Irrational faith in markets

I wish to address an interesting question. Can the introduction of markets, quasi-markets and choice into public education make it more effective? Firstly, you have to accept the premise of the question; you need to agree that there are more and there are less effective ways of going about teaching things to children. This seems obvious to me but there are eccentric characters out there who will question it.

And what do I mean by the introduction of such markets? I am talking about efforts to make state schools look more like businesses in the private sector, subject to competition but with increased freedom around how to operate. This includes initiatives such as charter schools in the U.S., academies and free schools in the U.K. and independent public schools in Australia. Other possible arrangements in the future could include transferable education vouchers that parents can spend on a school of their choosing.

I do believe that these arrangements have some benefits. I was never convinced about the consultants who worked for local authorities in the U.K. and who came into schools to further particular agendas. And I also think that schools should be able to recruit their own staff; something that many state-run systems centralise and do on behalf of schools.

These market-style initiatives also allow the opportunity for ‘proof of principle’ schools to arise. Many good ideas simply cannot get off the ground or are quickly stifled in monolithic systems if they don’t accord with the prevailing orthodoxy. It is hard to imagine anything like the Ark chain of academies or Michaela Community School in the old U.K. system and, whatever you think of it, KIPP required the advent of Charter Schools in the U.S.

However, specific cases do not demonstrate that such policies work to improve the whole system. In fact, I think that too much faith has been placed in these organisational measures. Without winning the argument about methods, we are doomed to repeat the failures of the past under new and shiny logos.

Why is this? Well, it is assumed that if parents have a choice then they will choose more effective schools over less effective ones. Let us set aside, for a moment, the question of whether parents really do have much of a choice under these models. This matter would make a blog post of its own. 

I think parental choice should work well for issues of behaviour management. If a school has poor behaviour then this will be manifest and obvious. Generally, this should drive better behaviour policies. However, you will also get behaviour sink schools as the parents of disruptive students remove them from mainstream schools that have what they perceive to be unreasonable behaviour policies and send them to the more permissive ones which will no doubt spring-up to cater for this demand.

However, how is a parent to judge teaching standards? Many teachers don’t know what effective teaching looks like so how can parents tell? An education takes about 12 years and so the results of failure are not immediately obvious. Transparency over results will help but these are not perfect measures and can be spun.

After all, there’s a sucker born every minute. The theory of choice assumes parents have the information and understanding to make the right choices. But we see the failure of markets such as this all the time. There are expensive cosmetic products with sciencey-sounding ingredients that clearly enough people buy to make them worth marketing. I’ve mentioned before that my local pharmacy stocks homeopathic products right next to proper drugs and that they are packaged in a similar way. They cannot work, by any known scientific laws and yet, presumably, people buy them. The educational equivalent, of course, will be schools spouting psychobabble that parents will not have the requisite knowledge to properly analyse.

Our friends on the right are likely to interupt at this point and say, ‘So what? Parents should have the freedom to choose; the right to use their money as they wish, even if we think they’ve made the wrong choice. It is not up to a nanny state to impose these choices upon them.’ 

This is a respectable ideological stance. However, it does not actually address the question that I asked at the start of this post. It is quite beside it. The question that I want answered is whether all of this will make schools in general more effective. Freedom may be desirable but these ideas have been sold as a way to make schools better.

And let’s just hang on a minute before we get all Adam Smith about it. A parent choosing a government-funded school is spending the taxpayers money, not their own. Are we really saying that it is ethical to take money from a 25-year-old, single nurse and then give it to a parent to spend on fluffy nonsense?

I do think that these new models of school will be part of our future and I do see advantages to the freedoms that they may bring. Good regulation can mitigate some of my concerns. However, it is quite naive to think that by tinkering about with administrative arrangements you can fix education and avoid the carnage of the pedagogical battlefield. 

There are many wars still to fight so keep your swords sharp.


11 thoughts on “Irrational faith in markets

  1. Agreed on all counts Greg – I wrote a blog about the whole parental choice aspect and the actual cost of educating a child.

    If educational vouchers were introduced there is nothing to stop them being means tested, reduced or increased in value depending on political whim, etc.

    The impact this would have on low and middle income families is not one that most fully understand as it is currently taxpayers money alone. I also think that ultimately we would end up with a two tier system anyway. Therefore, like public schools in Britain with their strict ethos (although I hear this is changing to some extent but I expect if results go down or oxbridge don’t accept as many then there will be a sharp reversal of policy) some will be prized and oversubscribed and others will have to deal with the remainder of the children or those who can’t afford to top up the vouchers. Will there be a certain amount of hours paid with parents having to contribute to extra-curricular activities? This could undermine the importance of music programmes which teach traditional instruments to children and lend them as well.

    In which case do we end up with a two tier system? The only thing I would say is that there seems to be a concerted effort to academise schools in poorer areas, see the definition of a coasting school for example. To be fair, they are the worst offenders too when it comes to adhering to child centred philosophies even when it is obviously detrimental to the whole school.

