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Market Concepts Haven't Made Much of an Inroad

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As an advocate for a market in school improvement services, I welcomed Denis Doyle's commentary in the January 16 issue of Ed Week (Why Markets Are Important (And What They Could Do for Public Education)). It hit all the right points, but I had this curious, discouraging sense of deja vu.

I could swear I read something like this by Dr. Doyle in Ed Week or a similar publication when I began my transition at RAND from national security to public education with the end of the Cold War in 1989. If not by him, then someone equally well-known at the time.

The commentary led me to reflect on how little impact market ideas have had on public education going on 20 years. Yes, we got charters with a few percent market share of public school students. Yes, we have the decidedly mixed advantages of a small highly-committed band of voucher advocates. Yes, post-NCLB I, schools are buying a wider range of services addressing core teaching and learning functions. Yes, there's more "biz-" and "market-speak" coming from superintendents and chief state school officers. Yes we have a cottage industry of eduwonks examining and prostelitizing market based solutions funded by philanthropy.

But, really, so what?

Having spent the first half of my career to date working with another vast bureaucracy exercizing monopoly power over a key social function - the Pentagon, I did learn to measure success in millimeters, and so in part I should be happy about our progress, but I am struck by one crucial difference.

A series of education reforms built on market principles reforms over 20 years seems to have accomplished successive gatherings of the institution's openly discontented, following by a splintering of these marginal groups, rather than attracting the high flyers to create an emerging potential mainstream.

In U.S. defense policy, the reformers gradually grew in strength to take over the system. Don Rumsfeld was a necessary but hardly sufficient cause for the changes that occurred in US military structure in the last decade. He was simply an enabler for a school of thought that believed in a leaner military, mobility, and a more precise application of force; one that ultimately replaced those who favored a massive standing army, sheer weight of effort, and dumb bombs. Absent allied sources of support from within the officer corps, Rumsfeld would have accomplished precisely no changes in our force structure.

In effect, in the first Gulf War the best and the brightest colonels learned lessons that they implemented as Major Generals at the start of the second. There might have been a bunch of "defense intellectuals" on the outside helping to catalog lessons learned by soldiers and refine them into a coherent strategy, but the change came from those "up and comers" on the inside who formulated and internalized the implications of their experience in the field. Forget for a moment how Iraq has turned out, and simply consider the systemic change that has occurred within our military institutions.

Surely an education system based on market principles would have its shortcomings, wrong turns, cases of bad judgment, and disasters. But while the reformers inside the Department of Defense and military services gathered in strength over 20 years to win their "opportunities to excel," the community of market-based education reformers grew as fragmented cults. Looking at them as a collective force for markets, their vulnerablity to destruction in detail is painfully obvious. The charter movement is financially propped up by a few foundations and artificially unified. Vouchers are the market movement's political albatross. NCLB II threatens the stability of an emerging but marginal school improvement industry. The school improvement industry itself is highly fragmented on several dimensions I have discussed many times.

When all is said and done, there's been no expanding movement of folks who were high school principals and small city superintendents in 1990 now running big urban districts - or any districts - who are implementing reform lessons learned from their experience in the front lines of urban education. This is at least one reason why, despite NCLB I, Margaret Spellings and Rod Paige are no Don Rumsfeld, and why - you name your Chief State School Officer, or district Superintendent from the past 20 years with a great reform plan hasn't been either.

Similarly, the relationship between the eduwonk and the educator isn't close to that between the defense intellectual and the warrior. If a defense intellectual recycled an argument about the need for a strike force based on small, highly mobile forces armed with precision munitions, and it somehow got past the editor of Army Times last week, the readers' response would be "that argument is so 1990's. We've got the right warfighting structure. The problem is that neither this Army nor the one it replaced was designed for occupation, insurgency or civil war."

When Ed Week feels comfortable trotting out Doyle's solid, but very old well-worn, argument as somehow, something new for its readers to think about - that tells us something about the editors, the audience. Specifically - how far our market reform ideas haven't come, how little purchase they have gained within the "educator corps," how much what has happened in the way of market reform has beennimposed on nthe system from without rather than evolved from within.

I predict there will be no wave of letters to the editor of Ed Week from superintendents and chief state school officers protesting that for the last ten years, they've been doing what Doyle advocates.

Bottom line - even after agreeing to celebrate success in millimeters, market reform concepts aren't making adequate headway within the public education system.

Those of us who believe in the value of markets, need to stop worrying so much about restatements of, or refinements to, market reform proposals, and start thinking about how we are supposed to get these reforms in place. Of critical importance is how we are supposed to get young high flyer educators on the leadership track to internalize market strategies. Maybe we start with a close examination of why public education's institutional insiders have not advanced reform like their counterparts in the uniformed military, why education policy wonks are so much less relevant to educators and real education operations, and whether there's a strategy by which this might be changed.

Reply to Marc below:

Thanks for the comment - and let your colleagues know you made it!

Let's set Blackwater aside for a moment, and recognize that the debate within the Pentagon over our military structure was not about moving combat missions to the private sector, but about the kinds of systems the military would provide it soldiers to be used according to doctrine developed by the military.

Similarly, the educator need not be interested in handing the education of our children over to private firms to care about the products and services purchased to be used according to what educators see as best practice. Charter school law does not require charter schools to be handed over to private companies, it requires districts to think differently about the relationship of central to the school. Educators already purchase billions of dollars of "educationall systems" from publishers. They've already conceded the privatization of supply - the question is whether there might be some better business partners with better offerings than the multinational publishers.

In short, when it comes to the matter of private sector involvement in public education, educators are already a little bit pregnant. I don't think they are hesitant about privatization so much as they don't realize that the decision to privatize the supply of teaching and learning tools was made decades ago.

For more on this last point, see or hear....

1 Comment

Or maybe market concepts haven't made much of an inroad in education because enough people are hesitant about privatizing education. I know I want publicly accountable public servants -- not a company or a foundation, with its own interests -- to decide what our children are taught, who teaches them, and how they do so.

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