Competition Versus Differentiation in Education

There is competition in education. Schools compete with one another,especially independent K-12 and higher education institutions. Yet, I’m increasingly convinced that the strongest and healthiest schools are not focused on competition as much as they are differentiation and cooperation. They are concerned about embracing and living out their distinct identity, and that is what draws people to them. It is the undifferentiated school that must resort to heavy competition for students. Yet, if I were leading an independent school or University, I would seek to establish a school that was so distinct that even the “competition” recommended people to our school. That approach produces a stronger individual school identity along with greater system for families and learners.

I was speaking with a leader of a school system recently that participated in a school choice program, and he explained how other schools saw this as a threat. They went so far as to go door to door, talking to parents. They said very little about what was distinct or desirable in their schools as much as trying to bad talk the schools that they considered a threat. It is something that I’ve run into more than a few times in higher education online programs as well. That is a good sign of a school with an identity and differentiation problem. If the only compelling case that you have for your school is that you are not as bad as another school, there is a good chance that your school has an identity crisis.

Competition, by nature, is a contest between two or more opposing organizations. In sport, it is often about winning with the most (or the fewest) points. In education, it looks like competing over who can get the most or  a certain group of students. It can also be about grant money, rankings and other similar pursuits; but my focus in this article is on the competition for students.

What would happen, however, if organizations put most of their attention on how they can differentiate themselves, how they can provide something noble, distinct and desirable? Among academics, this already happens. There is already a sense of loyalty to the discipline or grappling with important questions in a given field of study. Scholars across organizations sometimes compete for grant money, but they also network, collaborate and share knowledge with one another. There is competition, but there is also rich cooperation and scholars tend to differentiate their research, conducting work in an area that offers something new or rare in the field.

As I’ve written before, in a world with diverse philosophies, values and convictions about education; I see two dominant choices. There can be a push for a centralized and standardized system. Or, there can be a push for choice and a variety of options. Of course, there are also countless options for blending these two as well, but I will focus on the two “extremes” for the sake of highlighting my point about cooperation and differentiation.

One is that we can support and invest in a single uniform, centralized education system or approach to education. We invest tax money in those that align with these uniform standards and we drive the majority of learners to that system. Then, those with the greatest power or influence can push for their philosophies, values and convictions to reign supreme in that one, primary option. In that world, competition is not much of a concern, at least not on the surface.

It would seem like that model would strive toward an equitable education system, but when we investigate it further, we don’t find evidence that a uniform system run by a core philosophy of a centralized entity actually produces an equitable system. There are plenty of winners and losers in such a system. It also attacks the freedom of families to live and grow according to their own core beliefs and convictions. The minority viewpoint is quickly diminished and devalued in a standardized system with few or no choices.

Yet, on the K-12 level, when choices of schools are championed, some argue that this is creating unhealthy competition among the schools. It seems to me that people are confusing competition and options. People see it as competition, it seems, because they don’t value the distinctions among the schools. It is as if school is just one thing and having multiple options is like choosing between two equally ripe apples. Yet, schools are not the same. They have different philosophies, core values, convictions, personnel, cultures, and more.

I do agree, however, that just creating a litany of the exact same types of schools in a community makes less sense. What is ultimately more beneficial is to have options among differentiated schools, schools that each have specialties, distinct offerings and will align with different goals and values of families and learners in a community. I’ve yet to see a school that meets the needs of all learners. In fact, I don’t believe that such a school exists. What can exist is an ecosystem of offerings that meet diverse needs, abilities, passions, and interests.

The same thing is true when it comes to higher education. In 2013, when Clayton Christiansen predicted that half of all Universities might be bankrupt in fifteen years, it caused no small stir. With the mass closing of for-profit centers and extension campuses around the United States (300+ in 2015) in lieu of growing online programs, there is some possible truth to his prediction. We can envision a possible future when a small number of Universities serve massive numbers of students through online programs. Yet, I’m not ready to underestimate the differentiated University, the school that does something distinct and that is valued by a target audience. This is partly why I’ve predicted that we might actually have more colleges and Universities in the future…although my definition of college is distinct from what many think of today.

If there are a dozen quality options for the same specific product or service out there, and those dozen have excess capacity to serve, why add another? On the other hand, if there are gaps in education and schools, unmet needs and people wanting those needs to be met, then there is room for more schools and different types of learning communities. I’m not arguing for any centralized or top-down coordination. Let the people decide. If there is enough differentiation and demand, people will be interested in attending, and we will have a system that is far more likely to meet the diverse needs of learners.