Why don't the free marketeers of education believe in, you know, the free market?

If I’m a parent, or a prospective employer, or the admissions committee of a university, what I really want to know is whether a particular young man or woman is qualified at X level, however we define that, right? I can look at the transcript and see that she had a 3.24 GPA and that tells me something. But it is presumed to only tell me something absolute within the context of her high school, and even then I know a lot less than I’d like because I may not know how good her school is or where the faculty stands with respect to grade inflation. Her class rank fills out the picture a bit – she was the 27th best student in the school – but I still don’t know anything decisive about how she compares to another student, say a young man from a couple of states away, who posted a 3.29 GPA and a class rank of 31, whose record is also in front of me.

So I buy into the neo-liberal rage for quantification and standardization because that will tell me how she really stacks up, right?

There are all kinds of problems with this entire dynamic, not the least of which is that the process of erecting the standardization mechanism on top of the educational system shifts all the emphasis to testing and sucks resources and energy out of the process of teaching. In the end you wind up with a lot of schools that are like McDonald’s: not terribly good for the health of the Republic, but at least they’re all exactly the same. And you wind up with very few schools, if any at all, that are The Chop House.

Ultimately, too much of the “thinking” here derives from a suspect assumption: we can’t trust the teachers. If we trusted teachers, then we wouldn’t need all that standardization. A B- would mean something – specifically, it’s maybe three-quarters of a standard deviation above average. If I’m the parent/admissions officer/hiring manager that sigma=+.87 rating means something I can use and trust because the system does embody standardization. We have standardized at the level of the teacher and we have done so through five mechanisms:

  • recruiting
  • training
  • evaluation (testing and narrative)
  • professional certification
  • continuing education

But our society doesn’t seem to believe that we have a trustworthy standardization at the teacher level. In some cases the distrust is fair enough, and I’ll circle back to that in a few. However, more often than not what we’re doing is buying into a cynical “bad teacher” meme, blaming the teachers for a variety of factors that are well beyond their control (over-sized classes, no financial resources, no administrative support, ridiculous working hours, unreasonable demands of testing programs, active attempts by politicians to undermine their mission, weak family support for education, pandemic of anti-intellectualism throughout the society). America’s schools are currently overrun by teachers who are far worse at their jobs than they would be if the context were better. Great teachers are now good teachers. Good teachers are now fair teachers. Fair teachers are bad teachers and bad teachers are warehouse security guards.

When you look critically at these attacks on teachers, it’s hard not to notice something: they tend to go hand-in-hand with attacks on teachers’ unions. And in the full swell of our current neo-liberal hegemony, union = evil. So all these bad teachers are being propped up by unions that don’t care about the kids and they’re being paid extravagant sums of money by hard-working and overburdened taxpayers and the only real solution is more choice because that’s the American way.

Any of this sound familiar?

Fine. Let’s consider a choice. If you’re a parent, would you rather your child be in a) a class of ten with a smart, highly trained teacher with the latest resources and plenty of time to devote to your child, or b) a class of 35 with no recent recent resources and a moderately competent teacher who’s overworked to the point of exhaustion?

Which of these cases do you think would help your child do better on the annual battery of state and federally mandated standardized tests?

One more question: do you really think that most children go to school in a place that  looks a lot more like b) than a) is the fault of the teachers or unions? If not, why is it the way it is?

The Free Market

The next time you hear somebody talking about bringing free market principles to the world of education – especially if the person is a politician standing in front of a crowd – raise your hand and ask the person why he/she doesn’t believe in free market principles.

Here’s the problem. Take any senior leader in any successful company in America. Ask him (let’s assume it’s a him for obvious reasons) if he believes he deserves his very high salary, and if so, why. My guess is that he’ll think he does important work and that the more valuable you are, the more compensation you will and should command. Ask him if the company could get somebody to do his job for half as much money and he’ll probably say sure, but you get what you pay for. Ask if he believes that these principles hold for others in his organization and he’ll likely talk about the importance of attracting and retaining top talent (odds are he’ll use those exact words, in fact) and he will probably allow that if his top competitor pays better that his company will be at a disadvantage.

