I have heard researcher Marc Tucker speak on several panels on international education and always found him compelling. He is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and author of “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading System.”
In this blog, he makes a point that seems lost in the current push for expanded school choice: “A growing number of countries are surpassing the United States in student performance and are spending less per student than the United States. Not one has used choice and market incentives to do it…Wherever these theories have been turned into policy in the field of education, they have not produced the advertised results. They have neither raised student performance nor lowered costs at the scale of a state, province or nation. The record actually shows that they can even make things worse.”
We keep fretting about all the countries outpacing us academically without acknowledging that they’re doing so by focusing intensely on teacher quality. Why don’t we follow their successful game plans rather than scurry down the single reform road of vouchers and charters that thus far — according to the creditable research — isn’t leading to success? The state Legislature has just about made charters its only reform strategy and its only new investment.
While Georgia ought to welcome innovation and fresh approaches in all schools, it shouldn’t ignore the proven role of improved teacher education and quality.
If doctors in China or Finland had a treatment that was improving cancer cure rates, we would go over, study it and bring it back here. In education, we often observe the successful methods being employed elsewhere and then come back and cleave to politically driven models that research suggests won’t make much difference.
And Tucker’s piece explains why. This is a short excerpt of a long Ed Week blog. Please read his full piece before commenting:
By Marc Tucker
We know that the way to drive quality up and price down is to create a market and let competition in that market do its magic.
So it seems obvious that, if we want to improve student performance and drive down the skyrocketing costs of education, we need to create effective markets in education and lubricate those markets with choice.
But do we really know all that? What I have just stated is the theory behind some of the most popular education reform strategies in the United States today.
First, we need to look under the rug of the theory. The theory says that, given choices, consumers will seek to maximize the value they are looking for in the product or service the industry offers. The whole theory underlying the voucher and charter movements requires that assumption. But the evidence leads elsewhere. Parents are first and foremost looking for schools they regard as safe. Safety trumps everything else. Next, everything being equal, they are looking for schools that are close to the student’s home. Beyond that, different things matter to different people. Many, at the secondary level, are looking for schools with the strongest possible competitive sports programs. The quality of the academic program at the school often comes way down the list in the United States. You can advocate increased choice because you value choice in a free society, but you cannot advocate choice because it will improve student performance. It won’t, either in theory or in practice.
What really calls into question the idea that parents first and foremost seek schools for their children that maximize their academic achievement is what happens when the authorities try to close schools with abysmal student performance.
Communities across the country rise up in anger when an administration proposes to shut down its poor-performing schools and those who are angriest are the parents of the students currently in those schools. According to the theory, that cannot happen, but it does, all the time.
That is because most parents, apart from the factors I mentioned above, look for teachers who seem to care about their kids, places where their children are comfortable and where people know them. They want a school with a friendly staff and a principal who will solve the problems that parents bring to the principal’s office. Apparently, when they have all this in a school that is close to home and seems safe, they will take that any day over another school that might have higher test scores, but is an unknown on these other points. Education reformers may want parents to make choices on the basis of student test scores, but they don’t. And that blows a giant hole in the theory.
But there is another, deeper reason that the market theory is problematic. Consider why one school produces students with higher test scores than another. A famous 1965 U.S. Government report authored by a team headed by University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman found that the one of the most important factors explaining student performance was the socio-economic background of the other students in the school. Parents, of course, know this, so when they can, they move to the school districts serving the wealthiest and best-educated parents they can afford to be associated with. School choice is actually severely restricted in the United States even where it appears to be available. Poor kids cannot choose to get their schooling in rich kids’ school districts. They can’t even choose to get their schooling in districts that are only slightly richer than their own. What kind of choice is that, when we know that the parent’s education background makes such a big difference in education outcomes?
This point about the influence of the customers on the quality of the service in the education arena is important for another reason. Think, for a moment about another industry with which we are all familiar: the grocery business. Go out to the wealthy suburbs and you will find a wide variety of grocery stores, everything from Costco to Whole Foods, Safeway to the local convenience store. But go to the inner city and it may be impossible to find any grocery store at all. Why? Because the big chains can’t make money there. But, you say, that isn’t true in education. Why? Because state and federal categorical programs provide extra money for the poor and minorities, per pupil expenditures are sometimes higher in many big city school systems than in some of the nearby suburbs. But so are the costs. Our inner city systems have high concentrations of handicapped students, homeless students, and students who live in homes where English is not spoken. Even though there is money there, the costs are so high as to make it very difficult to offer a high quality service and still break even.
Ah, you say, but what about the best known of the charter management companies? Don’t they show that I am wrong, that competent providers will seek out the communities that most need competent providers? Actually, I don’t think so. How many of the people who are likely to read this blog are likely to enroll their own children in the Green Dot schools? Very, very few, I would guess. They are good enough for other people’s children but not your own, I will wager.
In the end, the choice system and its market incentives will not improve average student performance, but it will, over time, work to make good schools better and bad schools worse. Is that what we want?
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog