Perhaps you have heard it said that schools should be run more like businesses–that public schools are soft, undisciplined, ineffective and would do well to refocus their attention on the bottom line. Many people hold that competition will sharpen that focus, bringing schools back to the tough love approach on which we rugged individualistic Americans thrive.
It’s an argument that is gaining steam across the nation as governments are beginning to shift more and more tax dollars away from public schools in order to support privately run schools for profit. So, let’s examine this idea for a moment. Should schools be run more like businesses? And does competition make the system stronger?
Or more to the point, should we help schools succeed by making them compete (like businesses do) for scarce resources? Does the fear of punishing a school or a teacher for poor test scores motivate institutions and educators to perform better? Does the competition created by school choice really lead to better schools, better learning, more rounded students and a better prepared work force?
Does a pay for performance model really work for teachers the same way it is believed to work for sales people? Or does it pit teacher against teacher as they compete against each other for a limited (and shrinking) pool of resources as states continue to cut public education funds?
Let’s examine this. First, because you know how much I value scientific research, let’s look at the data. It is clear and compelling–and ignored. None of it supports the theory that competition leads to better learning or schools. In fact, research on motivation points to the exact opposite. For complex tasks involving creative problem solving applications, competition and rewards actually lead to poorer performance.
For complex thinking tasks, bigger carrots and sharper sticks are counter productive. But don’t take my word for it. Look up Alfie Kohn and his book, “Punished by Rewards,” Carol Dweck and her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” or Dan Pink, and his fascinating on line TED talk or his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”
I’m not making this up. Look at the research. Yet because a culture of competition has been hardwired into our cultural DNA, the results and conclusions of thousands of scientific studies and decades worth of research continue to be ignored.
You want the bottom line? Here it is. Schools are not businesses. Kids are not widgets or market share or profit, and we should not be competing for them like chips in a poker game.
They are dynamic minds and restless spirits and bundles of endless possibilities. They are not raw materials. They are not pruned, manufactured, or produced. And we cannot reject them at the door like raw material if they are flawed.
Thinking competition is the best path to excellence is a shallow relic of the 20th century factory economic model where compliance was valued above all else—where success depended upon obedient and mindless factory workers who kept their heads down, did what they were told, and didn’t ask questions because doing so slowed down productivity.
Got a better way to do something? That’s someone else’s job. Just follow directions. Mind authority. Stop thinking so much. Fill in the bubbles.
But learning is not compliant or efficient and it’s certainly not ruggedly tough or independent. Not real learning. Real learning is interdependent and deliciously messy.
Don’t get me wrong. If you read the research, it’s clear that competition has its place. But it’s a blunt tool most effectively used by authority to motivate unthinking workers to comply and complete mind-numbing tasks. The 21st century is a new age. Those who learn, value and are able to cooperate, analyze, synthesis, invent, innovate and create will succeed. It is to them that the spoils of victory will go.
Those who are focused on carrots, sticks and bonuses will find their market shares continue to shrink—and their jobs shipped to a place where they can be done much cheaper.
Does competition really help education run more like the successful cutting edge businesses of the 21st century?