The Power of Coopetition

One of the raging debates of the moment about education policy in Michigan is whether competition or cooperation holds the key to improved school performance. The debate assumes that those two things exist as mutually exclusive -- like oil and water, they simply can't be mixed.

Supporters of competition (typically on the political right) argue for a wide open marketplace of schools. Meanwhile, supporters of cooperation (typically on the political left) argue for the return to monolithic districts and neighborhood schools. The problem with competition, however, is that education is an imperfect marketplace, where feedback on school performance is slow, for example. And the problem with cooperation is that it leaves the system without enough pressure to improve, and immorally leaves our poorest residents without the same kinds of school choices more wealthy residents take for granted.

Too often, I suspect, we fall prey to the tyranny of "or." Choose one: competition or cooperation, and live with the consequences.

The truth, however, is that these two ideas exist on a continuum, and that we can choose a combination of them.

While visiting with a leader from Noble Street schools two years ago, he shared that one of their keys to success was the idea of "coopetition." I've adopted the notion, shamelessly.

The Scorecard is a great example of coopetition in action. Schools had to cooperate in order to provide access to the data that goes into the determination of letter grades. Kudos to the overwhelming majority of schools who participated and provided that data. Although they knew that the result might be painful, they also saw that the benefits for Detroit residents of working together on that would be great.

At the same time, the whole notion of a scorecard for parents is to allow parents access to the kind of information that makes real competition between schools possible.

Our collective challenge going forward will not be to pick competition or cooperation. It will be to find the right mix of the two elements, so that outcomes for our kids get better and better.