Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Markets and School Choice

Hi Everyone,

With the riots in France (now spreading to other parts of Paris and other cities) starting to look like a kind of widespread uprising, I think it is worth while to open a discussion of market forces and market approaches to policy in general. There are those who argue that markets are always bad, always regressive. There are those who argue that markets are always good. However, I believe that both arguments are based on a poor understanding of what the market is and how individuals and public policy interact with it. My intention (if I can maintain the attention span) is to present a series of posts on this blog that outline my own view of how public policy can be used (and can't be used) in conjunction with market forces to improve people's lives.

I'll start by examining a popular right wing policy based on market forces: school choice/vouchers. Many right wing politicians see this a cure all for the problems of public schools. Their presentation and sales pitch on this idea has been so effective that many people who would normally be on the left, now agree with this right wing proposal. I argue that it is based on a misunderstanding of how people interact with education and the market.

The idea behind school vouchers and school choice policies is that parents would be given money to pay for private schools and/or given the choice to enroll their children in any school they wish. The idea is that parents would take their kids out of the bad schools and put them in the good schools. This would reduce the funding to the bad schools and impose market pressures on the bad schools to improve or close down.

This is based on some critical but rarely discussed assumptions:

1) Parents see schools located in different areas as equally (or nearly equally) desirable if their quality is equal. That is, parents would be willing to move their kids from school to school to gain improvements in quality. This assumption is probably false. Parents have repeatedly expressed their desire (often through violent protest) to keep their children in neighborhood schools rather than bus them out of the area. This desire is not only expressed by middle class whites opposing integration. Neighborhood cohesion is important to many immigrant communities and parents see local schools as an important part of that community cohesion. If the mobility assumption is false the market forces that advocates hope will force bad schools to improve or die will never materialize. And the only effect will be to give public money to those parents most desirous to send their children to private schools. That group of parents is likely to be disproportionately conservative Christians (which explains why the Republican party is so enthusiastic about this plan).

2) The reason bad schools are bad is because of poor management. If the problem with underperforming schools is largely due to poor management, then a market based approach could be a great mechanism for replacing bad managers with good ones (ignoring for the moment my criticism of assumption 1). However, if underperforming schools aren't working because of poor funding and social problems in the students' lives outside the control of the schools' administrators, then the market pressures on the schools will only serve to take away funding from already underfunded schools. At the same time as those schools die off, their students will move to better performing schools but they will take their social problems with them when they move. The result will be a constantly shifting population of "problem students" who will seem to ruin school after school until the underlying social problems are addressed.

Anyone else want to chime in?


Anonymous said...

I agree with your analysis. I'd just like to add that quality of education does not simplistically obey economies of scale.

Sending more students to "good" schools will tend to push that school's resources until it is no longer a "good" school. Unlike mass production, a good school can't just build a bigger student factory. And if they could, whatever made it a "good" school in the first place would be at least as likely to be lost as retained.

Rather than shipping students to the magic places where their peers are actually learning stuff, it seems more practical to disseminate the good practices from the "good" schools to where the students are. And this exposes the second assumption. Because I think this has been tried many times before, and if you can't bring along various qualities of the "good" school's community (be it affluence and/or monoculture and/or involved parents and/or motivated teachers and/or ...), adopting the practices alone are not going to turn a "bad" school into a "good" school. 

// posted by Bob

Dr. Strangelove said...

RxR refutes assumption #1 (percieved equality of schools) by citing opposition to court-mandated forced busing programs and the desire for neighborhood cohesion. I think he may be overreaching here.

The opposition to forced busing was due mostly to the fact it was forced. (The breakup of existing communities and the long rides were other factors too.) But a lot of parents would love the choice to move their kids to what they believe to be a better school. (For example, I know several parents who moved when their kids were born just so they could be located in what they believed were better school districts.)

I think a viable school voucher program would suffer more from the "grass is greener" syndrome as parents--unhappy with some aspect of their current school--pick a different school for their kids.

As for assumption #2, the larger question is: would a school voucher program really create a functioning "market" for education? While I think RxR is wrong about parents' views of other schools, I think he is very much right that parents probably would not move their kids more than two or three times. RxR is correct that the market is not very mobile. And there really would be only a handful of choices for each parent anyhow.

Moreover, the effect of providing school vouchers of a fixed dollar amount would be to drive districts to cut costs rather than necessarily to improve performance. And as we often see, the vouchers would probably not keep pace with the increasing costs of education, so this would worsen the price/quality trade. In other words, this might make school administrations leaner and more efficient, but would do little to otherwise promote better education.

How amusing it is to see conservatives argue for this "demand side" model of education markets while liberals want a "supply side" model (give schools more funding). It's a tricky problem, and the free market model is a poor fit. The free market is not free enough or lucrative enough to provide the required accountability. We need to find a better way.

Anonymous said...

Because education is a public good, like roads or clean air, the market is a poor provider of such goods. Ideally, market forces optimize, meaning that most students would get an okay education, some would get a great education, and some little to none. That is an unacceptable result.

Another problem with market pressures on bad schools is, well, that the teachers and principals aren't the owners of the schools. In other words, their incentive is to keep their jobs, period. If the school gets richer because the students to better, or poorer because they do worse, who cares? The only trigger is job loss. And that is always going to be a meet-the-minimum standard.

One solution would be to make teachers and principals economic partners in the schools. Of course, that introduces the next question: why should schools be run to produce a profit? What makes schools attractive to students and parents may, in fact, NOT be the quality of the education. Telling a school that it has to attract students may encourage it to have surfing classes rather than English. Or fewer hours of instruction. Or easy "A" grades. Some schools would prosper by offering good education (some private schools do now) but many would not.

If schools are to compete, it must be to produce quality education. This can, I suggest, only be done by rewarding or punishing the teachers and administrators based on the quality of education. This is, at heart, a command economy system, not a market system, because, as noted above, the market (parents/students) are not well-informed consumers of education. What is allegedly for "sale" is, after all, the information about what a good education would be.

Standardized tests are a very poor way to accomplish this goal, because they do not reflect much in the way of education. Also, the rewards go to schools, not the teachers/administrators.

The keys are, I think: (1) Double teacher pay to recruit a new breed of teacher; (2) give bonuses to teachers and administrators based on school performance (see below); (3) define school performance broadly, measured by an expansive set of criteria, including breadth of educational opportunities, school safety, etc, some of which are measured objectively (e.g. student participation/graduation/college acceptance) and other subjectively by panesl; (4) encourage very small distrcts with part-time boards that function in an oversight, rather than administrative, capacity; (5) increase academic freedom and experimentation.

Just a few ideas. The bottom line is to get good, smart people who love teaching and give them the tools.


// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

I think Dr. Strangelove makes a good point about parent's willingness to move. It's a slightly different situation for a middle class couple with a kid who can move where they like than for a working single mother who can't afford to move to a district with a good school and so much chose between a local neighborhood school and some alternative school some distance away. One must then ask how many private school alternatives are located in the same neighborhoods as the worst performing public schools. I think parents would be willing to send their kids to a reasonably nearby alternative but the assumption the voucher advocates make is that this willingness is unbounded. I think Dr. Strangelove both agree that while it may exist it has limits.

I also think LTG is right to point out the teacher pay issue. Like Bob's comment this is arguing that we are better off trying to make underperforming schools better than we are trying to write them off. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

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