This is Economics 101, first day of class.

But so many of the accomplished moneyed types complaining about “bad teachers” and the importance of education apparently don’t believe that the basic laws of economics apply to schools. Why? Because teachers aren’t paid all that well. They do better in some places than others, but by and large the actual compensation available to teachers is nowhere near what you would expect from listening to people talk about how important education is. Your child’s entire future? Yeah, let’s put that in the hands of somebody making corporate junior manager money (or less).

The truth is that every day a lot of people who’d love to teach and who’d be gangbusters at it choose another career instead. Every day, people who are already dedicated, talented teachers walk away. You may well know some of these people. The reasons sometimes have to do with money. Sometimes it’s about how impossible the job has gotten (see above). And a lot of the time it’s a function of both – they might be willing to do the job, but not at the price.

Econ 101.

No, our education system’s issues aren’t all about compensation, but that’s a significant piece of the puzzle, and until you demonstrate to me that you’re serious about your own principles, Mr. Free Marketeer, don’t expect me to trust anything you say to be more than cynical partisan hackery.

So let’s test the free market theory with respect to the case of entry-level teaching. We’ll exaggerate some numbers for effect. Say that we hypothetically doubled the compensation packages being offered to K-12 teachers. What does market theory predict will be the result?

Well, if I buy the arguments being made about “bad teachers” (I don’t, for the most part, but let’s play along for a moment), then what is currently happening is that less qualified candidates are getting those jobs because more qualified college grads are taking jobs that come with more money and fewer headaches. If I’m more qualified than Bob, I’m going to get the entry-level corporate position that pays 15% more and Bob is going to wind up teaching. He’ll be okay at it, but nothing special. He’ll burn out in four years and be replaced by another 22 year-old mid-tabler.

But what if I always wanted to teach, and now that teaching gig pays as much or more than the Marketing Coordinator gig? Sign me up. Now the better qualified candidate winds up teaching and Bob gets the marketing job (which he’ll be okay at – he may even wind up as a VP some day).

If this shift plays out thousands of times a year over the next decade, what would you predict about the impact on the students that now have me instead of Bob as their teacher?

We’re Asking the Wrong Questions

I’m not arguing against standards. Our education is the most important mission we have as a society because if you fix education, in a generation or two you will have almost magically fixed every other problem we have. We need some baselines, but we can’t let a fetish for standardization suck the excellence out of the nation. Let’s be clear – standardization is not about being good, it’s about being identical. Expressed in statistical terms, we cannot sacrifice sigma=+3 to sigma=0.

We’re never going to have a productive solution to our education mess as long as we continue to accept neo-liberal frames that dominate the vocabulary and dictate what questions we should be asking. Unfortunately, the meme machine has been so effective that even would-be progressives are occasionally caught up by an imaginary need for “metrics.” These memes serve a master, though, and that master isn’t overly concerned with the common good.

“The…Bush testing regime emphasizes minimal competence along a narrow range of skills, with an eye toward satisfying the low end of the labor market. All this sits well with a business community whose first preoccupation is ‘global competitiveness’: a community most comfortable thinking in terms of inputs (dollars spent on public schools) in relation to outputs (test scores). No one disputes that schools must inculcate the skills necessary for economic survival. But does it follow that the theory behind public schooling should be overwhelmingly economic? One of the reform movement’s founding documents is Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America’s Public Schools, by Lou Gerstner, chairman of IBM. Gerstner describes schoolchildren as human capital, teachers as sellers in a marketplace and the public school system as a monopoly. Predictably, CEOs bring to education reform CEO rhetoric: stringent, intolerant of failure, even punitive–hence the word ‘sanction,’ as if some schools had been turning away weapons inspectors.”

Obama’s Race to the Bottom Top is more of the same.

