In the July issue of eSchool News, we published the text of the final speech given by Craig Barrett as chairman of Intel Corp. In his speech, Barrett–who retired as Intel’s chairman in May–offered five suggestions for improving American education. And while I agree wholeheartedly with his first four suggestions–good teachers, high expectations, pay for performance, and real student incentives–I think he’s dead wrong on the fifth.

Don’t get me wrong; I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Barrett and what he’s accomplished as chairman of Intel. His business savvy speaks for itself, and for many years he’s been a leading voice in the call for education reform. When he says U.S. schools need to change to keep America globally competitive with the rest of the world, I believe him. But when he says this change will only come from more competition to the American public school system–a belief shared by many in the school-reform movement, including our own Education Secretary–I strongly disagree.

Dr. Barrett, and most others with a background in the private sector, make a fundamental mistake in assuming what’s good for business will work in public education, too. It’s neither an apt, nor a fair, comparison.

I’d like to see Intel try to compete head to head with other companies using not the best and brightest intellectual capital it can recruit from all over the world, but only those citizens who live within its immediate geographic area–all of them, with no exceptions, including those who aren’t motivated to work hard, and those with developmental disabilities, and those whose first focus isn’t how to calculate the area of a circle but whether they’ve had enough to eat that day or how they’re going to survive.

Maybe that would work OK in wealthy Silicone Valley, but would Intel be a success if it operated by these rules in urban Los Angeles instead? Or would the quality of its “products” suffer when viewed against the competition?

And what if Intel were confined to a budget that consisted of a rigid state formula, supplemented by local property tax revenues and some funding–insufficient to meet its needs–from the federal government for each poor or disabled worker? Would the company be able to distinguish itself from the competition in that case? Probably, if it were located in Santa Clara, California … and probably not if it were forced to operate in the outskirts of L.A, or much of rural America.

Competition works in the private sector because business leaders have the freedom to choose their own products and resources, and their budgets aren’t restricted by their ZIP code. But our public schools are vastly different organizations. They’re democratic institutions that must take all comers, however ready these participants are to learn or perform. They’re judged by test scores and a host of other measures that are only partly under their control. And when they “fail,” according to these measures, we encourage their stakeholders to abandon them in favor of other schools perceived as better–a move that only perpetuates the cycle of failure for the original institution.

Competition is killing many of our schools in poorer neighborhoods. I’ve seen it firsthand where I live, a city with a rich history and an ethnically diverse population with a large percentage of poor and minority students. Many upper- and middle-class parents “choice” their children to schools outside the district, or send them to private schools. Typically, these are the best-educated parents, and the ones most likely to be strong advocates for their children’s education. So the absence of these children in our local district not only means less funding for its schools; it also means the students who are left don’t have as strong a voice.

Imagine if these parents had to send their children to their local public schools. Imagine if those who push for greater public-school competition were forced to do the same thing. If we took everyone’s passion and commitment to their own children’s education and channeled it into improving their local schools, it’s a safe bet those schools wouldn’t struggle for long.

School board elections would get a lot more attention, for one thing, and board meetings would always be well attended–even without a budget vote on the agenda. In short, every student would stand to benefit–not just those with the means or the savvy to escape to a “better” school.

Now, I’m not suggesting we could ever mandate such a radical change–or even that we should. There are still several institutional barriers to school improvement that need overcoming, and as a parent myself, I’m glad I have a choice in where I send my children to school.

But I’m wary of any sweeping arguments about how to improve public education that rely on private-sector business tenets, such as the one that says competition is good for the herd. Policy makers should remember: Schools and businesses are very different animals.


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