Capitalism, Competition, and Education
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. http://www.fordhaminstitute.org/institute/gadfly/#2592. 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." http://www.worldbank.org/urban/upgrading/docs/challenges.pdf "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?