A reader Catherine Blanche King explained in a comment why it is a mistake that schools will improve if they compete with one another, as shoe stores and automobile franchises do. She reminds me of something that Governor Mario Cuomo said many years ago, and I am sorry I can’t remember the words exactly and can’t find the source. He said that if you are a parent and you have several children, you don’t pick favorites but you give the most love and attention to the child who needs it most. I think he was referring then to children with disabilities.

She writes:

Just a reflection to consider on the difference between (1) running a business and (2) running an educational establishment and the principles that underpin both.

In the first case, businesses are commonly run under the principles of capitalism–as at least assumed to be competitive, and as employed presently in most cases. Competition in business and even in, for instance, the Olympic Games, tends to render the best in each instance, category, or business field which gets the prize or the customer base, whichever. What is “the best” (the principles of intelligence and excellence) in each situation, field, or category is an open question. But it’s the underpinning idea of “branding” –whether you are actually the best or not and according to a wealth of criteria for that title.

In the second case, however, running an educational establishment is more like running a family; that is, those who are NOT the best, are the ones who need the most and, under this principle, are the ones who are helped to become better. It’s (what we can call) the principle of generation that comes first and that underpins the other two principles when they are working well.

In concrete terms, the principle of generation is evident in our own families where we may harbor our favorites, but if one child is not as good as another in math, say, then that child is the one who gets the help so that they can become better. If they are not good at soccer, then we try baseball or whatever they want or need. If you put them in competition with others, however, without adequate preparation and direction, they are already set to be “losers.”

It’s under this principle of generation, however, that we love and care for our children regardless, cradle to grave. And as they move from family to formal educational institution, it’s under this principle that we are constantly PREPARING them–ALL of them in a democratic culture–to work as well as they can when they are ready to enter the world where the other two principles (intelligence and excellence) take the reigns in their lives. (Again, what we concretely mean by those terms is analogous and specific.)

Neither of the three principles ever goes away, however, but remain in tension with one another. It’s just which is emphasized and which recedes in each situation. In families, we play games where someone wins or loses, but no one questions where they live or whether they are included. In schools, particularly in a democracy, and beginning in the early grades, competition again has its legitimate place, but again (as most teachers experience) not when it intrudes on legitimate forms that flow from the principle of generation, e.g., caring and inclusion, educational preparation for all where it is needed–that is, we do not eliminate those who fail or who are not at the top in achievements. Rather, resources are applied in accordance with need and where there is less achievement; and regardless of who they are or what group they belong to. Again, inclusion is a given. Here, applying competitive business principles alone is a gross distortion of the body politic of a democratic culture.