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Beyond Educational Isolation: Do We Work Together or Fight Each Other?

November 27, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Here’s my attempt at an appropriately Thanksgiving-related hook. This is a holiday stereotypically fraught with contradictions. What is billed as a holiday about coming together to be grateful is, more than many other holidays, also identified as the one where conflicts between family members come to the fore. When the relative drops a racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted comment in the middle of dinner, progressives feel two competing desires: respect the holiday and the peace, or enter a difficult but necessary conversation. The holiday also memorializes a positive story of friendship between Europeans and Native Americans that clashes with a history of war, genocide, and forced assimilation. In these ways (and here’s the tenuous segue), Thanksgiving is like education.

Education is no stranger to competing desires. You can find advocates equally passionate about innovation and standardization. Sometimes we can find rhetorical ways to square these circles -- “Innovation in approach, standardization of outcomes” -- but the reality often reflects the true conflicts between our desires.

The shifting balance between collaboration and competition is one such conflict. They aren’t the only options. Isolation, for example, is far too common an experience for schools, classrooms, and families. Collaboration and competition present two different paths out of isolation, and they come with different effects.

Collaboration is often fragile and difficult. It requires people willing to work with those who are different from themselves. Successful collaboration depends on a comfort with temporary disagreement that doesn’t come naturally to many Minnesotans. When collaborators do hang together, they then risk descending into groupthink or stagnation.

At the same time, collaboration is a way to build its participants’ capacity. When teachers collaborate successfully, they build new skills and activate skills they already had. When school leaders collaborate with their teachers, students, and students’ families, they keep the school on track with a unified vision that pays off for students. When schools collaborate, they can provide a better balance of services to their communities. When families collaborate, they can bring both pressure and ideas to improve their children’s schools.

The skills for truly productive collaboration, especially in an increasingly diverse society, are not innate for many people. They must be cultivated and practiced, and collaborators must be patient with each other. The potential benefits of collaboration, however, are significant.

While collaboration draws people out of isolation into groups, competition forces people out of isolation and into competition. People may band together into factions that compete with other factions, but the core of competition remains the same. This is one way to encourage people and schools to activate capacity that had gone dormant, and the pressures of competition can drive the creation of new capacity, especially if the competitors have the resources they need.

Competition does not always work out the way its supporters predict. Too often, it isn’t a school’s capacity for education that gets activated, but rather its capacity for marketing. When fighting for students, there are too many routes that appear quicker, cheaper, and easier than making deep-seated changes to curriculum, instruction, assessment, or school climate. A competition approach also sets families against each other, forcing them apart and dissipating their collective strength.

Can we get the best of both? It would be wonderful to say yes. It would be excellent if collaboration and competition could exist side-by-side. Some might entertain images of grand collaborative coalitions keeping each other honest for student results. Reality, though, suggests otherwise.

As we’ve experimented with a competition-oriented approach to education reform, we’ve seen schools make cosmetic changes designed to lure families to their school. We’ve seen schools and parent organizations look to procedural gimmicks to shut out their competitors. We’ve seen families bounce from school to school every year or three, growing increasingly frustrated when the real experience doesn’t match the sales job.

This isn’t good for kids, nor is it good for the adults (both in and out of school) who try to help them. Competition in education, we have seen, breeds instability. While we cannot be comfortable with the stability that came with isolation, we also cannot accept the destructive effects of competition. An active, collaborative approach must inform the next stage of education reform.

This means fostering collaboration within schools by better empowering teachers, changing the way we do professional development, and building climates that are more interested in supporting students and teachers than in expelling or firing them. It means fostering collaboration between schools, connecting the dots between best practices and the contexts that produced them. It means welcoming families into collaboration, building more opportunities for family engagement and oversight.

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  • Ruth Usem says:

    December 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

    It is encouraging to see a focus on reality—what can truly make the difference in the classroom.  Let’s just do it!
    Hocus Pocus will not make the grade - never has, never will.  Teachers who are passionate and committed to results
    for their students, will.

  • Stan says:

    December 2, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Pure collaboration without competition will unfortunately not identify the true “best practices”.  The collaborative activities will likely identify a “local maximum” (adequate/average/good performance on the landscape of educational outcomes) and the community/leadership will reach a collective comfort; unable to identify next steps for change.  Time and again it is only when: cultures, individuals, economies, corporations, universities, and yes, even schools feel the pressure of competition that they seek out a paradigm shift (e.g. revolution) that enables new creative movement in search of the “truly grand maximum” (exceptional performance).

    However, there may be a compromise educational policy. If the State consciously organized learning centers (e.g. High Schools) into limited sized collaborative groups, each collaborative group could compete against all other groups; and identify, evaluate and potentially adopt those best practices which a competitor has discovered.  This process will take time to implement as the trends toward mega-schools would need to be broken.  Each High School would be limited to sizes between 800 and 1000 students in four grades.  This limited sized High School should be large enough to enable interesting peripheral programs, but yet small enough so the teaching group can both collaborate effectively and still create close contacts with their students.  Then if a rare High School was a poorly performing outlier (in the spirit of competition) it would also be small enough to undergo significant / total restructuring.  Conversely, if a Learning Center excelled it could be recognized/rewarded, studied and perhaps the key assets/findings shared with the other learning centers.  Competition would provide the motivation for continued collaboration.

    I agree with Ruth… lets look for what truly makes the difference in the classroom; get rid of the obstacles and embrace the catalysts.

  • Alec says:

    December 2, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    We have also seen, in an effort to “win” the competition, “Beating the Odds” charters that admittedly and proudly narrow the curriculum so severely that they only teach what the state tests even excluding science until the state started testing for it, exclude English Language Learners, suspend and dismiss at horrific rates, and stress rigid discipline over free will.  All of this so that they can win the “competition” and be lauded as beating the odds.