The popularity of private competition among students is becoming a major challenge to universal public education.
While the public education system drifts further toward a world of co-operative learning, children and parents are going in the opposite direction, opting for more competition. Private competitions like spelling bees, debates, math Olympiads and science fairs are filling the competition gap for students who can access them, while those who rely solely on public education are left behind.
Education experts, teachers unions and some teachers believe that competition is bad for self-esteem and reduces equality. Competition, they argue, leads to ranking and, as edifying as that may be for those who finish on top, it is degrading for those who finish last. Worse, they say, is that in a competitive system, the already successful define success. If today’s crop of successful people happen to be good at reading, writing and arithmetic, they will use their political and community influence to ensure that competitive education systems continue to rank people with these skills higher than the people without the skills. The arguments against competition have convinced some, and the education system is moving away from it.
Some students just happen to enjoy the opportunity to compete and get honest feedback about how their efforts compare to the efforts of others. For them, their self-esteem relies on competition.
Thankfully, it turns out these competitive students have options. A recent Frontier Centre review of academic competitions (Excellence in Education, available at www.fcpp.org) shows that students are taking to them in droves. The Canwest CanSpell spelling bee brings in 83,000 competitors from over 900 schools. Around 100 regional science fairs take place across the country every year, with the top entrants going to a national competition. Thousands of students enter the Canadian Open Mathematics Competition, and debate associations hold competitions across the country. On the face of it, the system appears to be working well: Students who want competition have the option, and those who would rather not compete do not have to.
The problem is that these developments undermine the basic principle of public education. Canadians are entitled to publicly funded education so that all students have the same opportunities, regardless of their parents’ means. If that sounds obvious, it is worth considering what these private competitions mean.
The number of students seeking competitive learning outside the public system indicates that the system has misjudged students’ desire for competition. For those with the resources to pay fees, to travel and to prepare for competitions, this is not a problem. However, if public education is supposed to provide equal access to opportunities, it is clearly not covering the activities that many students prefer. If you do not like competitive learning, the public system will cater for you regardless of your means. If you do like competition, you must rely on the private sector to meet your needs.
Those in the education establishment who oppose a one-size-must-fit-all approach to competition are half-right; one size can never fit all. Logically, the prescription of non-competition does not fit either. Surprisingly, the establishment is able to ignore both this logical truth and the signal that participation in private competitions is sending.
Maybe this should not be a surprise. Education departments have one curious feature that would be tolerated in few other sectors. In the business of delivering education paid for by public funds, they have a monopoly. If any private firm dominated an activity as exclusively as education departments dominate public education, the commissioner of competition would order it to open up to competitors. (For example, Canada’s Commissioner of Competition acted against a cartel of chocolate makers for colluding over chocolate prices earlier this year). Just as customers of private monopolies are powerless because they cannot take their business elsewhere, students in the public education system are at the mercy of the all-powerful provider.
The way forward is more parental control. Only when students and parents have more control over how their share of public education funding is spent will the needs of all students be met inside the public system. Many in the system are hostile to greater parental control but, in the end, becoming more responsive and inclusive will be essential to the system’s survival.