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.