Why the ‘market theory’ of education reform doesn’t work

Modern education reform is being driven by people who believe that competition, privatization and other elements of a market economy will improve public schools. In this post, Mark Tucker, president of the non-profit National Center on Education and the Economy and an internationally known expert on reform, explains why this approach is actually harming rather than helping schools.

Years ago, Milton Friedman and others opined that the best possible education reform would be one based on good old market theory. Public education, the analysis went, was a government monopoly, and, teachers and school administrators, freed from the discipline of the market, as in all government monopolies, had no incentive to control costs or deliver high quality. That left them free to feather their own nest. Obviously, the solution was to subject public education to the rigors of the market. Put the money the public collected for the schools into the hands of the parents. Let them choose the best schools for their children. Given a genuine choice among schools, parents would have a strong incentive to choose the ones that were able to produce the highest achievement at the lowest possible cost, driving achievement up and costs down.

At first, there was little appetite among the public for this approach. But, in time, many people, both Republicans and Democrats, seeing the cost of public education steadily rise with no corresponding improvement in student performance, began to blame the school bureaucracy and the teachers’ unions. They saw charter schools as a way to get away from both. All of these people, both those driven by ideology in the form of market theory and those driven by anger at the “educrats” and the teachers unions, found that they could agree on charter schools. A coalition of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Wall Street investors put their money behind the cause and the die was cast. The U.S. Department of Education then jumped in with both feet. Choice and markets, in the form of the charter movement, began to drive the American education reform agenda in a big way.

The theory is neat as pin and as American as apple pie. But what if it is not true? What if it does not predict what actually happens when it is put into practice?

For the theory to work, parents would have to make their decisions largely on the basis of information about student performance at the schools from which they can choose. But it turns out that they don’t do that. American parents seem to care most about their children’s safety. Wouldn’t you? Then they prefer a school that is close to home. At the secondary school level, many appear to care a lot more about which schools have the most successful competitive sports programs, rather than which of them produce the most successful scholars. How many trophies in the lobby of the entrances to our schools are for academic contests? If the theory was working the way it is supposed to, you would expect that the first schools to be in trouble would be the worst schools, the ones with the worst academic performance. But any school superintendent will tell you that the most difficult task a superintendent faces is shutting down a school — any school — even if its academic performance is in the basement. How could this be? Does it mean that parents don’t care at all about academic performance? I don’t think so.

But it does mean that, if they have met teachers at that school that seem to really care about their children, take a personal interest in them and seem to be decent people, they are likely to place more value on those things than on district league tables of academic performance based on standardized tests of basic skills, especially if they perceive that school to be safe and it is close to home.

The theory doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in theory (because most parents don’t place academic performance at the top of their list of things they are looking for in a school) and it doesn’t work in practice, either. How do we know that? Because, when we look at large-scale studies of the academic performance of charter schools versus regular public schools, taking into account the background of the students served, the results come out within a few points of each other, conferring a decisive advantage on neither. It is certainly true that some charter schools greatly outperform the average regular public school, but it is also true that some regular public schools greatly outperform the average charter school.

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