Is competition in education killing our sense of community?

Sarah Irvine Belson (american.edu)
Sarah Irvine Belson
(american.edu)

I recently published a post that slammed modern school reform as essentially an urban land reform project, written by Leslie Fenwick, dean of the Howard University School of Education and a professor of education policy, It said in part:

The truth can be used to tell a lie. The truth is that black parents’ frustration with the quality of public schools is at an all time righteous high…. The lie is that schemes like Teach For America, charter schools backed by venture capitalists, education management organizations (EMOs), and Broad Foundation-prepared superintendents address black parents’ concerns about the quality of public schools for their children.

Here is a related piece, written by a colleague of Fenwick’s, Sarah Irvine Belson, dean of the American University School of Education, Teaching and Health.

By Sarah Irvin Belson

My dear friend and colleague Leslie Fenwick has it right – the so-called reforms that are taking place in schools that serve minority and poor children are not designed to improve the quality of education in those schools.  If reformers were interested in making real change, they would address the real issues that underpin the school quality, such as increasing teachers’ professional authority and encouraging high quality curriculum and instruction (note that standards do not equal curriculum).  Current school reformers (including the current secretary of education, Arne Duncan) are focused on a misguided principle that competition and disclosure can be a powerful tonic for school improvement.

The unfounded assumptions and dysfunctional consequences of competition and putative accountability-chain mandates have been revealed as such in the fact that schools that serve minority and poor children continue to frustrate the parents that send their children to these schools. Why are big-city mayors, the secretary of education, and other reformers moving contrary to accumulated research that must be known to them?  Perhaps they simply do not believe it. These intelligent folks would not be the first to favor personal convictions over credible evidence to the contrary.

Another possibility is reformers dependence on statistical models of education production that the linkages they insists on invite.  Commonly used in econometrics, such approaches seek to estimate relationships between one variable in relation to others. Economists have built careers using these models to describe, for example, relationships between student achievement and any number of resource “inputs”, from teachers’ educational backgrounds to teachers’ wages to school funding.  Serious flaws in these models have been identified but U.S. Department of Education policymakers and the media are drawn to them in search of seemingly neat answers to complex school problems. Perhaps the big city mayors and superintendents have been seduced into thinking that such production models will eventually reveal linkages between completion, student performance and teacher and teacher education effectiveness.

There is another explanation that accounts for the reformer’s agenda. And it is that the agenda is not what it seems. It is about something else; namely, more competition in public schooling. An increase in privatized public schools, narrow-mission charter and magnet schools and a diverse array of for profit teacher training providers will do it. Such a pursuit will further fragment the public education sector, intensify competition in and over education and, significantly, expand and harden educational and social inequalities.

The 19th century campaign to convince Americans to establish publicly supported schooling capitalized on public anxiety over life-altering forces.  People were struggling with volatile effects of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Proponents of public schooling recognized the disequilibrium as a transition from one epoch to another. They marketed the public school as the necessary means for helping on-coming generations adjust to a new social order.  Public schools, they promised, would domesticate the young to new social mores, sort and select pupils for anticipated futures and fitting occupational and professional niches, and acculturate immigrants to a putative common American culture.  In these ways public schooling would promote a common culture, provide a unifying vision of and elicit commitment to citizenship, and protect the best in the American way of life from corrosive influences of unstable times and presumed lesser cultures.

Above all, said Horace Mann, public schooling would be the “great equalizer,” the “balance wheel of the social machinery.”   In a remarkably short time, public schools were ubiquitous and the state and local systems we now know were pretty much in place. That public schooling was a national good became a belief so widespread and tightly-held that faith in it functioned as a secular or civic religion.

That faith began to be challenged in the 1970s as international developments intensified economic competition and damaging comparisons of the academic performance of American public school students with those of other industrialized nations became commonplace. The 1983 government-sponsored report on the state of America’s public schools, called “A Nation at Risk,” shattered the weakened faith in the academic and socializing efficacy of public schooling. Challenges that may have been an impetus for the report, or at least for its impact and the plethora of school reforms it generated, seemingly nascent then–globalization, information technology, a competitive global economy– now loom large and pervasive. They have wrought a new epochal turning point as well.

After assurance that their children have made it through good nursery and preschools, middle-class parents will continue to compete for resources to support the public schools of their choice, to get their children into the reputedly best kindergarten, elementary, middle and senior high schools accessible.  Their children later compete for admission to the colleges and graduate and professional schools perceived to be the best. Those with means pay homage and dollars to college rankings through costly tutoring and prep courses for standardized test-taking so their children may gain entry to the seeming best colleges.  Young people follow suit, obtaining loans that put much of their early professional lives in hock.

The important point here is that educational competition impels parents to work for privileges for their children, not for the common good or the welfare of all children. This is not new, and it would be wrong to expect any parent not to do all they can for their children, but the occupational revolution, high premium on education credentials, fragmentation of the education system, and competition have rendered “quality” education an expensive and perceived scarce commodity pursued in a zero-sum-like process.

If the campaign for choice and competition succeeds and leads to its logical end, namely, an array of specialty schools tuned to particular interests, afflictions now suffered by public schooling will be carried to their fatal extremes: a continuing, evolving expansion of school system functions and responsibilities, a mounting confusion of the purpose of schooling, and a student segmentation within and between schools that will be as intractable as the group segregation outside of them. Any sense of community we have or could hope to have will be sold down the river.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | June 16, 2013