While policymakers often justify school choice as a means to alleviate opportunity and achievement gaps, an unanticipated effect is increased competition over access to coveted, high-performing schools. In A Contest without Winners, Kate Phillippo follows a diverse group of Chicago students through the processes of researching, applying to, and enrolling in public high school. Throughout this journey, students prove themselves powerful policy actors who carry out and redefine competitive choice. Phillippo’s work amplifies the voices of students—rather than the parents, educators, public intellectuals, and policymakers who so often inform school choice research—and investigates how students interact with and emerge from competitive choice academically, developmentally, and civically.
Through students’ experiences, she shows how competitive choice legitimates and exacerbates existing social inequalities; collides with students’ developmental vulnerability to messages about their ability, merit, and potential; and encourages young people’s individualistic actions as they come to feel that they must earn their educational rights. From urban infrastructure to income inequality to racial segregation, Phillippo examines the factors that shape students’ policy enactment and interpretation, as policymakers and educators ask students to compete for access to public resources. With competitive choice, even the winners—the lucky few admitted to their dream schools—don’t outright win. A Contest without Winners challenges meritocratic and market-driven notions of opportunity creation for young people and raises critical questions about the goals we have for public schooling.
Kate Phillippo is associate professor of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago's School of Education. She is author of Advisory in Urban High Schools: A Study of Expanded Teacher Roles.