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Don’t Play with Our Future: How Education as Competition Fails the Public

published 15 September 2016 updated 15 September 2016

By Frank Adamson, The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education

In Unleashing Greatness: Nine Plays to Spark Innovation in Education, the authors invoke the metaphor of the sports “playbook,” promoting an agenda of competition throughout their recommendations. Unfortunately, competition produces both winners and losers. The Yankees can improve by signing the best players from the Red Sox. The Yankees get better and likely win more while the Red Sox get worse and could lose more. While this approach might work in sports leagues, countries should not create education systems in which children lose in the classroom. And while the examples cited contain some limited elements of success, on the whole, the countries and programs adopting a market-based, competition approach to education have underperformed while also exacerbating educational inequity. Fortunately, we also have clear examples of successful countries investing heavily in their education sectors and producing outstanding, and more equitable, results.

The report begins by calling for “innovation” based on the apparent “performance ceiling” of test scores in the U.S. and internationally. However, closer examination of these international tests reveals serious differences between countries pursuing market-based systems (Chile, Sweden, and the U.S.) and those investing in equity and the professionalization of teachers (Canada, Cuba, and Finland). Finland, Canada, Cuba are the countries hitting the test ceilings on PISA and SERCE, while Chile, Sweden, and the U.S. all perform below the international average on PISA. Innovation, as envisioned in this report, often refers to profit-seeking strategies seeking to replace experienced teachers with combinations of less experienced, and therefore less expensive, teachers and technology, with management companies pocketing the difference. Innovation in high performing countries refers to improving already world-class teacher education programs and aligning curriculum, pedagogy, and tests towards student learning instead of towards sanctions for teachers. Given how high performing countries operate, this report’s call for innovation should instead be a call for emulation, specifically copying the strategies of strong public investment in education and teachers from the most successful countries.

The specific examples in the report reveal a level of misdirection worthy of any playbook designed to confuse opponents. In particular, the authors cite an increase in test scores in Chile, which actually did improve, although the scores began low and remain far below the international average. More importantly, they fail to mention that, during the same decade, Chile saw waves of protests with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against educational inequity. The Chilean people spoke, loudly, about the negative impacts of privatizing education with vouchers (a strategy recommended in this report), culminating in an overhaul of the government in 2014. Conversely, during the same period, Cuba’s education system produces between double and triple the percent of students performing at the highest proficiency levels when compared with Chile, even though Cuba has only around half of Chile’s GDP per capita.

In the U.S. context, the report authors cite the case of New Orleans as example of “success and improving student achievement” based on “greater choice and accountability.” However, instead of students choosing schools, the charter school system often results in schools choosing students. Charter schools use a variety of exclusion strategies to dissuade or expel low performing students in order to increase test scores and reduce costs (special education students require federally guaranteed additional services, for instance). Results in New Orleans show a tiered school system with the highest performing charter schools limiting access to wealthy, white students. On the other hand, the lowest performing schools serve as stops on the school to prison pipeline for poor and African American students, with one school even operated by a company managing juvenile prisons in other states and a former warden as the principal. These conditions reveal which types of students win and lose within the competitive model.

The report cites many “plays” from other countries, each one incorporating different aspects of “innovative” market-based approaches to education. The common thread is promoting competition. And too often, the underlying reason for promoting market-based reforms is creating revenue and profit streams for private companies using public money. To legitimate this approach, these companies employ well-funded marketing campaigns using tactics like sports metaphors to appeal to a human desire to win. But when it comes to public sectors like education, when some students lose, then the whole system loses. Citizens don’t need a sports-like marketing campaign; instead, they need thoughtful, proven investment campaigns. Successful countries have already shown real innovation by investing in teachers and public schools; other countries would do well to forgo the games and focus instead on the work of creating educational opportunity for every student.

Find more information about how privatisation and public investment influence education outcomes here

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