Sunday, December 18, 2005

Capitalism, Competition, and Education

Immanuel Kant wrote that reading David Hume's work on empiricism awoke him from his "dogmatic slumber." Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO and former president of the California State Board of Education, provided a similar service for me. He was speaking at a Teach For America Alumni Summit -- a day of panel discussions and information booths dominated by charter schools and those seeking to privatize all things public. Wedged in between anecdotes on ancient toilets, he expounded on the virtues of "competition," how it should be used in education as a lever to raise the world. Competition. It's a term that many have sought to instill with all the pseudo-holy reverence we pay to the ideas of "freedom," and "democracy." In principle, it is supposed to make the bad mediocre, the mediocre good, and the good truly great. Sitting at Stanford that day, after enduring two awful self-congratulatory panel "discussions" on charter schools, I felt more and more like throwing up every time Mr. Hastings threw that word around as the sunnom bonnum. Then I went home and subscribed to GreenCine.

We are all so indebted to our identities as consumers that competition, the idea that monolithic entities will struggle and fight over us, (us!), has come to seem like a pretty much a-okay rock upon which to improve the educational landscape. It'll be great! Schools and Districts will need to like, compete, for students! Just like Coke and Pepsi! They'll push each other to get better! Everyone wins! Every school improves! No child left behind! And it works just like that, huh?

Writing for the Thomas B. Fordham institute, the education gadlfy doesn't think so. He revisits this argument, the one made over and over in service of the continued proliferation of charter schools, this idea that the educational community ought to function along the same "free" market lines as the competition between rival companies. The essay is entitled "What if competition doesn't work?" and goes on to acknowledge that it, uh, pretty much doesn't. Or at least hasn't.

After one of the four-hours-sleeping days, I'm walking out of school and the POY says I gotta see something. He shows me a thick text, filled with charts, entitled "Confronting The Challenge of Slums." "The Challenge." See it? I was a little slow on the uptake. "The challenge." Like "the challenge" of enacting work-life balance. Like "the challenge" of getting across town by 5 so you can pick up your laundry. It ought to have been entitled "The Unmitigated Failure of Gobal Capitalism and Unrestricted Free Market Ideology," subtitled, "Not that these failures would ever effect, in any way, those with the power to truly enact change."

This is the truth behind competition: A few end up in palacial estates high up on hills, gated and isolated, while most of the rest inhabit those oh-so challenging, pesky slums. At its most fundamental level, competition creates winners and losers. There are those who are able to compete well, and succeed, and those who do not, or cannot, and fail. Does anyone really believe that the difference between the winners and losers is merely a variation in skill, ability, and determination? Winners and losers. This is what we want for kids? I've spent 3.5 years educating those who missed out on the lottery of birth, the "losers" in the competitive system enacted over the last two centuries. Two hundred years of competition has really served my students and their families well. Now, those who share worldviews akin to those of Reed Hastings and Teach For America, take up their good intentions and pave the road to more competition. Do we really need more winners and losers in schools? Do we need to create more divisions based on accidents of geography? It's bad enough that the trapeze wires have grown increasingly narrow, but do we really need to take the nets away, too?

Competition as the means to improve all our lives, bring everyone and everything to increasingly higher standards. Then why slums? Why 30,000 lay-offs at GM? Do we really believe that when ___ charter school opens next door, actively recruiting the best-prepared students and most-involved families this will increase the educational opportunities for those who remain at their public school of necessity? That the mere presence of that school and all like it will create a frenzy of improvement and reform? No. It will create another gap, another division, another way to define winners and losers. Why is this okay to so many people? Why is it okay to invest all this time, money, thought, and effort to bring intellectually indefensible free-market principles into a public space that is already limping along, badly in need of solutions, and thereby inherently vulnerable to this snake-oil?

When companies compete, consumers win. And after decades and decades of competition, our food is healthy, our energy clean and renewable, our housing affordable, and entertainment uplifting and fulfilling.

When schools compete, students win. Of course they do. But how many more will lose?


Blogger pseudostoops said...

I'm all for shunning. Also shaming. I read a very interesting case once about a kid who committed mail fraud who, instead of having to pay a fine or do community service, had to wear a sandwich board outside the post office saying "I stole mail." Maybe a similar course of action for netflix man? "I apply free market theories in inappropriate contexts."

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Ms. J said...

This semester three transfer students who were (ahem) asked to leave their charter high school program entered my classes...ahhhh the invisible hand working its wondrous magic...We took them in few questions asked. (Sometimes in these cases it is just better not to know...after all we must take virtually all comers.)

Pseudostoops, love the sandwich board idea...I'm also wondering what Jefferson and Adams would say to the education free marketeers.

Anyway, TMAO this is a very important piece. More should be reading this...have you thought about expanding where you post?

2:30 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Tmao, doesn't your profile say you're something like 26? How'd you get so savvy at such a youthful age? This is a brilliant post.

7:06 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Caroline, Ms. J., thanks again. In terms of expanding, what do you suggest?

1:39 PM  
Anonymous whoces said...

As I think great pieces like this absolutely must become part of the larger discussion of the future of public life in America, I suggest posting on Daily Kos would be a good way to begin. Several educators post there fairly regularly and each attracts a large number of comments. (a site operated by Iowa's Gov. Tom Vilsack -- who is perhaps considering a long-shot presidential run-- to ignite grassroots discussion on key policy issues) just concluded a fairly remarkable three month discussion of education...hundreds of folks (if not more) from all over the nation joined in. The Governor released a synopsis of the discussion. You can check out at the site and really the conversation is not closed...the Gov's net guy Kevin Thurman considers the whole thing a work in progress...

8:18 PM  
Anonymous Ms. J said...

Hey that last one was from me...not whoces...I don't know how the hell that happened, which is why I will alway remain a mere blog reader, never a blogtender. Cheers.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

competition isn't that bad...i have this point system i use in class that works really well. of course, only one group ends up winning in the end but it is really motivating my kids to learn whatever subject i am teaching. it's true that there is one winner but the majority are the losers, but i think you are looking at this in a different way. if you allow competition as a motivating tool...would that not challenge students to improve themselves? you're a coach, do you tell them that they are losers if they don't win the game or do you tell them that, at the least, they worked their butts off and you are proud of them?
in terms of charter schools...i think of them as mutations. obviously, we know that there has to be changes because the current system isn't exactly working. imagine charter schools as part of a natural order of things. things change constantly in nature. it is the only thing consistent. well, there has to be change in the school system. one, it is not working for the marginalized. it is failing them. or in terms of nature, it is not surviving. well...think of charter school as a response, a change, a mutation. we don't know if it will work. we have to give it time. it will only succesfully survive or even evolve if it adapts to the environment and deal with the many problems schools are facing today. so until there's a better way of handling the situation, charter schools will be around....


10:10 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I don't think you compare the kind of competition that occurs when misguided people attempt to wedge "free" market principals into the public sphere with incentive-based classroom systems. If so, it would have to look something like this: Have your competition and declare a winner. Now provide the winners with more instruction and resources and the losers with correspondingly less. Now hold the same competition and watch the winners win again. We're talking about unleveled playing fields here.

That said, I think the comparison to a mutation is accurate. I do think, however, that we have had enough time judge the results fairly.

7:40 PM  
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1:46 AM  

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