Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Competition in Schools: Comment on Nancy Flanagan’s article

By on April 30, 2008

I was reading Nancy Flanagan’s blog, Teacher in a Strange Land, for theTeacher Leaders Network.  Apparently, her hometown paper reprinted a recent article she wrote for her blog some time ago.  The letters mailed in reaction to her opinions about competition in education were interestingly explosive and quite “anti-Nancy.”  I commented on her article as follows:


This article is dead on.  I also think that some of this attitude is well intentioned but very outdated.  I say this because I recognize it in some of those I love.  It kinda relates to the debate about monetization.  “Why do you post your curriculum on your website?” asks my father.  He spends time over Friday dinner fretting that I’m not competitive enough as if, because I collaborate or teach teachers, I am, somehow, not business savvy enough…

But times they are a’changin’.  We live in a collaborative world of Open Source and Web 2.0.  It’s not that competition isn’t valuable.  It’s just not the driving force in our craft, and that includes how we run our profession and our schools.

I believe in differentiation all around.  Some institutions do need competition, perhaps even some schools do. But to make a sweeping rule pitting one group’s limited resources against another’s plentiful ones, is not the way to solve education’s problems.  Perhaps some students do reflect their parent’s mentality and do need competition in order to thrive.  But these students cannot drive an entire society of educational philosophy.  

Much of the time, I welcome input from those outside our profession on what they feel is dysfunctional about education.  See my blog article, Education X Prize, as proof.  But the topic of more competition between schools and in the classroom is not one of those topics.  
For whatever reason, many people bring their own background to the table; they bring their own sagas to their argument.  Perhaps they remember struggling to compete for a goal when the odds were not in their favor. Perhaps they remember competing against those with more resources then they had as they struggled up their prospective ladders. Perhaps they remember working to better their lives against those who set obstacles in their way.  Perhaps they feel that these life lessons of competition made them who they are today, gave them strength, character, and stamina.
Wait, I see a pattern.  
What is it that I just described from those days of ‘yore that schools and students aren’t already going through already?  Schools already compete for grants because we are under funded.  Students already compete for teacher attention in the light of overcrowded rooms.  Both schools and students already compete against the economic cards stacked against them, like leaves on the jungle floor struggling to share the sunlight. 
Those that support competition in the schools are well intentioned, but what life lessons do they want from us all to learn that we don’t already live with day after day?
Schools already compete for the simple resources we need to help students compete outside of education. Teachers compete for program funding, sometimes against teachers at their own site.  Students compete against each other through academic, social, and athletic programs.  School is, by no means, a competition-free oasis.  What more do these people want? 


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  1. Bob Heiny
    April 30, 2008

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    Your father sounds wise as a family teacher who raised a thoughtful daughter open to considering the relevance of his ideas to schooling. His skepticism seems important. Thanks for your carefully considered response. I look forward to your future posts and to your dad’s thinking about them. Together, they will make a unique (?) contribution to blogs about schools and learning.

  2. tweenteacher
    April 30, 2008

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    Hey, Bob!
    Thanks for your comment. My father doesn’t have anything specific, because he is the first to admit that he doesn’t know about education the way teachers do. But over those Friday night dinners, he definitely looks at me with a skeptical eye because it isn’t the school system that he once understood. But his innate suspicion of intrinsic motivation as a means to teach motivation is one that seems pervasive in those who were schooled using more competitive “traditional” strategies. In other words, it’s not his fault. That is, small group work and collaboration is a relatively new mainstream concept. Or, at least, is finally seen as not just progressive. My dad is a writer who understands protecting one’s creative ideas tooth and nail but, as many teachers know, without sharing, collaboration, and field studies in our schools, we could not move forward beyond the bought curriculum.

    I have to say, that I am not totally against competition between students, and I know that many view my opinion on performance pay to be on the side of competition between teachers (unfair, however, see my earlier blog post). I am, however, against basing a school’s funding on what they accomplish when pitted against another school. There might be one winner, but there would also be one loser. So from a societal perspective, we all loose, do we not?

    Anyway, Dad is open to my discussions anytime. My family is all in one field, and I’m the only educator. At many tables, that might cause the majority’s eyes to glaze over with misunderstood jargon and indifference about topics they don’t live with day in and day out. I’m lucky, however. They use me as a resource to educate them in the ways of current education and, I believe, they have developed an appreciation for teaching as a craft, and not just the ending of the adage, “Those who can’t do…”

    Thanks again for your comment. It was great hearing from you.

  3. Bob Heiny
    April 30, 2008

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    Interesting suppositions, Heather, about why people ask for more competition in schools. I agree with your support of Nancy’s point. I think you mentioned something about your father commenting about the topic on Friday nights? What competition does he think should occur in schools that appears missing?

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