The Competition Myth

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Many policymakers love competition—for other people. Here’s their theory: If we create more charter schools, we can shake traditional public schools out of their lazy complacency and force them to work harder to compete for students. Everybody benefits!

Glass.Berliner QuoteThis assumption—that school choice and competition will improve all schools—is one of five myths debunked by authors Gene V Glass and David C. Berliner in an article in the forthcoming summer 2014 issue of Educational Leadership. Glass and Berliner find evidence that contradicts the assumption; for example, many studies have found that public schools perform as well as or better than private and charter schools, thus calling into question the very notion that public schools need to worry about competing. And in local contexts where voucher programs have enabled some students to transfer from neighborhood public schools to private or charter schools, the only things that have gone up have been the marketing budgets of the public schools as they struggle to retain students.

The belief that competition benefits education also ignores the difference between the public and private sectors, say Glass and Berliner. In manufacturing, competition can stimulate innovation and the search for efficiencies. Engineers are good at developing more sophisticated robots and computer-controlled assembly lines. But the service sector—which includes our doctors, nurses, police officers, fire fighters, and yes, teachers—is not so easily engineered. “Competition is for widget makers, not for educators.”

To read more on this topic, look for Glass and Berliner’s article, “5 Reforms That Don’t Make a Difference,” in the summer, digital-only issue of Educational Leadership entitled “Making a Difference.” To receive an alert when the issue is posted online, sign up at www.ascd.org/summerelalert.

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