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Hitching Free Market Ideology to Online Learning

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Several weeks ago, Chris Lehmann tweeted from the Ed Innovation Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, "Educators - if you don't see that there is a billion dollar industry wanting to take over schools using tech as the Trojan Horse, wake up."

If I were to have one quibble with the metaphor, it would be this: the free marketeers are not hiding inside the horse, ready to jump out only after they are let in the gates of schools. They are riding right on top of the horse, shouting "Hey, this is a great horse! Let me tell you how we plan to use this horse to advance our free-market ideology in the education sector." The guy riding on the horse then starts reading Education Reform for the Digital Era, the most recent release of the Fordham Institute.

My summary of the free market argument for reforming educational systems to allow more online learning (as I've gleaned from the report) looks something like this:

The market is the most efficient system in the world for generating and distributing high quality goods and services. Education is no different than any other sector of society--it provides a service for which people pay money. In the U.S., however, 14,000 school districts have a local, state-run monopoly over education, and the leaders of these systems have little incentive to innovate and improve and great incentives to restrict any efforts to disrupt their monopoly. We should replace this system with markets where students and parents can choose their schools, their classes, their teachers, and anything else they want. Students will leave crummy schools, which will shrivel and die, and the remaining schools will compete for these students by becoming progressively more innovative and effective.


Charter schools, (which advocates now sometimes call "choice schools"), were a first step in this agenda because they, in theory, allowed students to choose among a variety of options, and the competition among choices would force better outcomes from any schools that survived within the system. Even more important to free market advocates are "vouchers." Basically, rather than funding schools, municipalities should be funding kids. Give every kid her per-pupil-expenditure for the year, and let her spend it however she wants. If she wants to buy a slot in the public school, great. If she wants to buy a spot in the charter school, great. If she's rich, and she wants to add another $10,000 and buy a spot in the local private school, that's fine. And if she wants to buy a "seat" in any online course or school in the world, that's fine, too. Overtime, the most high value learning opportunities will compete successfully and the weakest will disappear.

In a brick and mortar schooling world, this competition was always imagined to be between schools. Online learning provides free-market advocates the chance to take their model to a new level: This competition can shift from the school level to the course level. Why force students to purchase all their classes from one school? Why not let them buy Algebra II from Khan Academy, Spanish I from Rosetta Stone, and P.E. from their local charter school?

To make this vision of learning possible, the key policy action is to stop funding schools and start funding kids. If a kid really needs a human connection, and he wants to buy a spot in his local, public school, then that's great. If he wants to learn from the best lecturers in the world, then let him enroll in massive online courses led by a newly created group of mega-stars of education. Let each kid spend their per-pupil-expenditure on any learning experiences that he or she deems satisfactory. Quality control will happen by students voting with their feet.

The other key policy actions all have to do with removing barriers to entry into this newly emerging market. Remove all requirements for teacher certification, since we don't know what makes a good online teacher. Remove class size restrictions, since big classes taught by the mega-stars might be better than small classes taught by average teachers. Restrict the power of teachers unions and school boards to protect their local monopolies. Let anyone--public, private, parochial, non-profit, for-profit, whoever--compete for student's dollars in an online marketplace.

This is a radical re-imagining of what it means to participate in schooling. Networked technologies have transformed numerous sectors of our economy over the last decade: business, journalism, politics, and even our own identities. Should education be next? If so, is the direction to go?

Later this week, I'll have some thoughts on this model, and some questions that I wish the Fordham Report had done a better job answering.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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