Education professor vs. free market

Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at Teachers College of Columbia, trashes charter schools in the Washington Post, arguing that the free market has nothing to offer schools.

Carrying out market-based school reform on the cheap requires people with the experience to educate children, the business acumen to run an autonomous institution, the political connections to raise the private funds needed to keep the school afloat, and the ability to forsake their personal life to work six or seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. It turns out that there are a limited number of people who can or will do charter school reform well. Thus, most charters schools hire younger, less experienced teachers and have high rates of teacher and administrator burnout and turnover.

Note that most charters are operating “on the cheap,” with less funding than neighboring district-run public schools. And yet charter students do as well (or better) than students in neighboring schools.

In this decade of growing free-market disillusionment, policymakers should amend state laws to better support the high-achieving charter schools and close the rest. And I hope they will also remember the hard lesson learned from this reform: that free markets in education, like free markets generally, do not serve poor children well.

Economist Katie Newmark responds, observing that charter schools are expanding rapidly.

Either all those families have been brainwashed by the evil conservatives or they’re stupid enough to send their kids to schools that are bad for them or they have found something about charter schools that they like better than public schools.

Newmark also answers Wells’ use of recent studies of charter school performance, and quotes the Department of Education’s NAEP study:

[T]he mathematics performance of White, Black, and Hispanic fourth-graders in charter schools was not measurably different from the performance of fourth-graders with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in other public schools.

In reading, there was no measurable difference in performance between charter school students in the fourth grade and their public school counterparts as a whole. This was true even though, on average, charter schools have higher proportions of students from groups that typically perform lower on NAEP than other public schools have. In reading, as in mathematics, the performance of fourth-grade students with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in charter schools and other public schools was not measurably different.

Similar students perform about the same in charter and non-charter schools, Newmark writes.

Wells and other charter school opponents would probably point out that this is not the magic improvement that advocates promised, but why does that matter? Charter schools are cheaper than regular public schools, parents are happier with charter schools, and bad charter schools can go out of business, unlike regular public schools — if the charter schools aren’t doing any harm, why not allow them to exist just for those advantages?

In a year, we’ll have some data looking at how charter students progress, or fail to progress, over time. It also would be very helpful to analyze how incoming charter students differ from students attending district-run schools. To what extent are parents choosing charters because their kids are doing poorly or have special needs? To what extent are charter parents more involved and committed to their children’s educations?

Update: Eduwonk questions some of Wells’ unsupported assumptions.

The best charters tend to be suburban ones? What’s the evidence for that, (holding constant prior achievement of students, of course)? With a noteworthy exception, charters are disproportionately located in low-income communities. That’s actually an example of the market working; there just isn’t much of a market for charter schools in places where the public schools are doing reasonably well — the suburbs. Of course, to the consternation of many, the opposite is also true. Besides, in a growing number of urban communities, for instance, Los Angeles, Washington, and Boston the top open-enrollment high schools are charter schools.

Wells ignores support for charters from urban parents who want better schools, regardless of ideology. It’s all about those free marketeers, she implies. Eduwonk also makes fun of Wells’ assertion that charters will fall prey to the “broader disillusionment with free-market ideas now gripping the country.”

Again, huh? We just re-elected a president who made no secret of his desire to privatize and use market forces to reform our most widely used social insurance program and is now trying to do just that. It’s entirely possible that such disillusionment is sweeping the halls of Teachers’ College, but it’s not a national trend yet.

Education monopolies don’t serve poor children well, Eduwonk concludes.

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Comments

  1. Mad Scientist says:

    Why, oh why, does the obvious get ignored?

    If charter schools perform as well as public schools while spending less money then charter schools are by any economic definition more efficient. Higher efficiency leads to more kids getting educated than a system with a lower efficiency.

    If charter schools are a more efficient way to spend education dollars, then it Must Be Good©

  2. Again, I’d love to have more data about what kinds of charters work, and what kinds don’t. Just saying charters as a whole is utterly meaningless, since the group is comprised of several different groups. Are progressive charters doing well? Traditionalist? KIPP Academies? Summerhill clones? Magnet schools? OK, y’all get the point. The key point I’d like to see in charter school data is what charters work well so we can examine them, figure out why, and then apply that knowledge more broadly.

