Here’s Why Competition Doesn’t Work in Public Education

If you are (1). interested in public education and (2). living with an Internet connection, you’re likely to already know that North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature has passed a TON of new legislation in the past few weeks that have educators more than a little riled.

(See here for a quick primer)

I’ve spent some time reading the comment sections of education stories appearing in the local newspaper (see here) and the strand that seems to resonate the most with readers is the suggestion that introducing competition to the public education system — achieved here in North Carolina through vouchers and charter schools — is the only way we can kick start stalled schools.

That’s a common refrain in thinking around education here in the States, isn’t it?  We automatically believe that because competitive risk — having to stand out in a marketplace by constantly producing better products — moves businesses forward, the same strategies will move schools forward too.  To suggest otherwise is seen as downright Un-Amurican.

So let’s take a close look at how competition works and then decide if it really IS right for schools.

When businesses compete, their first step is to identify the marketplace that they are trying to serve.  Their second step is to figure out just how much money they have to spend in order to make a profit in that marketplace.  Profitable businesses spend just enough to keep their primary marketplace happy.  Spend more than you need to and you are essentially giving profits away.  Spend less than you need to and you won’t carve out a space in the marketplace that you are trying to serve.

Here’s a practical example of what that looks like in action:  My wife and I bought a new refrigerator a few months back.  To be honest, we were blown away by the full range of refrigerators available in the local Home Depot.  There were stainless steel units with huge capacities, interesting configurations, and four different types of ice dispensed automatically standing alongside basic units made from cheap plastic, ready to do little more than freeze your cheese.

You see the competitive lesson there, right?

Real-live apple-pie eating, baseball loving American businessmen are trying to carve out a space for themselves in SPECIFIC markets, producing refrigerators for certain KINDS of customers.  Some — like Subzero — are producing high end refrigerators for people who own $500,000 homes and are ready to drop a few grand on top end appliances that will serve as centerpieces in their kitchens.  Others — like Kenmore — don’t even bother with the bells and whistles, instead focusing their attention on developing functional-but-not-fancy machines for people like you and I.

And then there’s guys like Joe — the landlord who showed up in my driveway when he noticed the delivery truck bringing our new refrigerator to our house.

Hey — have you got an old unit you’re trying to get rid of?  I’d be happy to take it off your hands,” he said.  I told him that he wouldn’t want my refrigerator.  It was 20+ years old, had been sitting unplugged in my backyard for about two weeks, had been rained on three times, and barely kept anything cold anymore.

That don’t matter,” he said.  “I rent houses out in the poor section of town.  As long as it blows a little cool air, those people will be happy.  I’ll give you $50 bucks and haul this thing away right now.”

Joe has figured out competition, hasn’t he?  He’s identified a marketplace — “those people in the poor section of town” — that no one is serving.  Then, he’s figured out just how much he has to spend to keep his customers happy.

He’s not putting Subzero machines in his rental houses — heck, he’s not even putting WORKING machines in his rental houses — because his customers wouldn’t expect those machines to begin with.  Turning a profit means putting the cheapest refrigerators that he can find into his properties in the poorest corners of town.  He would never slip a rotting machine in a home that he planned to rent to you or I, but he’s not renting homes to you or I.  He’s renting them to people who are down on their luck.

Cheap and crappy will do just fine.

The capitalist in me sees nothing wrong with Joe’s choices, y’all.  While I feel bad for the people living in his homes, the refrigerators owned by other people aren’t something that I’m ready to lose sleep over.  We really DO live in  dog-eat-dog world where, for a variety of reasons, some people are going to get ice sliced and diced while other people are stuck struggling to make ice at all.  Whether we like it or not, that’s life. It’s not society’s job to make sure that everyone has the refrigerator of their dreams.

Translate that lesson to schools, though, and competition gets ugly.

If we REALLY encourage competition in education — if we really ARE committed to letting private companies drive our public school systems — businessmen will bring those same profit-making practices to our communities.  Tapping into an affluent marketplace with a ton of disposable cash to burn, some entrepreneurs will develop Subzero schools with all the bells and whistles.  There will be small class sizes, highly skilled teachers, and a heaping cheese-load of resources spilling out of every classroom storage closet.

