Monday, May 30, 2011

Be Nice! (or, Why Fighting With the Competition Is Naughty)

In every class I’ve had so far, professors go out of their way to stress the similarities between for-profit and non-profit companies. One thing that has come up in the past has been competition and how non-profits face competitors that have to be dealt with in the same way they would in the for-profit world. I think that’s really dumb.

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In “Competitor Analysis: Understanding Your Opponents,” a competitor is defined as “any company that aims to satisfy the same customer needs that you do.” In the non-profit world of education, is this “competitor” really the enemy? The article lays the groundwork for dealing with this competitor, actually using an example of US Army war games that prepare soldiers to go off and kill the enemy in combat to hammer home the point.

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In the field of education, too many leaders have heard similar nonsense on their way to an Ed.D. The Pittsburgh Public School District along with surrounding poorly performing districts such as Woodland Hills, which like many urban districts are pretty terrible in almost every measurable way, have taken up the fight against the “competition.” Denying charter applications has become the default position (a position that is regularly overturned by the state) and the Pittsburgh Public School District actually refuses to sell unused and unwanted buildings to charter schools because they don’t want to help the competition.

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But shouldn’t it all be about the kids? Why not work together? Or, more to the point, why would you want a huge and failing non-profit organization to stay alive just to stay alive? Of course, charters do take money and kids away from districts. If I were in charge of a large district I would use that as an opportunity to close failing schools (there is no shortage of these in the districts charter schools want to operate in). There are many arguments for and against charter schools. I think the most powerful one is that charter schools have thousands of students on wait lists. And once in, I’ve never heard of a child returning to the public school they left. I think parents, perhaps, have a better sense of what’s best for their children than district administrators do.

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In the world of education, before leaders start to worry about competitors that can “kill your business,” they should ask themselves if that business is worth keeping alive. Many superintendents have the idea in their head that bigger is better and do everything possible to keep their districts as large (in terms of the number of students) as they can, even if they’re performing terribly. This idea (similar to the growth idea I wrote about last week) is even more nonsensical with non-profits than it is with for-profits. Economic theories aside, let’s just say there’s only so much money to go around in the for-profit world and the bigger you are the more money you’ll get. But in the non-profit world it’s the mission that matters. And your organization being bigger (or even existing at all) might not be a good thing. Non-profits should be willing to collaborate, shrink in size, merge together, or shut down completely if it will help fulfill the mission. In the world of education, fighting against the “competition” (by not selling an unwanted and unused building to another school or denying applications from large charter systems with a record of consistent and measurable success – not to mention refusing to work together on more everyday kinds of things) only hurts the kids.

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