  3. Being reared as a liberal in the liberal Bay Area, it was really hard for me to accept the idea that a free market was anything but evil.

    I grew up hearing conservatives attack “big government” to hide the fact that they didn’t want their children going to school with black children.

    But my views have changed.

    We will have better schools when they’re run on the free market model. I know what it’s like to work in a Soviet style system because I’ve taught in public schools for 30 years.

    The new liberalism believes in investing in education systems that works. It opposes bureaucracy–in government and in bloated unions like the NEA.

    May all public schools some day be charter schools.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If the objective of public schools was to educate children instead of to maximize union dues collection, there might be little difference between their product.

  5. Adrian wrote:

    Just saying charters as a whole is utterly meaningless, since the group is comprised of several different groups.

    Nope, it isn’t meaningless. What’s not so much meaningless as missing the central point is the emphasis on educational efficacy. It’s like asking what’s best on the menu.

    The central point of charters is choice. Choice begets competition. Competition begets educational efficacy or at least it begets what parents want and I am willing to give odds that, in most cases, what parents want is a good education for their kids.

    So charters, as a whole, are good because they make the parent the primary educational decision maker. They put the responsibility for the making of choices in the hands of the person/people who can most credibly claim to have the best interests of the child at heart.

    Walter E. Wallis wrote:

    If the objective of public schools was to educate children instead of to maximize union dues collection, there might be little difference between their product.

    Gets right back to my point. A teacher, certainly a union official, may be concerned with education but they are damn well concerned with wages and benefits. A parent may be concerned with the wages and benefits of teachers but only insofar as it furthers their goal of a good education for their child.

    The purpose of the public education system isn’t to maximize union dues, it’s to serve the ends of whoever is in charge. If that’s parents then the ends of parents are served. It’s the fact that parents have so little say in the running of schools and so many other stakeholders have a greater say in the running of schools that’s the source of so many problems.

  6. >” …arguing that the free market has nothing to offer schools.”

    Well, I’m glad she decided that! Choice is bad and parents are stupid. The parents of 25 percent of our town’s kids are so stupid that they put their kids into other schools. Our public schools are “high performing” according to state standards. These parents pay a lot of money to put their kids into other schools. Just how stupid can they be?

    >”And I hope they will also remember the hard lesson learned from this reform: that free markets in education, like free markets generally, do not serve poor children well.”

    OK, so affluent parents can make good choices, but not poor parents? If only these poor parents knew what educators thought of them.

    The argument is not just about good versus bad test scores. Most state tests are pathetically simple. It also has to do with educational philosophy: what is taught, how it is taught, when it is taught, and what is expected from the kids. Our state tests are based on a fuzzy, progressive view of education. Talking about good versus bad scores by themselves is meaningless.

    Affluent parents pay dearly for choice and educators think that poor parents are too stupid to benefit from choice. Perhaps they think that affluent parents are stupid too. Twenty-five percent and our public schools are “high performing”. Could there be a major difference of opinion about what constitutes a good education? Why should the poor be happy with “high performing” as defined by public school educators?

  7. Allen,

    Taking on charters as a whole is meaningless since it ignores important differences in both educational philosopy and operation which have a direct impact upon educational efficacy. Some charters work very well, others don’t. Simply looking at charter schools’ average test scores will not yield any accurate data, since that doesn’t yield the important information of which types of charters are succeeding and why. It also hands charter opponents a way to say that charters are doing no good since *on average* they perform little better than public schools.

    Imagine you’re running an experiment about electrical conductivity of sand, oil, and saltwater, with plain water as a control. When you’re analyzing the data, you don’t *average* the three and compare them to the control, you compare *each of them* with the control. I’m saying if we really want to learn from charters, that’s what we have to do.

  8. Our state’s public education hierarchy defines/selects the state educational competency test and grading policy. They also control the charter school approval process. There is a moratorium on charter schools and they now only want charter schools for failing school districts. They would never accept a charter school that sets high standards for a school district that is “high performing” on the state test. Then, they want to evaluate charter schools as a whole (sooner, rather than later) on a pass/fail type of basis. They are obviously biased against charter schools.

