This is the 17th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10. If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.
Last week I ranked the ulterior motives of those who manipulate the American public with standardized test scores from “worst” to “less bad”. I then wrote about those who seek to profit either monetarily or politically from the false crisis of American public education made possible by the manipulation of test score data. Today I focus on…
Reason 17: Competitive Disadvantage
The most recent generation of education reform is full of those who believe that imposing certain philosophical beliefs on public education is the key to “saving” our schools. Primarily, we see attempts to impose “competition” or “free market ideals” with standardized test scores serving as the “accountability” needed to maintain competitive balance.
I can see why people who know almost nothing about educating children would think that the same free market ideals that helped make the United States a world economic power would also help schools. For some schools it has helped, though often to the detriment of other schools and students.
For instance, ever since the New Orleans public school system was converted into a system of charter schools after Hurricane Katrina, we have seen these schools become more segregated. In fact, a report by the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School found that:
“The increasingly charterized public school system has seriously undermined equality of opportunity among public school students, sorting white students and a small minority of students of color into better performing OPSB and BESE schools, while confining the majority of low-income students of color to the lower-performing RSN sector.”
I think that in order to really understand why competition between schools is destined to fail from my perspective, you have to understand the similarities and differences between schools and businesses. In the business world some businesses will succeed and others will fail. This will happen for a number of reasons, whether because one business is more effective at another at marketing, has better management, produces a better product… etc. In education, some will succeed and some will “fail”, though the difference between success and failure is influenced significantly by the socioeconomic status of the students who attend their schools.
Schools that compete for students (charter schools) know this and so they go through great pains in order to make sure that they have the “best students” attending their school. For example, consider the charter school “dirty dozen” – a series of underhanded tactics that many charter schools use to make sure that the students who will struggle to produce higher standardized test scores find their way to other schools.
In the school competition game, the most important factor involved in being successful is the “raw materials” – or in the world in which people matter – “students” who will produce the scores that can be held up to prove how great these schools really are.
Those who clamor for more competition in schools will tell us that those schools with better educational programs will win out in the end by attracting more of these students. But anybody with any business sense knows that improving the product is really only one way to be successful in business. Not surprisingly, research has shown that charter schools have figured this out. Instead of focusing resources and efforts primarily on improving the educational product, schools in the most competitive districts instead put their time and money towards improving marketing, market research, differentiating themselves from other schools, and honing their selection (exclusion) process to make sure they get the best “raw materials” students.
Despite all the dogmatic rhetoric you hear about competition in schools, the bottom line is that the best way to improve the achievement at ANY school in the country is to find a way to get the “right” students to attend that school. You certainly wouldn’t expect a business to focus all of their time and resources on improving their product when they can achieve much better results from running a few commercials and making sure they have the right clientele. Why would we expect a school faced with competition from other schools to not make the same rational choice?
The reason I’m dogmatically opposed to competition in schools is because I know that not everybody is a winner in this scenario. Supporters of competition will tell you that bad schools should fail just like bad businesses. But it’s pretty clear that competitive schools see the quality of their students as the primary factor behind that success or failure, which means they are flirting with something very dangerous. What happens to the students that nobody wants? In this scenario, discrimination is not just rational, it’s good business sense, and it is happening. The students who are “not right” for these schools have to go to school somewhere. I think you can see the quandary here. Diane Ravitch explained in her book The Death and Life of the American School System that the system of Charter Schools in New York City eventually shunted these “unwanted” students into large left-over high schools that became pipelines to failure.
That’s because competition means winners and losers, and the most tragic result of this competition is that children have become the currency in which these “competitive” schools trade. On the surface, the most “valuable” students are those who are capable of producing the high test scores by which schools are judged. Below that surface however, are differences in the students, such as class, poverty, and family structure, that influence those test scores. When a student’s value is determined by their ability to produce high test scores and that ability is impacted greatly by factors beyond their control, then academic discrimination between schools of “choice”, like social discrimination in general, is destined to become pervasive and systemic. Sadly, discriminating against certain students is not just rational, but a competitive advantage.
At the root of all this is the undue emphasis we have placed on standardized tests, which has empowered this system of competitive jockeying. That’s reason enough for us to opt our children out of it.