Education at a Crossroads: The Perils of Competition in K-12 Education

Guest post from Dr. Doug Stilwell

A Shift to Market-Based K-12 Education
According to the online article titled “More States Use Tax Dollars to Help People Pay for Private School” (June 2023) vouchers and similar education programs are currently operating in 32 states and the District of Columbia. This represents a significant departure from previous practices, where state taxes were primarily allocated to public education, indicating a shift towards a market-based approach in K-12 education.

This shift is primarily motivated by two key factors: parental choice and the belief that competition will serve as the driver for overall improvement in our education system.

The aim of this article is to specifically address the topic of competition among schools and districts as a means to improve the performance of the education system. While I do not claim to have all the answers, as an educator with 43 years of experience ranging from classroom teacher to superintendent to professor of education and as a 30-year student of systems theory and continual improvement, I believe competition does more harm than good and I am greatly concerned about the expansion of excessive competition in K-12 education. I think Dr. Deming might agree with my assertion.

Challenging a ‘Rank and Yank’ Mentality in Education

There is a prevalent mindset that competition is the answer to improving educational performance. It seems to “work” in the business world, although if you understand Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, you know that even in the business world, competition between people and teams does not work over the long term.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), was known for a management strategy that involved regularly firing the bottom 10% of the workforce including salespeople. This controversial approach, known as “rank and yank,” is highly criticized for its negative impact on employee morale and collaboration. This practice seems to make sense… until we stop to think and realize that there will always be a bottom 10%, so after a while, you’re “yanking” highly effective employees. You can imagine how cutthroat salespeople might be, and rightly so, knowing their livelihood depended on their ranking.

Dr. Deming warned that the use of rating systems will often cause people to do whatever it takes to get the “numbers” they need to survive.

This is a dangerous concept in education. It is a mindset that has the potential to injure our educational system severely and, ultimately, the children who live that experience. Unfortunately, competition is deeply embedded in the psyche of Western culture, including in the United States, and as such, it is difficult to overcome, but we must.  “Ranking and yanking” is not an approach that serves students, builds collegiality and cooperation or improves the performance of all schools.

The Costs of Overemphasis on Competition

When education leans heavily towards competition, it risks placing undue emphasis on numeric achievements like grades and test scores, promotes inequities in resource allocation, and raises concerns about equity in the classroom. While the pursuit of excellence is admirable, a competitive environment strains the mental well-being of students and educators alike. The never-ending push to outdo peers and other educational establishments can heighten stress and anxiety, lead to information and innovation hoarding, and break down the relationships needed to ensure student success. A competitive culture may also give rise to academic dishonesty and questionable practices, something that occurred and was highly publicized in both Washington D.C. and Atlanta.

I believe Dr. Deming would argue, much like his stance in the business world, that an overemphasis on numerical targets leads to short-term thinking and potentially unethical behavior. This notion is supported by the book Good work: When excellence and ethics meet (2001), written by Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon and whose general thesis is that “good work” – the intertwining of excellence and ethics – diminishes in a market-driven environment. Dr. Deming believed in fostering a sense of cooperation and continual improvement. When the scale tilts too much towards competition, the intrinsic motivation to learn and grow will very likely diminish, a point reinforced by psychologist Dr. Edward Deci in his book Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation (1995). Additionally, “improvement through competition” systems can hinder the development of vital skills like teamwork, empathy, and adaptability, which we now refer to as “21st-century skills,” crucial for personal and societal progression.

Impact of COVID, Zoom School, and the Shift to Homeschooling

The COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a 30% increase in students who were home-schooled since 2019, created significant and unprecedented challenges in education and led to what is referred to now as “Zoom schooling.” This trend intensified the market-driven environment within the education system. The sudden and rapid movement of students from traditional public-school settings to homeschooling due to the pandemic exacerbated the competition among schools and districts, for it further reduced the total number of students available to attend school outside of the home and the state funds they generate.

A sudden shift to homeschooling can financially strain already struggling public schools, worsening the disparities in educational opportunities and resources. In addition to the financial strain, while homeschooling offers customized curriculum and greater flexibility, it also takes students out of a diverse learning environment. Dr. Deming emphasized the value of cooperation, collaboration, and understanding the system as a whole. A diverse classroom setting fosters these principles by exposing students to different perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds. The massive shift to homeschooling can inadvertently rob students of these enriching interactions.

The Unintended Consequences of Overvaluing Competition in Education

By its nature, competition between schools may lead to diminished collaboration between schools and school districts. In Iowa, for example, every student brings with them this year approximately $7,600 in state funding. If schools are primarily focused on outdoing each other in order to gain market share, they become hesitant to share resources, best practices, or innovative teaching methods with one another. This lack of collaboration can repress the collective growth and progress of the educational community. Additionally, it may create an environment where educators and students are more concerned about “winning” than working together for the betterment of education as a whole.