    This discussion should not be about whether a very unlike collection of charter schools do or do not meet some pathetically simple state test criterion, or whether certain charter schools do better or not. That is playing their game according to their rules. The discussion should be about parental choice and why choice is allowed for affluent parents and not for poor parents.

    If public schools cannot or will not separate those students who are willing to work and meet grade-by-grade expectations from those who won’t or cannot, then they have to admit that educational philosophy governs their operation, not test scores or high expectations. Are poor parents supposed to happy with the public school’s definition of “high performing”?

    I wonder what our public school officials think when they trumpet their “high performing” status and many of the better students still leave for private schools. There is a constant buzz about who is now taking their kids out of public school. The public schools talk about removing the “academic ceiling” by using differentiated learning techniques, but they seem clueless about how to do this, or whether it can be done in the first place. They make sure everyone knows about their “high performing” status, but they privately admit there are problems for the better students. Parents help out too. It is very politically IN-correct to say anything against the public schools because much of it comes down to personal educational philosophy, not test scores. It’s difficult to provide the best education to each individual child when your philosophy is to treat all kids (from borderline autistic to gifted to kids who don’t care) as equals – lock-step teaching based on age. Unfortunately, the poor do not get to choose their own educational philosophy.

    There are lots of problems in the world of public education and it is not just about test scores. Public schools define the educational philosophy, curricula, grade-by-grade expectations, the state tests, and the ratings, and they want us to judge public schools by only looking at their ratings? I don’t think so.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Allen, why keep bilingual classes going long after their damage to the students was demonstrated if not to keep the dues coming in from the otherwise unemployable Mexican nationals barely literate even in their own language?

  10. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘In this decade of growing free-market disillusionment’

    This must coincide with this decade of Dem dominance in gov’t. You’ve gotta love the worldview of the education world. The 60’s are coming back!

  11. I think it’s great that people can choose schools. Rich people do it all the time, by choosing a neighborhood, or a private school. Poor people rarely get to do it, or at a much greater personal expense. Charters give poor parents choice, and act as state-sanctioned vouchers.

    But as an educational researcher, I have to note that there is nothing inherent in charters that guarantees “better” teaching and learning. Perhaps some charters develop and enhance good teaching practice (or teaching technology, as I might call it). The refine the protocols used and share them with other faculty.

    Still, there is nothing about a charter school that would make this a guarantee. You could argue that the self-selection of teachers, students, etc. might create an atmosphere where this development could take place more readily. But there’s nothing that shows with certainty that charters are making this happen.

    But, don’t let perfect by the enemy of good.

    I’ve got a piece about this today on my own site, http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com, about a column in the philly daily news.

  12. Mad Scientist says:

    The more I read, the more I am convinced that there is little hope for that amorphous concept of “excellence”. Students seem far lazier and more easily distracted. The hopes of getting them to be able to read at a 6th grade level are rapidly fading. Face it, they are a bunch of whiny, ill-mannered, dumbasses with the collective attention span of a moth. This is as true in the university setting as it is in public schools, with university quickly approaching a 4+ year extension of high school.

    So, if you can get the same results for significantly less money, that is a net PLUS for the economy and taxpayers.

  13. Jenny D. wrote on her site:

    >”That’s why, as an education scholar, I don’t think choice matters that much. As a parent, I think it’s very important that I can choose where my kids go to school. I can do that now because I am relatively affluent, at least enough so I can choose what school district to live it. Really poor people can’t do that.”

    >”But in terms of systemic improvement in the delivery of education, choice won’t necessarily help. I’ll write more about this again.”

    Please do. It will be interesting to see how you get out of this conflict. You like choice, personally, but you don’t want it because you don’t think it will work, professionally – at least for the poor. Based on what assumptions? “systematic improvement in the delivery of education”? Are you talking about the best average education for all or are you talking about the best educational opportunity for each individual child? And, who gets to choose whether or not poor parents have choice? Do you think that affluent parents are stupid? Is it OK that the poor only have access to “good”, not “perfect” schools? By whose definition? State tests? Choice should not be something that has to be granted to the poor only if it can be proven to work. You don’t do that to the affluent – why the poor?

    “I don’t think choice matters that much.”

    Incredible! It doesn’t matter that I have a chance to put my son in a school that sets high grade-by-grade expectations, but poor parents do not?

