Study Examines ‘Myth’ of Markets in School Systems

Senior Editor

The belief that free-market principles can be applied to K-12 systems is a guiding star for many American academic scholars and elected officials, particularly conservatives, who see expanded school choice and autonomy as means to bring large-scale improvements to education.

But a researcher based in Australia, a country that in some respects places a heavy emphasis on both school competition and independence, suggests in a recent study that market-based policies have done little to lift the performance of schools, for reasons rooted in policy, and to some degree, human behavior.

Ben Jensen, the education program director at the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank in Australia, examines policies designed to encourage school competition and autonomy, and finds that they have not produced positive results on student performance—and aren’t likely to in the future, at least as now structured.

Jensen’s research on the education market in Australia focuses on one major metropolitan area, South East Queensland, and gauges school performance through a national test used down under. His study attempts to get past what he sees as some of the methodological flaws that plague research on school competition by weighing a variety of factors that shape local school markets and parental decisionmaking, such as school performance, affordability of private schools, and capacity.

Why has competition done little to raise school performance in Australia? The reality is that most schools, even in areas with high numbers of private schools and government support for them, face little if any competition, Jensen says.

And while Australian families have much more information for judging school performance than they had in the past (one option for doing so is a website called My School), many parents continue to select their children’s schools based on factors other than academic performance, including everything from reputations for school discipline to the quality of school grounds.

The evidence of that school autonomy is yielding benefits in Australia is similarly weak, Jensen argues.

The nation’s schools may have high degrees of independence, but they suffer because they aren’t asked to follow specific, effective policies, and aren’t given enough direction on how to implement them.

Those policies include giving school leaders the power to assess teachers and giving educators meaningful feedback on their performance, Jenson writes. Absent a sufficient amount of guidance and oversight, “autonomous schools generally have the same poor practices in these crucial areas as those dictated by a centralized body,” he explains.

High-performing education systems have varying degrees of autonomy, but what they have in common is a “clearly articulated focus on effective learning and teaching, strong capacity building in schools, and implementation plans that connect high-level strategy to what happens in the classroom,” he states.

Putting these standards in place does not mean sacrificing autonomy in favor of top-heavy government involvement, Jensen says. Governments in Hong Kong, and the Canadian province of Ontario, have found the right balance, he argues.

While Jensen’s research focuses on Australia, his findings speak to debates about choice and competition in the United States, argues Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in an online essay. (Tucker also writes an opinion blog for Education Week.)

Many advocates of charter schools, for instance, say that they should be an option for parents, regardless of how well they perform academically, because they brin choice to parents, and competition to the market.

“But what if that is not true?” Tucker asks. “What if this particular market does not function that way? What if there are so many sources of market failure and those sources of failure are so hard for government to fix that increasing competition among schools not only will not but cannot lead to improved school performance overall?”
You can watch Jensen explain his findings in an interview, below.

6 thoughts on “Study Examines ‘Myth’ of Markets in School Systems

  1. Very interesting study, but it doesn’t look like it can be applied to the US situation, since it is focusing on specific Australian schools and what other schools are potential competitors.

    It would be very helpful if someone could to a similar study in the US.

  2. The free market system cannot possibly produce better education results for one simple reason: the goals of those in the free market system are not compatible with the goals of the education system.
    All you have to do is think about what you are trying to accomplish by even having an education system, regardless of what form it takes. Unless you want the schools to do nothing more than produce workers for the current needs of employers, and you think the school system has no other benefit, then there is no possible compatibility. The free market goal for each business is profit; nothing else. If you try to apply that to schools, how can you do that and still meet the other goals of the school system? Do you want the system to reject inferior raw materials? The raw materials are our children.
    What is the customer base that you are trying to sell to? Different businesses are forced to "pick" a quality level of output, and then match the quality of production factors to meet the output quality goals. How do you do that for schools if the goal is profits? Do you spend the money it takes to get the best resources, including teachers? Not if you can maximize profits with lower quality. Do you pick inferior teachers and materials in order to cut costs? You can, but if you do you won’t be meeting the goals that society places on education.
    Unless you fall into the following category, which unfortunately many people’s comments indicate that they do: If you INSIST that schools operate as cheaply as possible, including paying teachers such a low wage that you can not possibly compete with other industries for workers with the same qualifications, and then when you only attract inferior teachers, you simply blame teachers for all of society’s problems. Is that what we want?

    1. "Unless you want the schools to do nothing more than produce workers for the current needs of employers." Sadly i’ll go one step further, it has always been apparent that the purpose of the education system is to retain the economic class of the student, working class students learn to be working class adults while rich kids learn to take the reigns of power. See the research of John Taylor Gatto for extensive citations of this history and purpose.

  3. "The belief that free-market principles can be applied to K-12 systems is a guiding star for many American academic scholars and elected officials, particularly conservatives, who see expanded school choice and autonomy as means to bring large-scale improvements to education." I really wish someone would tell me what improvements they think are even possible in the US education system? Most are talking about it in general terms but very little about specifics.

    Personally I do not think it can be improved so far as outcomes goes and probably should not. I think things should go back to the way they were in the 1950-70s, before all of this experimentation started.

  4. "Those policies include giving school leaders the power to assess teachers and giving educators meaningful feedback on their performance, Jenson writes."

    This notion is the prevailing myth in the US discussion on public education as well. The idea that there are not nor have there been policies and measures in place to empower administrators to evaluate teachers is ridiculous and disingenuous.

    What is not in place is the highly suspect "junk science" of VAM. Nor should it ever be so.

    A test designed for an 8th grade student, or an 11th grade student cannot measure a teacher’s effectiveness; if it can measure anything at all, it dubiously measures that student’s performance on an artificially crafted assessment that hides "the needle in the haystack" through a series of multiple choice questions. That is laughable on its face.

    If we really want effectively measure "critical thinking" skills, then two things need to happen. First, determine more credible ends (not yet another high-stakes test as currently devised) and move backward from there to determine the best ways to teach the student those skills. Second, revisit Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dictum: "Tell me what you know."

    1. Agreed! "A test designed for an 8th grade student, or an 11th grade student cannot measure a teacher’s effectiveness." nor can it measure a student’s effectiveness. As adults we are tested on our chosen careers, not on all careers; someday we will show our students the respect they deserve by not insisting that they have no clue "what’s good for them".

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