Educational Competition

ISSUE No. 9 • FALL ’17

Educational competition between U.S. school districts has demonstrated the power to influence educational outcomes, both positively and negatively. Craig Hochbein argues that competitors are responsible for determining the quality of the competition, as well as the results.

Opponents of charter schools, vouchers and other forms of school choice have utilized the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education to denounce educational competition. Citing low performance, segregation and corruption among schools of choice, her detractors have attacked educational competition. However, the bitter tenor surrounding Secretary DeVos demonstrates how competitors, not competition, have failed our educational system.

I do not champion school choice as a policy that will improve student outcomes. Without sufficient safeguards, the most vulnerable children become the victims, rather than the beneficiaries, of educational competition. Across the country, competition for students has demonstrated the capability to further segregate students, as well as widen opportunity and achievement gaps.

Yet contrary to popular opinion, competition between districts and schools for students is not a recent phenomenon. Educational competition existed prior to the adoption of charter schools, vouchers, tax credits and other market mechanisms. For decades, families with not only the will but also the means have chosen their schools through selection of residence or private school tuition.

Without question, these implicit competitive pressures have resulted in improvements for families and students. Concerns about "keeping up with the Joneses" have wrought expansion of kindergarten, extensive academic and extracurricular offerings, access to technology and other such advancements.

Competition was further encouraged by accountability legislation that facilitated comparisons of school performance. Adoption of intradistrict choice, magnet schools and charter schools added even more competitors to the arena. For instance, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, Texas charter schools expanded from 176 in 2000 to 681 in 2015, accounting for 7.7 percent of Texas public schools. Such increases in competitors have intensified battles for resources, but not necessarily improved the quality of the competition.

Instead of ignorance and illiteracy, other schools have been identified as the adversary. As a result, gamesmanship, disrespect and denigration have become the primary strategies employed by educational competitors. Antagonists attempt to gain a competitive advantage by stocking their social media accounts, informal conversations and formal communications with misleading and disingenuous information. The more brazen target their attacks to ridicule specific competitors or sectors.

Moreover, educational competitors rarely demonstrate admiration or concern for their challengers. Academic achievements and improvements garner more mitigating explanations from competitors than sincere congratulations. Similarly, schools and districts confronting educational difficulties receive no support or defense from their colleagues and peers.

Although accountability and school choice laws specify the parameters of educational competition, these regulations do not mandate the actions or responses of the competitors. Educational competitors choose to hurl insults, as well as retaliate in-kind. Such tit-for-tat tactics have caused the negative tenor of the educational arena, not the competition itself.

Friendly, respectful and beneficial competition does exist. Ironically, students routinely model such behavior and often at the instruction of educators. They extend hands to athletes they knocked down, applaud performers from other schools and admire the scores of their classmates. Shouldn’t teachers, administrators and board members model similar acts of grace, respect and humility?

Imagine if traditional, charter, parochial and private schools competed to be leaders among innovation and cooperation. Rather than using resources to indict competitors, they could redirect that time, effort and money toward developing unique agreements between schools and sectors. Such agreements could provide students with opportunities and services previously precluded by invisible boundaries.

For example, instead of a single district working in isolation to turn around a struggling school, educators from competing districts and sectors could collaborate on the improvement efforts. A team of extraordinary educators from a variety of regional schools might be formed and detailed to the school for a brief period of time. Participating schools could compete to place their educators onto this prestigious team, while also cooperating with and learning from each other in the turnaround effort.

The current strategies of educational competitors have resulted in competition that is detrimental to students, schools and our democracy. Bold ideas, courageous positions and creative strategies have taken a back seat to protectionism, contempt and vilification. Educators, families and students from other educational organizations have been framed as combatants, not colleagues.

Educational competition possesses the capability to wield tremendous influence on student outcomes. Competition among schools and districts has provided life-altering opportunities to students. Unfortunately, it has also exacerbated existing economic and racial disparities. The difference between success and failure of our educational system relies not on the competition, but the competitors. ′


Craig Hochbein is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Lehigh. This article first appeared in the
Houston Chronicle.  

Artwork by The Project Twins.