Should Kids Compete for a Good Education?

“Why should children compete for their education?”  That is one of the questions that EdWeek’s Michele McNeil reports came out of yesterday’s face off between EdSec Arne Duncan and local school board members from across the nation who came to Washington as part of the National School Boards Association federal conference.

It is an interesting question, posed among many of similarly interesting points and concerns raised by local school boards across the country.  McNeil also highlights board members’ concerns of issues such as teacher incentives, ELLs and testing, and even ESEA itself.
(Full disclosure, Eduflack is an NSBA member, a delegate to the Virginia School Boards Association, and the Vice Chairman of the Falls Church City (VA) School Board.)
The notion of children competing is tied to the Obama Administration’s efforts to move almost all of our nation’s discretionary education spending into a competitive grant process.  By doing away with many of the federally funded programs local schools have long counted on and using U.S. Department of Education dollars to fund an instructional version of American Idol, the story goes, we are jeopardizing our classrooms and learning processes.  
Forget that federal education spending represents less than 10 cents of every dollar spent on K-12 education.  Forget that most of that federal education money is committed through formula spending programs like Title I.  Forget that too many kids, despite high per-pupil expenditures, are still getting a lousy education.  The real problem right now is that a small portion of federal education money is being given to those who can demonstrate a real plan and who are committed to showing efficacy and impact?
Our communities should be competing for their educations.  If Congress and ED and the state legislatures are effective stewards of taxpayer dollars, they should want to see ROI for their spending and know the money is producing results.  With so much of the federal commitment to K-12 going to formula spending, what is wrong with wanting to see that results and evaluation, along with need, factor into who gets what?
At the end of the day, competitive programs such as those envisioned by ED are intended to serve as test cases for school improvement.  We sprinkle some seed money in a particular district or state, measure the outcomes, and see if such an investment is warranted at a larger scale.  Such an approach — of early adopters, if you will — works in other industries.  What is so wrong by trying new approaches, gathering the data, and they saying if it can work in Indiana (or Massachusetts or South Carolina or Nevada) or it can work in Dallas (or Atlanta or name your urban district) then it can work in a state, a district, or a school like mine?
A little competition is a good thing.  Meaningful competition, where school communities (SEA or LEA) change their behaviors and approaches to trigger changes in the outcomes (student achievement) is an even better thing.  
Our schools already compete for Title I funding.   Districts and states compete with each other on everything from teacher pay to student achievement.  Kids are already competing for a good education.  We should be focusing on turning more kids into winners in the competition, rather than looking to hand out a slew of participant trophies.

3 thoughts on “Should Kids Compete for a Good Education?

  1. One major problem with the competitive grant strategy is that it rewards those districts who can afford (or actually hire) a good grantwriter and thus many potentially high performance districts or states lose out and many less than stellar entities win the competition.

  2. Bill is right. Of the 41 states submitting application in round 1, South Dakota came in dead last — 41st. Because our state doesn’t have money for grant writers, the application was completed by a “volunteer.” The result was a state-wide embarrassment – so much so, that the state declined to participate in subsequent rounds. Part of it I suppose is ideological – why should we “compete” for dollars that should be available to children without consideration of zip code? The other part, I suppose, is the result of getting slapped upside the head. Though our children do well on comparative assessments, when it comes to money, the reality is South Dakota can’t compete.

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