But make no mistake about it:  The entrepreneurs developing schools for “those people in the poor section of town” will take Joe’s approach to making a buck.  Their buildings will be stocked with cheap supplies and unqualified teachers. The only thing spilling out of their classrooms will be kids.  Like the good businessmen that they are, they’ll stick worn out Kenmores into poor communities — cutting their expenses to the quick regardless of the quality of the product they are producing because they know full well that the marketplace they are serving into can’t afford anything better.

You DO see the problem with this approach to education, don’t you?

While the quality of other people’s refrigerators doesn’t affect ME in a deep and meaningful way, the quality of their education most certainly does.  Ensuring that ALL children — including “those people living in the poor section of town” — have access to Subzero schools means ensuring that ALL children will grow up to be competent citizens capable of making positive economic and social contributions to our communities.

That’s an outcome we should ALL care about — capable neighbors really DO fuel economic growth and ensure a healthy future for everyone — but it’s an outcome that competition doesn’t automatically advance.



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Living a Silent War

Staffing High Needs Schools

What Parents Don’t Understand About High Poverty Schools

Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon

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  • KrisGiere

    Excellent points!

    Thanks, Bill.  You have done an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in the competitive school model.  I keep trying to tell people that business doesn’t need nor provide equity, yet education requires it.  The two just don’t mix.

    • billferriter

      Kris wrote:

      Kris wrote:


      I keep trying to tell people that business doesn’t need nor provide equity, yet education requires it


      – – – – – –

      This is the quote of the day, Kris.  In one sentence, it clarifies everything that I was trying to say in a dozen paragraphs!

      I’ll be using it over and over again.  Hope you don’t mind!


  • RobinBulleri

    Nicely put


    Your metaphor is spot on.  Public education is not a commodity subject to economics, but a (state) constitutional right.  “Sub-zero” schools have existed for decades in the form of private, independent schools.  The masses have had the smart, but sensible public education. Further privatization by charter firms will increasingly stratify and deconstruct public education because they keep their eye on the bottom line rather than on the kids they serve.

  • Tina Bessias


    Thanks for this helpful analysis.  I’ve long wondered at the rosy view of competition and the claim that it would have a magical, positive effect on schools.  In the sports world, competition does stimulate great achievement, but it also generates abysmal behavior at times: parents berating their own children or others’, fans rioting after a game, players trying to gain an advantage by taking dangerous, illegal drugs.  When people get really caught up in competition, they can experience a kind of moral blindness.

    We’ve seen that happen in education, which already has a significant element of competition.  Cheating on standardized tests, for example, occurs at the student, teacher, and administrator level, sometimes on a grand scale.  

    Not all competition generates bad outcomes, but it’s hard to imagine that a high degree of intensity could be a good way to generate the kind of capable, community-spirited neighbors that we all need.

    Thanks again for addressing this issue. 



  • LoriNazareno

    Hey Bill,

    Hey Bill,

    I can’t help but think that we are already seeing Subzero and Kenmore schools as a result of this focus on competition. I know that this is the case in the Denver metro area where I work and live. My nephews live in a very well resourced area and all of the schools in the area reflect that. And, I work in a severly under-resourced area and the schools also relfect that in terms of materials, class size, and more.

    When people tout competition they forget the part that, in order to have “winners”, you have to have “losers”. And I think we all know who they are, where they live and what they look like.

    Thanks for the insights!

    • billferriter

      Winners and Losers

      Lori wrote:

      When people tout competition they forget the part that, in order to have “winners”, you have to have “losers”. And I think we all know who they are, where they live and what they look like.

      – – – – – –

      This is spot on, Lori.  What worries me, though, is that I don’t think the people touting competition “forget” that there are winners and losers in the competitive games they’ve created.  I think they know full well that there are going to be losers — and I think they WANT it that way.

      Maybe I’m a paranoid skeptic — but as I watch the conversations about what’s fair and what’s not fair shift further and further to the right in our country, I become more and more doubtful about the intentions of those who are pushing for competition in schools.

      Hope you’re well, by the way!  It’s been awhile.


