I’ve always believed that competition brings out the best in people and in organizations. I write in “The Art of Being Unreasonable” that this is especially true in higher education, where public and private universities compete for students, faculty and research funding.
Public charter schools are now providing long-overdue competition for traditional public schools—with the goal of not only giving parents a much-needed choice so they’re not forced to send their children to a failing school, but also by creating competition for those students, they encourage all public schools to do a better job educating their students.
Last week, we announced that YES Prep Public Schools of Houston was the winner of the inaugural Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools.
When we started our education philanthropy in 1999, there were few charter schools and they were less accepted by the public. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first charter school, and now charters operate in 40 states, number nearly 5,000, and enroll 1.4 million students.
What is remarkable about YES Prep, which operates 10 middle and high schools serving almost all low-income and minority students, is that they have eliminated virtually all ethnic and income achievement gaps. And every one of their students is required to be accepted into college.
The YES Prep system of schools was started by Chris Barbic, a Teach For America alum who roomed with the founders of another top charter management organization, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), which started in Houston and expanded nationally.
Chris, who is now leading the turnaround school district in Tennessee, has long referred to their approach as “coopetition.” Each charter organization wanted to be the best in terms of student achievement, but they also wanted the other to succeed. YES Prep has made a practice of collaborating and sharing their successful practices with the Houston Independent School District, which won the inaugural Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2002 and is again a finalist for the award this year.
There are countless school systems across the country that could take a lesson from these schools in Houston. Coopetition isn’t about winners and losers. It’s about getting students across the finish line and declaring a collective victory.