    I do think freeing heads up will have a positive effect over time but it will not be enough to prevent the schools with shiny new logos you talk about. Indeed a read of the free school applications that have been approved only serves to emphasise your point – secondaries tend to be trad but primaries are still tied to Blooms, some crazy layouts and ‘nurture groups’ fully incorporated into the set up. I did despair more than a little but I am heartened by Wilshaw and Gibbs setting up the debate in the most explicit terms yet regarding social mobility so that the those schools who adopt a more trad approach or are less progressive do have something to back up their approach.

    Still can’t help but feel that GIbb’s last speech on social mobility should have been delivered by a member of the Labour Party and not a Conservative. Strange times we live in but I believe you are right about the wars are just starting to begin.

  2. Greg,
    What you should expect first from free markets is more variety. That includes more variety in quality of outcomes. That would happen because parents have varied choices, smaller organizations are more flexible and separate suppliers would try to differentiate their service.

    From that you will get both better and worse outcomes according to any metric. It then becomes easy to cherry pick either several better or several worse outcomes. So everyone has to be careful drawing conclusions.

    The exception is those that think a lower spread in outcomes is the most important outcome they should always favor a single government supplied monopoly.

    For the rest of us there are lots of ways to decide. Do we get a better median result? Do those in the top say 30% catch up with the top 10% under a monopoly. Over time do even the lowest 10% do better or worse.

    You should also expect the role of an independent regulator and assessor would be much more important.

  3. Greg, what I think you have done here is compared not markets with public service, but rather the exchange of one form of corporatism with another, because in each case you feel the power of state compulsion would remain the basis for schools. This little poster kind of captures the problem. In case the link doesn’t work, it says “Corporatism is not capitalism. Corporatism is the destruction of the free market and the creation of corporate monopolies achieved through the regulatory and monopoly power of strong central government.”

    I don’t actually have anything against strong central government, but the cronyism and corruption that invariably accompany it have to assailable. With the power of compulsory attendance laws, they simply are not vulnerable to anything that people, or indeed the strong central government itself, can do.

    I find that there is room for more innovative thinking if one escapes from the idea of school altogether – rather than thinking of how to improve schools, one thinks of how better to raise children. I got over that hump with great difficulty myself – I read Ivan Illich some 18 years ago but just didn’t get it. I have to credit Matt Hern (whose education content ideas I don’t like at all BTW) and his book “Getting society out of school” for finally allowing me to understand that one could actually raise children without school in the modern world. I can now also read John Taylor Gatto with appreciation.

    Ironically, I have little doubt that if compulsory schooling disappeared today, people would very quickly reassemble themselves into something that looks very similar. But the differences would be numerous, and important. The improvement you seek to bring into practice would effortlessly emerge and remain a healthy segment, and might even become dominant. Schools would be immune to the forces of bureaucratic self-service, simply because the people involved – particularly teachers – would have the capacity to leave if those forces become too stifling.

    What I call this ideal state, rather than market-driven, is teacher entrepreneurship. Parent choice is actually a red herring – it’s teacher choice that will save the day, and that is worth fighting for.

  4. Firstly, it’s not just about effectiveness, freedom is a good in itself. (I happen to think that more freedom and competition *does* make things more effective but even if it didn’t would still be worthwhile in itself.)

    You need to have more faith in the parents to choose. There was a whole episode of ‘Yes Prime Minister’ about this and the whole ‘how will they know what a good school is” was pure Sir Humphrey I’m afraid. They can ask other parents whose kids go to the school already, they can look at league tables. They can choose what job to apply for, what car to buy, where to go on holiday, they can probably decide where their children can go to school.

    This is about the competition of ideas, there has been no competition of ideas in Education for decades. Let the schools be free, those school and teachers who follow bad ideas in Discipline and Teaching will fail and get sacked and those who follow good ideas will take over.

    Actually what will happen is, the teachers following bad ideas will suddenly change their minds once their jobs are on the line. When the SATs came in, all the Primary teachers suddenly decided that teaching in groups was a bad idea and teaching traditionally was a good idea. That only happened once their results started to affect them, when they were teaching the kids badly but no-one knew they couldn’t have cared less.

  5. Jennifer Buckingham says:

    There are few school choice (education market) advocates who would argue that there should be no regulation or accountability for schools that are managed by private providers. Even so-called independent schools in Australia are highly regulated – too highly perhaps. When it comes to private management of schools in the state sector such as charter schools, I think it would take a long time for charter schools to have a competition effect and lift the performance of public schools across the board, but I do think that if the charter school managers are well-chosen that there are potentially very positive effects for children in low-performing state schools. In the U.S. and in England, we see numerous examples of high impact charter schools. They usually those adopt traditional teaching methods and rigorous content and assessment, and are hugely popular with parents. In places where successive governments have persistently failed to provide a decent quality of schooling, it would be irrational to expect that they suddenly will improve by doing more of the same.

    • Jennifer Buckingham says:

      * They usually adopt.
      ** By more of the same, I mean more of what they have been doing, not more of what high impact charter schools do.

      I really should not type on the train.

