Market-Driven Rhetoric

I increasingly hear folks like Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravitch criticize America’s current experiments in education reform as “market-driven” or “corporate.” On some level, I understand what they mean. But on another level, it’s worth considering what kind of assumptions this language implies.

First of all, what makes a reform “market-driven”? Well, Weingarten and Ravitch are usually referring to the increasing use of student test-score growth to evaluate teachers; the dismissal of those teachers who are low-performing; and the opening up of more charter schools. And that’s fair on a superficial level. Education, like health care, does not lend itself to a free-market solution. And accountability and competition are indeed hallmarks of a free market.

But seriously now. Accountability and competition are more than just that. At their best, and that is a huge caveat, they are integral to how human beings function—which is why they exist at the heart of many institutions that we hold dear. Elections, for example, rely on accountability and competition. Does that make them bad? No. Does it make them vulnerable to gaming and in need of supervision? Yes.

Accountability and competition are also hallmarks of other things….like Sports, for example. Consider the evils of “corporate” high-school soccer and “market-driven” tee-ball. (In fact, it would be fun to see what would happen if you told a high-school football coach that he could not use touch downs to assess player performance—because, after all, the player cannot control the weather, the other team, the rest of his team, etc.)

More to the point, education, like health care, is not and never has been (and never will be) a free market. The use of this kind of rhetoric is calculated, but not remotely accurate.

For example, the vast majority of American teachers are not now (and never have been) subject to dismissal for a failure to improve student test scores. Even in DC, most teachers are still not evaluated based on test scores. They are evaluated by their principals and master educators. We do not consider that market-driven. (Although perhaps we should, since most private-sector employees are evaluated by their bosses as well.)

Charter schools do indeed inject more competition to the education system. But how many of our kids are actually in charter schools? About 5%, according to the Department of Education. More kids attend private schools.

So why all the anxiety about market-driven reforms? The fear is that these kinds of policies will eventually become common place. And it is true that charter schools and value-added evaluations are growing in practice every day. In 1999, only 2% of our kids attended charter schools.

But this kind of pre-emptive fear-mongering is not helping anyone. If we are to focus on what works in education—and stay very disciplined in looking for solutions—then we can’t rule out entire classes of ideas just because they have been effective in the private sector. After all, one thing this country still does better than any other is to generate productivity and innovation in large groups of people known as companies. These companies do a massive amount of research on basic human behavior: How do people work? What motivates them? How can we make employees happy? While it may feel good to reject this kind of knowledge, it is unwise.

What we need in this country is not market-based reforms or nonprofit-based reforms; what we are human-driven, evidence-based reforms.

Both sides of this debate have a tendency to latch on to policy agendas with very little regard for how real human beings actually function. And what we have found after decades of trying and failing is that no policy, no matter how well-intentioned, will work without considering the human beings who must implement it. Without measuring what actually works, what actually does not and listening to the teachers, parents, principals and most of all the students affected, we will just keep arguing in circles, with only the talking points changing.

EducationAmanda Ripley