6 ways market-based education reform has destroyed public education and how we can fix it.

“The market will solve our education problems!” was the rallying cry of every education reformer since 2001. If we just allow standards, accountability, consequences, choice and competition to work their magic, our capitalist economy would do what it does best – push bad products down the drain and allow the best of the best to rise to the top. For education this meant the bad schools would fail and become obsolete, and the good schools would donate and continue to thrive.

Market-based education reform was the silver bullet.

However, the market is a tricky thing when applied to an institution where people are the inputs and outputs. And it wasn’t long before market-based reform started to crash and burn.

Even after his market-based policies weren’t working out, President George W. Bush touted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2011 speech to the US Chamber’s Small Business Summit. “You measure everyday, that’s why you’re successful business people,” he said. “I mean, you know what your business is doing. I believe we should extend that same principle to our public schools.”

Watch the 56 sec video clip here

And he did apply that principle to US public schools. However, by the time Bush gave that speech to the US Chamber, NCLB had been failing for 10 years. But it wasn’t from lack of high standards.  In fact, Bush set a very high standard for his own education reform, when he outlined his NCLB policy goals. One goal in particular, was the most audacious objective ever set in education. He proclaimed that because of NCLB, 100% of US students would read on grade level by the school year 2013-2014. Not only was that goal unrealistic, but it was statistically impossible. He and his reformers moved forward anyway. 

The 2013-2014 school year has come and gone, and in many states over 50% of students are failing the reading portion of their high-stakes assessments every year. Some studies claim the achievement gap is wider than ever before. 

That didn’t stop more market-based reforms. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT)  was the same philosophy, different jingle. His ambition was that competition and reward – two aspects of the market economy – would motive teachers and students to do better on tests. Instead, President Obama’s RTTT only exacerbated an already failing NCLB 

Politicians go to business summits to talk education policy. However, educators do actual research and access academic journals to study the problems with market-based school reform. Here are just a few reform failures featured in academic, researched-based publications over the last couple of years.

1. Goodhart’s Law

Good economists will the remember Goodhart’s Law when making policy. Charles Goodhart was a famous economist, who warned, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” And in an article in the Peabody Journal of Education, O’Neill (2013) refers to this while he examined market-based education reform. The measure (the test) has become the target, and educators chase that target. The results are disastrous for the learning environment. Teachers, who are understandably worried about accountability measures, teach to the test. In turn, schools become test prep factories rather than institutions for learning. Students become focused on the target as well. Students become test taking drones, while critical thinking is compromised. Goodhart’s Law is in full effect in many of today’s schools.

2. Education Industrial Complex 

People have been trying to figure out a way to make money off education for many years. Market-based reform has made that possible. In an article for the Anthropology Education Journal, Yang (2010) calls education reform an industrial complex and targets anyone who profits from it as being part of the problem. Obviously he means testing companies and publishers who develop the curriculum and assessments.  However, Yang (2010) goes further to include, “all the private tutoring companies that profit from Title I schools; all the people in the academy who receive federal grants to study the achievement gap as if it were a phenomenon that exists outside of the logic of public schooling; all the non-profit educational consultants who coach schools into doing more with fewer resources,; all the grant makers who tie test scores to their giving; and finally, all the teachers who pay to be credentialed” (Yang 2010, p. 145). Even worse, the education industrial complex has turned students into commodities.

3. A Giant Bricolage 

School leaders will do anything to achieve in this market-based, data driven environment. Principals and assistant principals spend their days chasing a target usually communicated as a school grade. Koyama (2014) asserts, under the immense pressure of accountability, principals strived to achieve by using bricolage – whatever comes to hand, such as intensive reading programs, test prep, data mining, professional development, and even an extra quarter of school in some cases.  Unfortunately, these efforts have done little to move the student achievement meter. Even worse, teachers feel less supported by administrators than ever before and are leaving in droves.

4. Exodus

While administrators are breaking their backs trying to negotiate the demands of the state and achieve the almighty A+ school grade, their teachers are walking out the back door. The Alliance for Excellence in Education detailed in their report, On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers, that half of new teachers leave the profession before year 5. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Barnwell (2015) a teacher in an urban school district, described his exodus from k-12 education as being caused by incessant demands of accountability and assessments by the state. When teachers are asked about why the are leaving, they typically cite lack of support by administrators, and the fact they can’t be creative because of the demands for accountability. 

5. The Death of the Intern

Market-based competition in schools is also hurting College of Education (COE) programs. In fact, the Dean of the COE at Purdue University – Maryann Santos de Barona – described market-based reform as the reason colleges of education have so many problems working with teachers and administrators in public schools. “Teachers and administrators are reluctant to let our faculty research in their classrooms, as this represents a risk that might impact test scores,” Santos de Barona said. Most COE professors will confirm, an intern friendly environment is hard to find these days when teachers’ paychecks and evaluations depend on student test scores. 

6. Joy has become obsolete 

This is rarely talked about in academic journals and never addressed in policy circles, but it’s certainly worth mentioning here. Joyful is not a popular word public school teachers use when describing their jobs these days. Happy is not a feeling students experience when they get off the bus and head into a public school building. Unfortunately, the focus on the target the market-based approach enforces has sucked even the smallest amount of joy left in the teaching and learning experience. Teaching and learning for the sake of teaching and learning no longer exists. If it can’t be measured or tied back to a standard, it isn’t happening in schools. 

Not all is lost, however.

This can all be fixed by focusing on the learning experience rather than focusing on the target. In addition, schools should be recognized as learning institutions rather than warehouses and factories for big businesses to make profits. Also, all high-stakes must be removed from learning. Once students know they can learn without consequence, student engagement will increase. Teachers should be trusted to do their jobs without unrealistic evaluations and accountability measures looming in the background.  And finally, joy can fix just about anything; bring back joy in schools because amazing things happen when people are happy.

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Barnwell, P. (2015, May 27). The Ongoing Struggle of Teacher Retention. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 28, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/05/the-ongoing-struggle-of-teacher-retention/394211/?utm_source=SFFB

Bangert, D. (2015, May 27). Awkward … Ed reform called out at Purdue. JConline – The Lafayette Journal and Courier. Retrieved May 28, 2015, from http://www.jconline.com/story/opinion/columnists/dave-bangert/2015/05/27/bangert-awkward-ed-reform-called-purdue/28031101/

Hayes, M. (2014) On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers. Alliance for Excellence in Education http://all4ed.org/reports-factsheets/path-to-equity/

Koyama, J. (2014). Principals as bricoleurs: Making sense and making do in an era of accountability. Educational Administration Quarterly 50(2) 279–304. DOI: 10.1177/0013161X13492796

 O’Neill, O. (2013). Intelligent accountability in education. Oxford Review of Education 39(1) 4-16. DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2013.764761 

Yang, K. W. (2010). Rites to reform: The cultural production of the reformer in urban schools. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 41(2) 144-160. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1492.2010.01075.x

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