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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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Karran Harper Royal's picture

Thank you so much for this blog post. This is exactly how I feel. In a competition, there are winners and losers. When it comes to education, we need all of our kids to win. IIt seems that it has been decided that charters are the answer to our education woes. "IF" charters have the solution, why not give that solution to the traditional schools so that all kids can benefit? The truth is, "charter schools" are schools with a private governance structure, this governance structure is NOT an academic improvement strategy. Public Education is for the public good, just as other essential pubic services. We need to keep public schools public and not allow them to be hi-jacked by corporate styled franchises and wealthy individuals who through their philanthropy want to experiment with our children. They are taking advantage of the crisis in education and pushing anyone who disagree with their version of a solution aside. Sometimes that means even the parents, unless they can control them to do their lobbying for more charters.

What's worse about the road we are traveling in public education is that resources are being sucked out of the very schools who are forced to keep the children who were unsuccessful in the competition. Those children tend to be the highest need kids. The schools these kids attend are forced to do more on less money and it's the kids who lose out in the end. When there is a greater need, schools don't do more with less, they do less with less and kids' needs go unmet. We all pay in the end for that.

This competition model is killing public education and it must stop. We must use our collective voices to fight for what's best for ALL children, not just our own who may be in what we think is a successful charter school. That is what we stand for at Parents Across America. www.parentsacrossamerica.org

Linda Jones's picture

Charter schools came about because conservatives looked around for a monopoly to cash in on and discovered schools. You are exactly right that education is not a "free market" enterprise. The charters I am familiar with treat teachers terribly, offer students the minimum education, and are all for profits. I'm glad there are organizations fighting this take over.

Dan Monroe's picture

I cannot see how making educational decisions to please the federal and state governments, school boards, principals and unions can be regarded as serving the students and their parents. Belgium puts government schools into a certain level of competition for students with the apparently positive results we associate with the free market and not with the monopolistic results we associate with, say, the DMV.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

One of the major parts of the much-vaunted Race to the Top (RTTT) was to force state legislatures to look more favorably on charter schools, one of Arne Duncan's pet projects, and to promote teacher evaluation based on student test scores. I've felt for a long time that these were wrong-headed ideas. It's great to see someone argue clearly for the opposite opinion.

Charter schools must be viewed as experiments into which parents will enroll their children only after full disclosure. Regular public schools don't do much experimentation. The "conservative" viewpoint (not held by every single conservative) that schools should somehow be competitive is way off base. We already have seen the negative results (as in increased deaths) of having health insurance become a competitive business in which the competition is for dollars rather than improved health.

Adam Smith's "invisible hand" only works in certain situations. It fails in monopolies and in public service. It also will fail if large corporations can have an undue influence on business regulation.

We do have problems with education in America. Competition between schools or teachers is not that magic bullet that will solve them.

Rewarding the best teachers will not make them better any more than rewarding the worst will. Until we can attract the top college graduates into a teaching career, we'll continue to have these problems -- unless we can find a better way.

I believe that good teachers with great technology can make for good education provided that the technology does not take lots of money that is desperately required in other places. By and large, that technology does not exist today because of the high costs of marketing to schools and the lack of any ability to require teachers to use it.

If I could show you today a new technology that would absolutely save schools money and improve learning, what would say? I am certain that schools, one the one hand, and teachers, on the other if you get past the schools, would not adopt it because it would change things.

Such technologies may exist already. So far, most technology injections into schools have cost lots of money with little ROI.

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