Is there any evidence, anywhere, that competition between schools improves educational outcomes?

For the last two decades in Australia that’s what we’ve been busy creating: schools that are winners and students who are winners. But competition creates losers as well as winners. So while the winners might be individual schools and individual students the overall effect of this competition has been to lower the standard of Australian educational achievement. All the international tests tell us so, not just in relative but in absolute terms.

How so? By clustering these ‘winning’ students in these ‘winning’ schools and allowing other schools and other students to fend for themselves. The agenda has been all about ‘choice’:

  • Sharp increases in funding for non government schools to supposedly make them more accessible to families. Never mind the fact that fee increases have far outstripped inflation, or that the public funding has fuelled a facilities arms race and scholarships to attract more of the best and brightest students so that the school can ‘win’ some more.
  • Public reporting of school performance data so that parents can see which schools are ‘winning’ and can choose to send their children there so that they too can ‘win’. This reporting through the MySchools website and of end of year Year 12 results is presented in such a form that allows parents to easily identify those schools with the highest results, irrespective of whether those results are the product of the socio economic status of the student’s family or the quality of the education at the school. Plenty of evidence says that it’s the former. And the results are rarely absolute measures of performance, they’re always comparative: someone has to look good at someone else’s expense.
  • Residualisation of the public education system. Higher performing students are whisked off by their families to non government schools, or the family finds a way into a high performing public school (typically located in a high SES location). With the top layer of high performing students taken out, the data in these public schools drops and the cycle perpetuates itself. Meanwhile the data says our high ability students, concentrated in the ‘winning’ schools are coasting.
  • Quick paths to ‘winning’. It doesn’t take a school too long to figure out that there are two ways to improve their results. The first is to improve teaching so that your results improve. Everyone is trying to do that. The second, and the most immediate, is to recruit as many high performing students as you can. These students will do well, your results will be strong and you will attract more high performing students in return. It’s a self perpetuating cycle in which you win at someone else’s expense. Costs a small fortune in advertising though.

So what do you do as nation? Firstly, you have to recognise that the problem is one of your own making. Secondly, you try to address the huge equity issue you’ve created. In Australia’s case that means throwing billions of dollars at the problem through a needs-based schools funding model. Thirdly, you try to identify methods of improving student learning through improved teaching. We’re madly running around trying to do the last two things. No-one wants to acknowledge that this is a problem created by politicians, not by people in schools; too easy to blame teachers.

What you don’t do, apparently, is learn from other countries. Except to the extent that you look at their teaching and learning approaches. But then, these weren’t the thing that got you into this mess in the first place were they?

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