Myth 6: Competition leads to school improvement

The debate about the role that non-state actors should take in education is divisive. Discussion is made all the more difficult because of the prevalence of myths circulating on the theme. A series of blogs on this site covers the 10 myths listed in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors, aiming to spark discussion. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

Accountability and healthy competition motivate some people to improve. In the economic sphere, firms compete to survive, as profit making is why they exist. So, it’s understandable that people might believe the same principles apply in education, and that competition leads to school improvement. But are the two scenarios comparable? Choice, the driver of competition in the marketplace, does not work the same way in education. This is one of the myths we are aiming to dispel in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors and in this series of blogs.

Supporters of non-state activity in education propose that change is better than the status quo. Public institutions transform slowly; public education institutions are particularly slow to respond

to individual and societal demands for relevant skills. Civil servants who do not perform are often protected, and vested interests block innovations that could increase efficiency and quality. Alternative providers and the opportunity to choose them should ensure that public schools accelerate needed reforms. In everyday life, accountability and healthy competition motivate

some people to improve. In the economic sphere, firms compete to survive, as profit making is why they exist. But it is not clear how such dynamics play out in education. Studies that demonstrate system-wide effects of competition are rare, due to the complexity of the subject matter, and findings have been inconclusive.

Some argue that competitive pressure, often influenced by private providers, may accelerate a tendency to conform as both public and private schools need to adhere to some level of standardization. As for learning outcomes, do non-state schools improve individual student results? Is the non-state sector helping pull education systems up or does it lead to the creation of parallel systems with potentially negative effects on state schools? In other words, does competition lead to school improvement?

One appeal of school choice is the notion that competition will lead public schools to improve. Schools may change operations to improve quality, change extracurricular activities, emphasize recruitment and marketing, and even try to attract the best students. However, education has certain characteristics that make it less conducive to replicating the kind of market competition that may yield benefits in economic activities. There is evidence showing that competing with non-state schools may not help improve state schools’ outcomes.

Chile’s voucher programme had a negative impact on public schools, for instance. In municipalities with a higher share of private school enrolment, public schools had lower test scores, the gap in test scores between elite private and public schools was wider and the socioeconomic gap between public and private school parents was greater. A comparison of municipality test score performance between 2002 and 2013 found that scores increased with resources, such as parental education, but not with school competition. The introduction of targeted vouchers in 2008 prompted schools to compete for students, since targeting made more expensive schools more attractive to poorer students.

In Nepal, public school outcomes did not seem to be associated with the extent of private competition. But the gap between public and private school outcomes was higher in localities with higher growth in private education, suggesting stratification.

By contrast, in Sweden, a longitudinal analysis from 1988 to 2009 found that grades by subject and average attainment at age 24 increased with the share of enrolment in independent schools, with competition having increased productivity instead of resulting in sorting.

In the US state of Ohio, there was modest improvement in mathematics and reading scores of students who had the option but had not taken up a voucher, a result which could be attributed to the effect of competition. Analysis of the impact of charter schools in New York City, United States, found that positive effects on mathematics and English among traditional public school students were largest when charter schools were in the same location.

The mere presence of private or other schools in near proximity may not be a sufficient incentive for public school authorities to take any action if they do not have financial resources or autonomy to respond. An analysis of the Foundation Assisted Schools programme in Pakistan, a public–private partnership, showed that its schools had a negative impact on enrolment at nearby public schools. In New Orleans, United States, most school principals felt the large number of charter schools presented strong competition for students. Over half reported competing with private schools.

In some instances, competition may focus on teachers. In the United States, teacher quality declined in difficult-to-staff schools after charter schools were introduced. In the state of North Carolina, after a charter school opened nearby, hard-to-staff public schools hired fewer new teachers and experienced small declines in teacher quality. At the same time, schools increased teacher compensation to retain teachers of good quality. In New Orleans, major reforms removed teacher bargaining power and protections to enable more flexibility and variation in hiring strategies. The reforms seem to have led to changes in hiring patterns, with charter schools seeking candidates outside the city and public schools looking locally.

Competition between public and private schools can take several forms, including choice of instruction language. Some public schools switch to international languages, a marketing tool commonly used by private schools, but one that represents a negative consequence of competition. Such responses have been observed in Lebanon, Morocco, Nepal and the Philippines. Some limited evidence exists on how expanding public school choice affects private schools. After open enrolment was introduced in the Canadian province of British Columbia, students had greater public school choice and could enrol outside their catchment area. This increase in public school competition led to reduced enrolment in private secular and Catholic schools, but did not change demand for other faith and other Christian private schools.

All in all, while there may be a few examples of how competition can lead to school improvement, the evidence is decidedly mixed. A blind assumption that the rules from one sector can apply in another is a dangerous starting point.

Read the 2021/2 GEM Report to find out more.


1 comment

  1. You say that it’s a “myth” that competition improves education, then admit at the end of your essay that the evidence you found was merely mixed. When even your own research wasn’t persuasive that competition doesn’t improve education, it seems rather a stretch to call it a myth.

    Moreover, you seemed to rely on evidence that competition doesn’t lead to improvement in non-charter public schools. But that’s not what matters; the important thing is what’s best for students, not systems.

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