In other words, prioritizing competition over collaboration ultimately hinders the development of a comprehensive and effective educational system that benefits all students.

Dr. Deming referred to this phenomenon as “sub-optimization of the whole.” This concept explains what happens when different parts of a system (schools in any given state) focus solely on their individual success without considering its impact on the entire system.  It can result in problems, much like a machine with perfectly functioning parts that fails to operate effectively as a whole. If schools, driven by competition, are primarily concerned with their own performance metrics and market share, they unintentionally foster this sub-optimization, which has a detrimental effect on the educational system at-large.

This misguided mindset is akin to the idea that the “benefit of a few outweighs the benefit of the many.”

The Pitfalls of Market-Driven Education

In competition, there will always be “winners” and “losers.” In light of this, one might ask, “When has competition worked, long term, in education?” And if we have no evidence of its effectiveness, why create such an environment?  It is unreasonable and misguided to rank schools and districts, assigning some as inferior or “losers.”

Rather than adopting a market-driven approach, the primary duty of the state should be to support and uplift every school, making sure all have the opportunity to excel and improve.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the final chapter of my doctoral dissertation, I warned about the potential negative impact a market-driven environment could likely have on education.  These thoughts now seem prophetic, and if/when we see the collapse of our public education system as a result of this competitive environment, those dealing with the aftermath will shake their heads and ask themselves, “How did this happen?”

In summary, it is clear that there is room for improvement in our education system. When evaluating education nationwide, I believe that we should consider the wisdom of Dr. Deming – his stance on cooperation over competition and the detrimental impact of “sub-optimization of the whole.” It’s undeniable that schools are competing with each other for students and the funding that they generate. To borrow a quote from former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, “We are not against a market-based economy, but a market-based society” (Gardner, Csiksentmihalyi, and Damon 2001). I share similar sentiments when it comes to education, as I don’t believe that a market-oriented educational system serves the best interests of our children or our country. Recognizing the potential harm that can arise from a market-driven competitive environment and emphasizing cooperation, ethical values, social responsibility, and holistic development are crucial to ensure that our nation’s K-12 education system truly benefits all of its students.


3 thoughts on “Education at a Crossroads: The Perils of Competition in K-12 Education”

  1. I would describe the difficulties in competition among public and the various private schools differently. Public schools, properly are required to accept all children. Because all includes the poorest among us, public schools are required to provide meals. Because all includes those with learning difficulties, public schools are required to provide special education. The list of what public schools do, in addition to educating is extensive – and recently has begun to include controversial topics such as gender identity. Irrespective of any individual’s opinion societal issues must be addressed by public schools. Increasingly, parents are looking for private alternatives. Private schools segment the market and select children whose parents are looking for “one” thing – preparation for certain universities, religious affiliation, and so forth. While arguably public and private schools aim is education – they are not part of the same system. Private schools should perform better, because of systemic differences – to say they do because of competion, in my opinion, is a false attribution. We need to understand that if we take students from the public schools and place them in private schools that there has been no change to the education system, merely a redistribution of students. Hand-picking a group, from the whole, necessarily will show that group performs better and the whole perfoms worse – it is mathmatics, not competition.

  2. Throughout this article, Dr. Stilwell’s descriptions of cooperation, ethical values, social responsibility, and holistic development resonated with me. I made an interesting connection between the word “competition” and the deep camaraderie that I have experienced participating in and observing sporting events. It is almost magical the immediate relationship two strangers can create if they share a beloved sports team. And when attending a favored sporting event, one feels the energy, passion, and unification when a large group of people are moving towards a shared vision of victory. I believe these bonds and support can and should exist around the entire American educational system in order to uplift each individual student and member of our society.

    My personal beliefs and values are grounded in sportsmanship such as not taking shortcuts, helping an opponent or teammate stand up after a fall, hustling back to defense after scoring, and giving credit to those that made your play possible. Now, when I observe a sporting event at any level, players are encouraged to pose, celebrated after they injure an opponent, and supported when they argue with referees. As Dr. Stilwell described above, the competitive environment of our society, which is reflected in American sports, prioritizes the individual rather than our duty to benefit the whole. Our beliefs and practices regarding cooperation and ethical values in our society are negatively impacting all other systems, including education.

  3. Dr. Stilwell makes some excellent points in this article. In 1848, Horace Mann stated that “Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer”. However, the shift in education to becoming more market based is robbing many students the ability to attain a truly effective, innovative, and equalizing education. If we want to live in a society of well educated and morally evolved adults, we must provide them all with the best education possible. Seeing students as a dollar amount will only serve to increase falsified results and ineffective teaching practices.

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