Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Limits of Competition: Teaching and Learning Are Not Competitive Sports

When I served as a supervisor of English/Language Arts for a suburban school district, I infuriated a few teachers when I outlawed the Pizza Hut Book It! reading challenge in classrooms. What I said to the teachers at the time was that reading was not a competitive sport. I wanted the teachers and students to see that reading was not about accumulating numbers of books or pages read, but about the joy of interacting with text. Reading competitions cheapen the intended purpose of reading and pervert the act of reading from a “lived through experience” to a dashed off experience. I didn't want children racing through the pages of a book to earn a free pizza, any more than I wanted them sprinting through the hallways on the way to lunch.

Americans are in love with competition. The evidence is all around us. Whether it is Every-Night-of-the-Week Football or American Idol or Survivor, we seek to slake our thirst for competition in myriad ways. Heck, I love competition myself. I played sports as a student and coached sports as a teacher. The athletic field is a good place to decide who is best on this day and at this time. Competition can motivate people to drive themselves to extraordinary feats. The Olympic Games provide a stage for what elite athletes like Michael Phelps can do in the name of competition and country.

American business, too, is built on the idea that competition serves the country and economy best. We are told that competition leads to innovation, reasonable prices and high quality products and job creation in the market place. “Market forces” are the reason, we are told, for America’s economic leadership in the world. We’ll leave aside for a moment that many successful companies seem to mistrust market forces once they have cornered the market. We must agree that competition has served the American business community pretty well over the years.

Education reformers like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Arne Duncan want to bring “market forces” to bear on education. School choice is one of the hallmarks of this design. We are told that if we allow schools to compete for students, our educational system will improve and so we get legislation and billions of dollars put behind charter schools and voucher schemes.

We are further told that teachers must compete for their jobs. Teachers must prove their “value added” to the educational enterprise through evaluations based on the scores of their students on standardized tests. Students are also brought into the competition. In order for our country to continue its “competitive” edge in the world, our students must be challenged with a more “rigorous” standards based curriculum that will keep us competitive with China, Japan and Finland.

There are three things fatally wrong with this “market forces’ scenario as I see it: 1) schooling is a public trust aimed at creating a knowledgeable citizenry for a democracy, 2) teaching well occurs through collaboration, not competition, 3) learning is socially constructed through the interaction of children, their parents and their teachers. Let’s take a look at these three aspects of the education debate to see where the “market forces” educational reformers group gets it wrong.

In Volume IV of the recently released Program for International Assessment (PISA) report on international education, the authors say “schools that compete with other schools for students do not perform better than schools that don’t compete” (P. 192). This statement was part of a segment on the report providing policy recommendations to educational leaders entitled, Recognize That The Quality of Education Does Not Automatically Respond To Market Mechanisms. Education reformers seem to put a great deal of stock in the PISA results, so I certainly hope they read through Volume IV.

The entire idea of “market forces” in public education is wrong headed. Competition does not and will not make schools better. Schooling is a combined, public responsibility. All charter schools and vouchers do is drain public school districts of scarce resources. The best way to fix a public institution is through a cooperative effort of parents, teachers, educational leaders, education researchers and politicians to help every community get the public schools that they want and need.

Recognizing that poverty is the biggest threat to democracy and long term prosperity would be helpful. About sixty-percent of the variation in student performance in school can be attributed to out of school forces. Another twenty per-cent is determined by in school forces. Only by working to improve the out of school living conditions of children, while at the same time improving the schools that the children are coming to, can we make a real difference in children’s lives. In other words, improving schooling in the United States will take a cooperative effort, not a competitive one.

When I worked as a reading specialist in a K-3 school many years ago, I would lead a monthly “share group” meeting on literacy teaching at 8 AM, forty minutes before teachers were scheduled to report. The meetings were entirely voluntary and very well-attended. At those meetings teachers contributed instructional practices that they were successfully using, discussed books that they were reading with children and shared recent research that they were trying to apply. In other words, teachers were collaborating on their own time to improve their practice.

Teaching well is a collaborative activity. Any new teacher can immediately tell you the teachers who helped smooth over the bumpy beginnings of a career. If we seek to improve professional practice we must foster this collaboration and dedicate resources of time to allow this collaboration to take place. In many school districts now, professional learning communities are forming, either formally under district leadership or informally as I discussed above to improve instructional practice. This movement is very promising, but it is a delicate flower at the beginnings of growth. Draconian teacher evaluation measures based on standardized tests will kill it. If teachers are forced to compete with other teachers for their jobs, the sharing of good practice will inevitably suffer.

I suggest you read some about the atmosphere created at Microsoft by their “stack ranking” practices which were put in place by Bill Gates. Microsoft recently abandoned the practice because it was working against collaboration and innovation, yet education reformers think this is a good way to deal with teachers. As Linda Darling Hammond (2013) has said “New research from the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) shows that educators in every subject area and role are eager to work together to deepen literacy learning…. It also showed that educators are committed to common-sense changes to improve teaching and learning practices” (The Answer Sheet). And it is only this cooperative, change from within model that has the potential to make a real difference in the teaching profession. Top-down teacher evaluation competitions will destroy collegiality.

Learning is socially constructed. It literally takes a village of parents, other adults, older children and peers to educate a child. In school, children learn from teachers and other adults in the building as well as from their classmates. Skilled teachers use their abilities not only to provide direct instruction to students, but also to foster a rich learning environment based on teacher-to-student and student-to-student talk. By collaborating with classmates, students expose their own thinking to the community and their learning is reinforced, modified or re-directed. Knowledge is built through the dynamic interaction with teacher, content and peers. Learning is collaborative, not competitive.

There is only one team in public education and all American citizens are on that team. We pay school taxes whether we have children in the public schools or not. We all benefit from the public school as a center for the community. We all have a responsibility to see that the school is well staffed and has adequate resources for the population it serves. Our public schools are not a place for market force competition. Our schools are places for us to demonstrate our collaborative abilities. A place where we all work together, so that all of our children receive the education they deserve.