  14. superdestroyer says:

    Steve,

    Go back and read the stories about public schools. How does choice solve the problems of students not wanting to learn, students not interested in grades, and parents not caring. If a parents is not doing to check their child’s homework, want makes you think they will spend a weekend standing in line for a place in a charter school? Does high expectations at a charter school solve those problems?

    If you want to improve average performance, why not give all entering first graders an admission exams and assign students based upon performance? Why not make high school voluntary and empty the bad, urban schools of the trouble makers? Why not reorient the schools on academic performance and dump the social engineering and the extracirricular?

  15. Adrian wrote:

    Taking on charters as a whole is meaningless since it ignores important differences…

    You’re missing my point Adrian.

    I don’t care about the differences in philosophy or operation. Those are choices that the school management makes. What I’m interested in, and what I think the central argument is, is that those choices are made with some customer or constituency in mind.

    When some administrator chooses an ineffective edufad to inflict on their schools, they are doing it for one of two reason: either they’re misguided – dumb – or they’re appealing to someone other then parents. While the former is certainly possible it doesn’t explain the widespread nature of the attraction of edufads. Selecting damaging edufads then appeals to someone other then parents.

    The administrator is appealing to themselves, to their peers, to their prospective employers. They’re appealing to everyone but parents because parents, to a very great degree, don’t count.

    As long as the educational decisions are made under those conditions, then the only hope for a parent is to hope that the decision-makers take the parents needs into account. That’s pretty clearly a hope that is only haphazardly fulfilled.

    If the problem is that the wrong interests are being served, that the wrong customers are being wooed, then the obvious answer is that the right customer should be pursued. The right customer is the parent(s) because they don’t care about exciting educational vistas. They couldn’t care less about child-centered approachs or developmentally appropriate pedagogies or critical thinking skills. Those are a all a means to an end and if the ends aren’t served by those means then the parent wants them consigned to the trash heap not the classroom and right, damned quick – save your excuses.

    Charters elevate the concerns of the parents to the level of organizational survival. If enough parents are dissatisfied with the charter their kid goes to to pull their kid out then the charter goes belly-up. If the principles of the charter don’t want that to happen then they are going to pay very close attention to what parents have to say and they are going to make sure that parents know everything they need to form a positive opinion of the school. What the principles of the charter aren’t going to do, if they expect to survive for any length of time, is ignore the parents, dismiss their concerns and keep them in the dark.

    Walter E. Wallis wrote:

    why keep bilingual classes going long after their damage to the students was demonstrated if not to keep the dues coming…

    I wasn’t saying that keeping the dues flowing doesn’t matter – it obviously does – I was saying that the reason the flow of dues is important is because the unions are an important influence in public education. As long as their influence is significant, dues will remain an important reason to hire more teachers, pay them better and ignore evidence of incompetence.

    One solution is to reduce the power of the union via an open-shop law. Another is to increase the importance of the parents. Charters do that.

    JennyD wrote:

    But as an educational researcher, I have to note that there is nothing inherent in charters that guarantees “better” teaching and learning.

    Sure there is. The charter that uses cutting-edge whole language instruction and graduates a large percentage of illiterates is a school that will be out of business in the not-too-distant future.

    By getting rid of the schools that indulge the egotism of the education professionals what’s left are the schools that don’t indulge the egos of the professionals, the schools that produce results valued by parents. So charters guarantee “better” teaching and learning by guaranteeing the extinction of schools that don’t provide better teaching and learning.

  16. Andy Freeman says:

    > But as an educational researcher, I have to note that there is nothing inherent in charters that guarantees “better” teaching and learning.

    Actually, there is. Bad charter schools are far more likely to get shut down than bad public schools. As a result, charter schools that have survived for a while are likely to be significantly better than public schools.

    Selection works.

  17. superdestroyer wrote,

    >”Go back and read the stories about public schools. How does choice solve the problems of students not wanting to learn, students not interested in grades, and parents not caring. If a parents is not doing to check their child’s homework, want makes you think they will spend a weekend standing in line for a place in a charter school? Does high expectations at a charter school solve those problems?”

    Who ever said that choice will solve these problems? Choice does, however, allow good students to get out of bad schools – right now. Are you going to allow choice for the poor only if it solves the problems for all uncaring students and parents? That’s ridiculous! Society does not have a responsibility to find some way to force kids and parents to care about education at the expense of those who do care. Public schools should not use that as an excuse.

