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Competition or Criticism
How To Best Motivate America’s Schools?

Patricia’ Graham’s book Schooling America: How The Public Schools Meet the Nation’s Changing Needs is more than just a history of American Education. Graham looks at the changing demands for our schools, and how the schools have responded. In the article below Graham questions catalysts for change, should school reform focus on competition or criticism?

Patricia Albjerg Graham

Competition or criticism: which is the greater stimulus to school reform? Both obviously affect school life and policies, but what are their relative influences?

Presently, in capitalist America, with our current overwhelming commitment to schooling as a means of Schooling_americaadvancing the child’s economic advantages and thereby the national’s productivity in the global marketplace, many believe that competition is a primary means of getting schools to improve. Increasingly persons with successful experience outside education, often in business, are sought to bring their expertise to big cities as superintendents of schools. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New Orleans are among the communities with such leaders recently.

Certainly competition plays a role in schooling. Perhaps it is most obvious in extra-curricular activities, especially sports, where the Red Devils play the Broncos annually in football and basketball, each seeking to win. That is competition in its purest form. Similarly when new charter schools open and solicit enrollees, they too must convince parents and potential students that their school is preferable to others, a direct example of competition, though so far the evidence is mixed as to the superiority of charters over regular public schools.

In the mid-nineteenth century the legendary Massachusetts educator, Horace Mann, attempted, only partially successfully, to urge a reluctant state to improve its schools by reporting that the Prussians were getting ahead of us. Just over a century later the national cry, “the Russians are getting ahead of us,” brought passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The principal effect of that legislation was to provide enhanced instruction in math, science and foreign languages for the gifted few.

Criticism, however, has had much more pervasive influence upon American schools during much of the last century. On the whole, school reform results from the conviction among an articulate public that the schools are misbehaving, that they are not accomplishing with the children what the public wants. For most of the last century the public, not the school people, have called the tune and prompted the educators to dance to their selection.

Who is this articulate public? During the past century they have been a mix of journalists (Walter Lippmann, Martin Mayer, Charles Silberman), social workers (Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, Lillian Wald), university faculty and administrators who separated themselves from their school colleagues (Arthur Bestor, Jerrold Zacharias, James B. Conant) and national statesmen (Thurgood Marshall, Hyman Rickover, Lyndon B. Johnson). Parents, too, have often been critical, and affluent ones, particularly, have also gotten results.

These individuals have publicized the rigidities of the early twentieth century school; the excesses of the intelligence testing movement; the discrepancies in facilities and resources of schools serving black and white students; the woeful lack of academic content in much school work and the inadequacy of many teachers to provide it. Educators have responded slowly, much too slowly from the critics’ perspective, to these attacks. The present emphasis upon academic achievement for all is a direct consequence of the myriad reports written by various members of the public, particularly the 1983 A Nation at Risk, attacking the academic flabbiness of many American schools.

The argument presented in my book, Schooling America, is that schools have delivered what the Americans wanted but never as rapidly or as completely as the critics sought. But competition has not been nearly as important an incentive in the past as some today believe that it is. What do you think? Do you believe that criticism is still the most potent incentive for reform? If so, what kind? What evidence do you find that competition is a spur for reform?

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