you assume you make an ass out of u and me."

k12reboot.com's picture
k12reboot.com
Parent advocate for school choice

What the author is really advocating is the elimination of "choice", not just "competition". But of course that would not be the best terminology for defending our public school monopolies. He cites the example of police and fire services as working well without competition, and he could have added the court system and the armed forces as additional examples. Fine. Every society has certain services that work fine without competition. But to rely on those examples ignores all of the ways that we obtain the vast majority of goods and services that we use on a daily basis -- food, shelter, clothing, medical care, transportation, news, financial services, and countless other things. Competition may mean "winners and losers" to him, but to me it means innovation, variety, efficiency, and a close attention to the customer's needs (i.e. "accountability")-- all things that are sorely lacking in many school districts across the country. There are exceptions of course, but really, would you want a government-run monopoly to build your laptop, create your software, design your car, or run the food stores where you shop? One call to the IRS or a short visit to the DMV ought to disabuse one of that notion.

One of the key reasons, I believe, that the public has become more reluctant to fund public education is that they see less and less evidence that educators are keeping up with the times and delivering an effective learning experience for students. I find it astonishing, given that context, here at the beginning of the 21st Century, that Mr. Elias would advocate providing LESS educational choice for parents and students. Public charters may turn out to be the best thing to happen to public education in the last 30 years -- the thing most likely to finally reinvigorate it and help regain the public's confidence. I would invite visitors to this site to ask your friends, neighbors and co-workers from outside the education establishment what they think is wrong with our public schools. They may not have all of the answers, and may have some serious misconceptions, but they are the voters and they do sense that education is not keeping up with our society and not delivering effective learning for many, many students. Very few of those citizens, I'd wager, would suggest that the road to improvement is to offer people FEWER choices. You are on the wrong side of history, Mr. Elias, and I hope other educators come to that realization before the growing alienation between the education establishment and rest of society becomes complete.

Mick M's picture

You asked..."Don't you see a difference in the respective roles played by high schools and colleges in being part of a local community?" You mean the common goal is not the education of a High Tech work force in response to the "Sputnik moment" President Obama claimed in his State of the Union Address?? If not it should be...

Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, Macalester College's picture

Professor Cooper writes, in part, "But adding a public (charter) school, to a community that is not growing in student population, that effectively offers the same academic/college prep curriculum as is already available, is obviously going to reduce the availability of resources to the original school(s). How can that be good?"
Actually, choice can encourage schools and educators to rethink, refine and improve what they are doing. For example, Minnesota began allowing high school juniors and seniors to take courses, full or part time, on college campuses in 1985. 26 years later, more than 110,000 students have done this. The k-12 education groups tried to block this law from passing in 1985 and periodically try to weaken it.
But hundreds of high schools all over the state have added Advanced Placement, Int'l Bac, and College in the Schools courses. So high school students now are better served than before, in part because competition has been introduced.

Philip Cooper's picture
Philip Cooper
High School and Community College math teacher

No, god forbid, the common goal is not the education of a High Tech work force. It is the broad education of our citizenry. I often think of Eleanor Roosevelt's 1930 essay "Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education." It still resonates. You can find it on the web.

As an educator and engineer, I assure you that many engineers and scientists graduating from even our best schools are finding rewarding work scarce in High Tech. We're not, as a nation, falling behind economically because of the lack of scientists and engineers our schools "produce". But I think we are going to fall behind because of our nation's debt load, our trade imbalance, our willingness to make public policy that variously disregards morality, science, global economics and common sense. And I hope schools (and I) teach what our future citizens will need to handle the problems we're leaving them.

jamie martindale's picture
jamie martindale
HS social studies

"Free markets always work efficiently" is a marketing slogan from the business world that we've heard repeated so much we sadly fail to question it anymore. And, it is the Big Lie. For consumer-driven WANTS free markets are often effective, but for basic NEEDS they are often terrible. How do Americans like paying free-market rates for healthcare and getting terrible results like 37th best health in the world according to W.H.O. ratings? How do you like your free-market-determined choice of banking services and fees? How do you like your giant conglomerate oligopolies in the telephone industries? I'm tired of WalMart-style community impact, Enron-style ethics, AT&T-style customer disservice, MCI-style retirement benefits, Fox-style accuracy and honesty, Tyco-style employee relations, Goldman-Sachs-style compensation, et al. All were hailed as paragons of free market success, and all are wreaking havoc on our society. Why would anybody want to make schools more like businesses? Let's make businesses more like schools instead!

Mick M's picture

..."How do Americans like paying free-market rates for healthcare?" I don't know Jamie maybe we should try it sometime... Health insurance is easily the most over regulated segment of our economy. I'd re-check those WHO rankings again. A significant portion is based on infant mortality. The US gets slighted because our doctors actually try to save very premature babies unlike other socialized systems where being born premature is a death sentence. The most telling statistic is the number of wealthy foreigners who come the US for treatment when the get really sick, including the Canadian Prime Minister just last year.

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