To be clear, I don’t buy the assumptions or the vocabulary of the “free marketers” one bit and they don’t, either. If they did, you’d hear more about compensation for teachers, a consideration that is as Econ 101 as it gets. Their real goal is to bust the unions, which they see as dangerous bastions of liberal thinking, and to transform the education system into a training system that will produce reliable worker bees for the engines of commerce. Quiet worker bees who don’t rock the boat.

8 replies »

  1. 1) The evidence that higher compensation = higher performance is weak at best in many vocations. Especially if you declare “higher performance” to mean “doing good for society”, in which case it turns negative very quickly. But even if it’s doing a good job with no regard to anything but the job it is very weak in most jobs that can’t be taylorized or which aren’t sales jobs.

    2) The way standards worked back in the old days (ie. all of 86) is that the universities knew about how good each school was. So, for example, because the school I went to was known to have good math education, math grades in that school were marked up a full grade by the University of British Columbia. So my B, was an A (and this was confirmed as justified when I got a scholarship grade on competitive math exams given province wide).

    It’s a fair chunk of work, but if the universities work together, it’s by no means impossible.

  2. I’m not saying that the compensation = performance thing is necessarily accurate (hey, I’ve worked in companies where the relationship was closer to being inversely proportional). And comp –> performance is an after-the-hire relationship. I’m talking more about qualifications –> compensation, which is a recruiting concern.

    In any case, this is less about those things being true than it is about the way certain folks are presumed to act on the ideology thereof.

  3. A very compelling read, especially in light of my having just seen ‘Race to Nowhere.’ We are indeed churning out a homogenized product rather than an excellent one — a student who learns to memorize and spit back and can’t think critically because he or she has never been expected to. Standardized tests – whicih I do think there is a place for, albeit a more attenuated one – do not invite critical thinking, which lies at the heart of evaluation and creative strategizing for a more positive future. My 16-year-old son sees this irony before him every day at his hyper-achieving high school in Boulder, and opts not to play the game. Unfortunately, however, the colleges where he might really shine — which offer the kind of stimulating setting with small classes and engaged professors that would excite him — still look closely at GPA (and standardized tests) for admissions criteria, and his is fair-to-middlin’.

  4. You certainly resonate with the state of affairs I have experienced since the first day I set foot as a teacher in a high school classroom over 45 years ago. While I have spent the past 40 years as a university/college faculty member, the situation in higher education is just as bad, if not worse. The corporatization of our public education system has rapidly gained ascendancy over the past 30 years. For a good analysis of how this has happened see: Simon Head, The Grim Threat to British Universities, The New York Review of Books, January 13, 2011. Head, an Oxford scholar at New York University, reviews three new books on the transformation of higher education into a corporate enterprise. He documents the targeting of British Universities under Margaret Thatcher for the use of business practices adopted from the Harvard Business School and in vogue at the time. Among these practices is the idea of Key Performance Indicators (evaluation standards) that leads us to the whole evolution of holding higher education institutions accountable in the same way one would evaluate production in a widget factory. Head concludes his article showing how this has spread to U. S. universities,
    “ The result has been that the burden of academic managerialism in the US has fallen on the teaching rather than the research side of university life, with university administrators achieving collectively what in the UK has been achieved by government fiat. The imposition of the industrial model of teaching, and especially the teaching of undergraduates, has been most damaging in the state universities below the elite level and in the two-year community colleges that, together, make up the great majority of American institutions of higher education.”
    With declining revenues, more pressure is placed on teachers to be more “productive”, that is, produce more student credit hours, more graduates, more scholarship with fewer costs per unit of production. If we cannot break the use of this corporate model as a basis of school reform, then I am afraid that our educational systems will continue to decline.

  5. Thanks, Frank and Wendy. Frank, as you know, one of the reasons I am no longer a university professor (not the only reason, but a big one) is that I saw No Child Left Behind coming for me. The accreditation process we were entering was VERY clearly aimed, early on, at a standardization that would eventually rid the school of the need for pesky, overpaid professors and replace them with what amounts to Microsoft trainers.