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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Teachers And Their Unions

One of the segments from “Waiting for Superman” that stuck in my head is the following statement by Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter:

It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.

The distinction between teachers and their unions (as well as those of other workers) has been a matter of political and conceptual contention for long time. On one “side,” the common viewpoint, as characterized by Alter’s slightly hyperbolic line, is “love teachers, don’t like their unions.” On the other “side,” criticism of teachers’ unions is often called “teacher bashing.”

So, is there any distinction between teachers and teachers’ unions? Of course there is.

People who disagree with policies traditionally supported by teachers’ unions, or support policies that unions tend to oppose, are not “anti-teacher.” That’s kind of like arguing that fighting against environmental regulations is tantamount to hating members of the National Wildlife Federation. It’s certainly true that the rhetoric in education can cross the line (on both “sides”), and extreme, motive-ascribing, anti-union statements are understandably interpreted as “bashing” by the teachers that comprise those unions. Some of the discourse involving unions and policy is, however, from my (admittedly non-teacher) perspective, more or less substantive.

So, you can “love teachers and disagree with their unions,” but don’t kid yourself – in the majority of cases, disagreeing with unions’ education policy positions represents disagreeing with most teachers. In other words, opposing unions certainly doesn’t mean you’re “bashing” teachers, but it does, on average, mean you hold different views than they do.

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Unworkable "solutions"

This letter is in response to a Dispatch Op-Ed column published Wednesday, January 25th.

Dear Ms. Smith,

Your January 25 Dispatch column starts by lamenting “More and more money, a lot of tinkering, constant reforms and so little change,” and worrying because “The recession and state budget woes set off alarms, warning that many education needs can’t be met if we keep this up.” But then your suggestions are in large part old suggestions, unworkable, or expensive.

Year-round school, four-day school weeks, education via technology, state-leveraged purchases (buses, etc.), “best practices”/reports, and prefab buildings (“trailers”) have all been around for a while. And who will pay for the air conditioning needed for year-round school? How much expensive investment will techno-ed require if it is broadly applied in all schools? And many schools already temporarily use prefab classrooms to address population fluctuations.

You mention exempting prevailing wage. So, is it a new idea to pay for tax cuts by taking it out of working people’s income? You complain about “More and more money,” but apparently money taken from workers doesn’t count. Your suggestions don’t really seem to be against spending money. How will orphanages be paid for? Don’t you think that eliminating grade levels would require greater expenditures on personnel, software, and planning/ oversight? Do you agree with the governor that this could all be paid for by effectively eliminating collective bargaining for educational employees?

Statewide collective bargaining for salary or salary and fringes would be interesting. Do you actually think the well-to-do suburban schools would reduce their present levels to some overall average? Would the state raise all poor schools to the level of Upper Arlington, or even to a state-average level? We already have a ridiculously low minimum salary schedule.

Moreover, collective bargaining involves many more IMPORTANT aspects beyond salary, such as working conditions, fair and professional treatment, due process in discipline, sensible educational policy, and more. How would a state-level bargaining entity deal with such questions coming from over six hundred districts? Either the local boards would have to deal with this – eating up much of the “savings” – or you intend that such matters would no longer be considered. If the latter, then you would diminish the profession.

Without these options teachers have no way to demand respect, no real way to help mold policy, no way to counteract prejudice, nepotism, vendettas, foolish board policy, and other matters that harm teachers, students, and the educational process.

You end with: “Ohio can either greatly increase systemwide productivity or continue to rely on more local taxes, more district cuts and doing less with less.” Are those the only options? Why are you willing to frame the options as increase local taxes and make district cuts versus taking needed funds out of workers’ standard of living (I know: part of it – you think – would come from “productivity”)– but you don’t even mention calling for higher, progressive taxes to “stop the cuts in important areas such as preschool, the arts and foreign languages”? Is this any different from Tea Party types who MUST balance the budget by cutting the safety net but won’t touch taxing millionaires?

