Friday, August 17, 2007

Choice in education that works

What completely baffles me is how we can see such dramatic improvement in higher education because students have choices about the types of higher education that best fit their needs, and yet many can't make the leap that this same dynamic will dramatically improve K-12 education as well.

Clemson just found out that it has risen to #27 on the U.S.News ranking, well along the way to becoming a top 20 public university. Setting an objective to rise in the rankings is inherently to engage in a competition with peer institutions. Clemson President Jim Barker captured the dynamic at work:
I’m very excited about the number 27, but I’m more encouraged by what’s behind that number. We’re seeing improvement in areas that directly impact faculty and students - smaller classes, lower student-to-faculty ratios and continued strong retention and graduation rates. We’ve always said that if we do the right things, if we make good decisions, if we’re strategic about resource allocation and if we constantly focus on academic quality, the rankings would take care of themselves. Today, I’m happy to report that our plan is working.
This competitive dynamic even works with private institutions: Furman moved from 41st to 37th on the list of top liberal arts colleges. Furman President David Shi doesn't like the terms of the competition, though, saying,
Serious reservations" persist "about the legitimacy of the process. It is much more important for a prospective student to find the college that is the best fit for him or her rather than basing such an important decision on a problematic college ranking.
That's a very Swamp Foxy thing to do: don't accept the status quo of the market leaders, but rather define the competition on terms that better matches your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses. That works as long as you can get customers to buy it.

Whether you engage in the competition head on, like Jim Barker, or you seek to redefine the terms of the competition, like Davis Shi, the fact is that competition will create high quality public and private education options that benefit students and society as a whole.

Someone tell me again why this same dynamic won't work to improve K-12 education.

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