March 24, 2010
Something dawned on me while I was reading about the failure of standardized testing to improve the quality of public education.
Testing is an attempt to use means other than the market to perform a market role.
Think about it. How does the market ensure quality? It puts producers in competition with each other in the market. The producers who offer a product with a higher price and lower quality lose out to the producers who do better. But people have to be able to make choices for the winners to emerge and then be trounced by even better producers.
In public schooling, there is no real competition. A school can produce a poor quality product at a really high price — and they are — and suffer no consequences in the marketplace. A disgruntled customer (a parent) can’t just demand his or her money back and try another provider.
So how do you get accountability without a market? Tests are the only real way. But if tests actually told you what you wanted to know, which they don’t, what do you do about it? Even when tests tell us schools are failing, nothing radical changes. The kids who are zoned for that school still go there. Money still flows to that district. Sometimes individuals schools close, and the students are bused to other, nearby, nearly identical schools. Sometimes teachers are fired in droves. But does that help? Is there any evidence that that helps anyone?
The only way to introduce market accountability into education is to introduce a market into education. That’s been tried to an extent with vouchers and charter schools. But again, measuring these programs’ success always centers on standardized testing. And the benchmark is always whether the students in charter and private schools (with vouchers) perform better on them than the students at nearby public schools.
Here’s my thought: in any free, competitive market, you’ll have a good or service available at a variety of prices and qualities. Of course there are levels of freedom and competitiveness. There is no totally unregulated, legal market in America. But let’s take the market for food for example. You can pay a lot for filet mignon, or you can pay a little for beans. Both will keep you alive and fill you up, but they cost different amounts to buy.
I propose that a free, unregulated market for education would be the same. You can pay for Harvard prep, or you can pay for tech school. Both will provide educational value, but they’ll cost different amounts to buy.
Here’s where I think most people would agree with me. And here’s where I will lose most of them: I think that’s as good as it gets.
People see education as the key to America’s upward mobility and meritocracy, and the idea that poor kids would get a worse education than rich kids is a social evil that must be eliminated, in our lifetimes! Throw money at it, stat!
Fact is, poor kids get worse public educations than rich kids, even when the state spends more money per pupil on them.
We’ve got to first face facts about education, then privatize it, thereby introducing a market where there was none, and lastly let the market do to education what it’s done for food, medicine, clothing and other necessities: made it cheaper, move available, and higher quality.
This is long and rambling, but I think I’m on to something. I care so much about public education. I need to think about this some more and write something that makes sense.