Finally, I am shocked by your asking a Republican governor and legislature, which supposedly hates “big government,” “Tzars,” and the federal Department of Education, to set up a “a board, which would have authority over early childhood, elementary, secondary and higher education, and could make the system function more cohesively.” What happened to “local control”? And even if local boards continue to exist in some form, isn’t this super board, as conservatives like to say, “just another level of worthless, expensive bureaucracy”?

All in all, I don’t think Einstein would be pleased with your column. It doesn’t seem that different from the same old easy (to say) fixes and politically oriented silver bullets. Much of it is entirely impossible to implement - for political and economic reasons; some cannot be universally or properly implemented; some is destructive of a valuable profession.

And your selection of types to serve on the “expert panel” is astounding: “certified public accountants, economists, futurists and technologists and perhaps be chaired by Ohio’s state auditor.” These are the “experts” – not one of them is connected to education in any way. None of them is qualified to understand education! Clearly, you are looking at money, not the education of kids. Would you make the same recommendation regarding a medical practice “expert panel” and keep everyone connected to medicine off the panel? Maybe, if you worked for a health insurance company.

Education doesn’t change because the power structure won’t deal with the real problems and people who have a public platform make proposals like yours that serve the power structure.

Yours - Tom Harker
Retired School Teacher.

Rhee cloaks her partisan agenda

Michelle Rhee was in Ohio yesterday, and had a Q&A with StateImpact. A few of her answers raised eyebrows.

Q.What are your thoughts on Gov. John Kasich; do you think you have his support in these efforts?

A: It’s very interesting. John Kasich is a Republican, I’m a Democrat, so we certainly don’t agree on all issues. But as it pertains to education and education reform, I have found Gov. Kasich to be a very, very strong proponent of reform.

What people label themselves as is a matter of personal preference, but one isn't hard pressed to notice that Rhee spent the better part of 2011 working very closely with Republican governor's and finding so few friends in the Democratic party that her lobbying front group "StudentsFirst" had to go out and hire a PR flack. You don't have to take our word for it though. Leaked in a memo, Rhee spoke of her "Waiting for Superman" event with the governor being designed to boost the governor's flagging approvals

Drive to Cleveland!
@ 6:10 Governor Kasich will start the viewing of Waiting for Superman. Margaret Spelling will give a pre-taped special message at the beginning. Mafara will be on site.
(NOTE: WFS will be broadcast via webcam to six other town hall meetings through out the state. The locations were chosen based on districts where we need to sure up support for the Governor’s budget. It’s also being broadcast via webcam for house parties that were put together by the Partnership for Ohio’s Future.)

Did we also mention that Rhee's lobby group helped craft parts of SB5? They did. So when she talks about how popular her agenda is, being reminded it was defeated 62%-38% isn't being unkind, it's being truthful.

This, however, wasn't the Q&A that raised our eyebrows the most.

Q. It seems that some of the things that you stand for (like tying performance to teacher pay and opposing last-hired, first-fired) have really come to be synonymous with the Republican Party’s reform efforts and anti-union, anti-liberal (agenda) in Ohio. How did that develop in your own personal belief system?

A: For example last-in, first-out basically says that if you’re the last teacher hired, you must be the first teacher fired at the time of a layoff. Makes absolutely no sense. Nobody wants layoffs to occur, but if they do have to occur then we have to do our best to ensure that the best teachers, the most highly effective teachers are maintained in the system. So I don’t see that as a Republican point of view, I don’t see that as a Democratic point of view, I see that as a pro-kid stance.

When asked about how she balances her claims to be a Democrat with her alliances with Republican governor's, she avoids the question altogether. Given how easy it is to document her Republican bona fides, that come as no surprise.

Rhee could have pivoted away form that uncomfortable question with all manner of responses. But as if to further prove our point that corporate education reformers all have a fetish for teachers losing their jobs, Rhee couldn't help herself and responded with an answer wholly about teachers losing their jobs. It's seems pathological.

The fact that Rhee and her lobby group have to resort to such contortions so early in their efforts is no surprise. We've long ago documented how deceptive they are about their agenda, and SB5's massive defeat by actual voters demonstrates they might be wise to keep their corporate education reform agenda cloaked - because when that agenda is exposed, people really don't like what they see.