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. Tucker is also editor of “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems” (Harvard Education Press, November 2011).

By Marc Tucker

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.

So, you might say, it’s a tossup.  No, it isn’t.  The country with the most aggressive school choice system in the world is probably New Zealand.  Ted Fiske and Helen Ladd, in their book, “When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale,” report that the effect of choice systems is to draw students whose parents have higher expectations, more income and higher education levels away from the lowest performing schools only to leave high concentrations of the poorest students in those lowest performing schools.  That is certainly true in the District of Columbia, probably the most aggressive choice and charter system in the United States.  Average performance is not changed, but the better off students do better and the initially worse off do even worse.  Performance, in other words, is simply redistributed.  Is that what we want from our schools?

If you want to reduce the influence of teachers unions, and/or find something on which both major parties can agree, and/or punch the bureaucracy in the nose, and/or improve outcomes for families with more money and more education, and/or satisfy your quest for more personal freedom and/or indulge your entrepreneurial instincts, by all means support charters and choice.

 If you are looking for a way to create a school system at the scale of a nation or a state in which all students are performing at higher levels and the gap is closing between the best-performing students and those at the bottom, then be aware that there is no evidence, anywhere in the world, that choice and charters will get you there.

Don’t mistake this argument for a defense of the status quo.  It is nothing of the sort.  The United States, once the home, by common consensus, of the finest education system in the world, is now far behind the leaders in student achievement, equity and system productivity (other nations are getting much more for their money than we are).  That constitutes a genuine emergency.  In this context, choice, charters and competition are collectively a sideshow, simply because there is no evidence from any quarter that they can deliver the gains in these three quarters that are vitally necessary.

So what can deliver those gains?  And, whatever that might be, what is the evidence for them? 

Our organization has for 25 years been working on the simple premise that the first place we should be looking for ideas about how to improve achievement, equity and productivity is in the countries whose performance has been outstripping our own. 

In a nutshell, here’s what they’ve been doing:

* They have much less poverty among their children.

*They have much more equitable systems of school finance.

*They have stronger systems of early childhood education.

*They are selecting their teachers from higher ability graduates of their high schools.

*They are insisting that their teachers in training really master the subjects they are going to teach — including their elementary school teachers — and their craft as well.

*They pay their teachers much better then we do  (typically beginning teachers in those countries make as much as beginning engineers).

*They set performance standards for students at internationally benchmarked levels (not just in their native language and math but right across the whole core curriculum).

*They have a strong national or state curriculum and very high-quality exams (usually at only two points in the whole sequence of the years from the first grade to the end of secondary school) that measure mastery of the curriculum.

*They train their teachers to teach the courses they require their students to take.

*They match the standards that students are supposed to meet at the end of each key stage of their education to the requirements for being successful at the beginning of the next stage.

*They have a strong system of vocational and polytechnic education that provides students with the skills needed not only to begin rewarding careers, but also the educational qualifications they will need to go back into the postsecondary education system, whenever they need and want to.

These systems are managed so that very few youngsters fall through the cracks, almost all — including those going into vocational options — are educated to world-class academic standards and there are no dead ends.  These systems are built on the idea that the key to it all is highly educated, very well trained professional teachers who can be trusted to do the job without the need for the kinds of draconian accountability systems now being built by the United States.

That reform agenda makes sense.  Even more important, we know that it can work at a national and state scale, because we have examples of it working at that scale from Singapore to Finland, from Australia to Canada.  Until the United States embraces that agenda — all of it — we are just diddling around.