      • I certainly agree that there are examples of highly effective charter schools. I also think that this more independent sort of school is a key part of the future. I just worry that they are being sold as a quick fix. A paper was published at the weekend in the UK (I think it was from the IoE – Becky Francis?) showing that academies don’t (yet) outperform standard state schools (although some of them clearly do). This was remarked upon by opponents of the programme as evidence that the government had been wrong to pursue them. Certainly, the UK policy of forcing ‘coasting’ schools to become academies implies that they think this will necessarily lead to better performance.

        I think the role of independent schools in Australia is instructive, given that they occupy a larger proportion of the sector than in the UK. It is not hard to find examples of such schools celebrating learning styles or selling themselves on therapeutic sounding interventions such as positive psychology. If the market was working well then they would be trying to convince us that they were the best place for teaching kids to read etc.

  6. You are right that even independent schools are prone to progressivism and other nonsense, and that parents choose, and pay for them, regardless. To understand why this is, and why it’s OK, we have to differentiate the legal rights and duties that the state has if schooling is compulsory, from the legal rights and duties that parents have if it is not.

    It is within the compulsory system that the duty exists for government to ensure that schools are using best practices. As you know, this is not happening despite decades of efforts such as your own, and as I’ve posted elsewhere, it’s because of the perverse incentives that exist within bureaucracies, where size of empire, job security, and so on grow from failing to solve problems, not from solving them. Thus the entire bureaucracy has developed an insatiable and unalterable appetite for teacher failure, will stop at nothing to sustain it, and “public education” is a massive fraud.

    Parents do not have a legal duty to ensure everything they provide to their child is “the best.” The consumption of junk food, of cheap crappy children’s shoes, and of stupid toys (never mind phones) attests to how imperfect parental decision-making is. But PARENTS ARE ALLOWED TO MAKE MISTAKES, and they are allowed to make mistakes that governments should not be able to make in the execution of the SAME TASK: choosing an education program. It is as much a matter of history in Australia, I believe, as it is in Canada, that the removal of children from their parents in order to give them “better” schooling does more harm than good.

    The difference between a parent and a government, however, is that a single child is at stake, and that the parent has agility that the government does not. So, the parent can look at their child and, observing something they don’t like, nimbly switch programs to change direction. Today, for example, a parent tweeted distress at seeing so much of her child’s public school work consisted of worksheets (not sure what she wanted instead, but I assume projects). If she’s in charge, she can remove the child from that school/teacher for next year, and the next, and as long as she is happy with the outcomes, she can make sure no other worksheet ever crosses his path. BUT, if she notices his learning also slips, she can nip him back into worksheet-land any time. In comparison, the government ship carries 550,000 children, and cannot turn so quickly, never mind that a single parent has little hope of turning it from its preferred path.

    In short, Greg, given the quality of decision-making being done in the compulsory system, it is absurd to resist letting parents make decisions instead on the basis that they won’t make the best ones. Parents could not possibly do worse.

    And I also think that teachers will provide better options, as individuals or in groups, co-ops, or their own companies, if released from service to the insatiable bureaucratic (union +academe + government) monkeys on their backs.

  7. I agree that markets are not panaceas and that there are problems with markets operating at the school level. One is where (outside urban areas) the local school acts effectively as a natural monopoly; another is the disruption caused by provider failure; another is the lack of information and expertise among consumers – in this case, parents.

    But I think what you are ignoring is the opportunity for competition at different levels in the supply chain. This is not surprising, given that at the moment there isn’t much of a supply chain – we operate a flat model in which teachers are expected to do pretty much everything, including designing their own instructional materials and programmes of study – something that they generally do pretty badly.

    PISA suggests that there may be benefit in teachers making more use of textbooks, which offer centrally-designed learning materials. I argue that digital technology offers the opportunity to create instructional materials that are more interactive than books, more powerful in their potential to support analytics, and which can be more flexibly sequenced. Such digital content will offer the means to encapsulate and disseminate different pedagogies. Here too is an opportunity to create a competitive market, one in which teachers are the consumers not the suppliers.

    The market for education technology suffers very few of the “natural monopoly” problems that schools suffer. There are, it is true, some problems in creating international markets when education is powerfully influenced by local curricula – but this is not an insuperable problem, given the appropriate decoupling of generic educational interactions and processes from local curriculum-related content.

    Like the proposal for a market in schools presupposes informed parents, the proposal for a more dynamic model for ed-tech also presupposes that teachers are themselves discerning buyers – and this is not an assumption that I would make at the moment. There is a need for a good quality professional press and other means by which assessments of different instructional materials (and, indirectly, of the pedagogies that they encapsulate) can be contested.

    The need for such a market is underlined, not only by the gross inefficiency of teachers trying to create their own instructional resources but also by the desperate lack of contested debate in educational academia. This was highlighted in the UK by the 1998 Tooley Report. I see no prospect of turning around the whole academic culture – (here is Rob Coe musing along the same lines: through to 07:31).

    What is not contested in academic journals can and in these circumstances must be contested in markets. So long as government ensures that the market in ed-tech remains open and competitive, the two forms of contest will be mutually re-enforcing: intellectual and professional contest about what works in the classroom will be stimulated by the commercial contest in the marketplace for the tools of the trade that support effective instruction at scale.

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