  • marsharatzel

    I think competition can be a good thing

    Dear Bill,

    I do like your examples and no one wants a smelly, rained-on, castoff as their instructional unit.  But I’m not sure we want to throw all competition away…..instead use it wisely.

    For example, instead of the same old people getting to go to conferences and that process being closed off….why not allow people to compete for the chance to go.  Maybe have some kind of essay that is blindly read and a “winner” is picked.  I’d be thrilled to compete for the chance to go to NSTA or ISTE conferences.  Right now I have no chance and I’m always a “loser”…..blind essay competitions would make me at least feel like I have a chance to go.

    Or what about the use of pilot $$$.  Right now you can pretty much count on the same people, the same schools and the same kinds of programs getting funded.  Why wouldn’t it be a more transparent process if all the grant proposals were “graded competitively” and the awarded based on some kind of published criteria?  I’d see that as a much better process.

    In the classroom, my students love the competition between teams that I might form to do a quiz review or to design the tallest structure with given materials.  The trick to making this an OK instructional strategy is that it isn’t my ONLY strategy and I use it sparingly.  Plus group composition is varied…sometimes I pick and sometimes the kids pick.  Most of the time, I think they just like the competition and really don’t give a hoot who is the winner of the review.

    I also have to say in a similar vein that we “do” the science and engineering fair.  Students work on their projects and know what the judging criteria will be from the start.  It is competitive because not everyone gets a ribbon for outstanding projects(although everyone gets a purple ribbon for participating).   But where I see this competition work is that students do work to compare what they’ve produced to that judging criteria….and then amend their work because they see it isn’t up to par.

    In the end, the judges are from the community and names aren’t allowed on the projects.  The way that I see this competition as OK is because everyone is capable of getting a blue ribbon….or a red ribbon….etc etc etc.

    I see these kinds of competition as good and improvements to the everyone is a winner kind of thinking.  So I think we can both claim that we’re winners in this conversation because I totally understand that too much emphasis on competition causes bad consequences.  


    • billferriter

      CAN Competition be Useful?

      Marsha wrote:

      I do like your examples and no one wants a smelly, rained-on, castoff as their instructional unit.  But I’m not sure we want to throw all competition away…..instead use it wisely.

      – – – – – – – 

      I’m with you here, Marsha:  I really do think that there is a place for competition in schools and I’m not even totally opposed to charters and vouchers IF they are used as incubators for better practice.  I just want all competition to be seen as a way of encouraging all schools to get better instead of as a way to identify which schools are good and which schools are bad. 

      Competition can drive people and organizations to improve as long as they see the competition as fair and worth joining into.  When competition is seen as unfair or unjust, though, it can make people quit completely.  That’s what I think is happening in education today.

      Any of this make sense?


  • BriannaCrowley

    GOOD cross-post


    Just wanted to stop by and let you know that I’ve promoted this article on CTQ’s profile through Click here if you want to see the teaser and picture I used to drive some more traffic to this great conversation!

  • Rocket Scientist

    Not a fair comparison

     Your argument is disingenuous, trying to compare a service to a product (or a professional service) is foolish. Try another professional service.  Physicians have competition–so should teachers; that is a legitimate comparison.    


    • tahiya


      The person who visits the doctor, pays the doctor, and decides if the doctor did a good job is the SAME patient. Not so with education. Competition falls apart when user, purchaser and evaluator are THREE separate entities with disparate agendas. Business 101.

  • tahiya

    missed important point

    competition falls apart in education as an enterprise. the person purchasing the product or service isn’t the one who has to use it. The person evaluating the product or service is neither the one paying for it, nor the one using it. The person devising and delivering the product or service cannot gain or lose by the evaluation of the evaluator, the performance of the user, or the money of the purchaser. They get their reward from a separate system not tied to the performance of the product or its users.

    There IS NO COMPETITIVE model that yields a desirable outcome in public education because the person required to learn doesn’t think they should. THEY DON’T WANT THE PRODUCT!! Ignorance is its own punishment and almost every single person who is educated was coerced into it at first. Lastly, the purchasers and users of educational services are poorly qualified to asses it, and the those who are charged with evaluating it, do so on criteria outside its true purpose.