    >”If you want to improve average performance, why not give all entering first graders an admission exams and assign students based upon performance? Why not make high school voluntary and empty the bad, urban schools of the trouble makers? Why not reorient the schools on academic performance and dump the social engineering and the extracirricular? ”

    I’ve heard this before. Do you really think it will happen? Who decides (in first grade) who gets a chance at a better education? Even if you don’t have single assignment tests and base the selection on long-term student performance, is this really going to happen? Will the fuzzy educational philosophy, curricula, and grade level expectations change in public schools all by itself? Charter schools seem to be a politically acceptable way to break this philosophical stranglehold, but many are fighting it tooth and nail, demanding that they prove that they are better right now. It has become a litmus test for choice, as if choice has to be proven before it is bestowed on parents.

    You don’t want choice, but you again fail to come up with any feasible way to get public schools to change. Choice puts the onus (and power) where it belongs; on the parent and child. Individual children are important right now, not some cumulative average of all students by year 2012. Choice does not guarantee results – nothing does, but it is a guaranteed mechanism for improvement – unless you think that parents are stupid.

  18. To answer Superdestroyer and STeve: SuperD, you’re right that choice won’t solve lots of problems. It may solve one though, which would be to get some kids out of terrible schools and into some that might be better. For those kids, at that moment, choice is wonderful thing. And I am all for getting kids into better situations whenever possible.

    But….what about tomorrow’s kids? Is choice the best way to ensure a better education for all kids? I don’t think so. Here’s why:

    When we talk about school choice, what we’re really talking about is choosing an institution where a child will receive an educational “treatment.” Use a medical model, and you’ll imagine choosing a hospital for treatment when you’re sick.

    What if the hospitals offered these treatments for pneumonia–leeches, amputation, sleeping next to a super hot fire, eating salt and herbs? Which would you choose? Well, if you had a friend who recovered from pneumonia after an amputation, you might choose the hospital offering that treatment.

    But the truth is that none of these treatments is proven to help pneumonia, even though some who get the treatments survive.

    That’s where we are with education. With school choice, you can choose your educational treatment. But in all honesty, I have to say that we know very little about the treatments, and whether they do much good.

    I blog a bit about treatments, about how one might think about education in order to really come up with a way to study, measure, and replicate treatments so kids can learn more, and teachers can teach better.

  19. “You’re missing my point Adrian.

    I don’t care about the differences in philosophy or operation.”

    Allen, I see your point perfectly, I just don’t agree with it. In fact, you illustrate MY point with your the following from your reply to JennyD:

    “The charter that uses cutting-edge whole language instruction and graduates a large percentage of illiterates is a school that will be out of business in the not-too-distant future.”

    When the charters that are going to sink have sunk, the data on charters as a whole will be much more productive. Until then, the data are not that productive since the data from schools that will fail are lumped in with those that are doing well, and without know which schools are doing what, it’s impossible to learn much of anything from a performance average, except for Walter’s point about efficiency.

  20. Andy Freeman says:

    > I blog a bit about treatments, about how one might think about education in order to really come up with a way to study, measure, and replicate treatments so kids can learn more, and teachers can teach better.

    That’s all well and good, but it is irrelevant if we can’t get kids out of poorly performing classes. Our current measurements are good enough to make a huge difference IF we could act on them.

  21. Jenny D wrote:

    >”That’s where we are with education. With school choice, you can choose your educational treatment. But in all honesty, I have to say that we know very little about the treatments, and whether they do much good.”

    Maybe you don’t know, but I do and many other parents do too. There are absolute choices and there are relative choices. It is very easy for parents to decide whether school A would be better for their child than school B. I can also state absolutely that Singapore Math is better than MathLand or TERC. Don’t try to confuse everyone by saying that there isn’t valid research or that people don’t really know. Maybe you think parents are just ignorant, not stupid. Maybe you can’t figure out what is a good school and what is a bad school, but most parents can.

    >”I blog a bit about treatments, about how one might think about education in order to really come up with a way to study, measure, and replicate treatments so kids can learn more, and teachers can teach better.”

    What if how you think about education is not how I think about education? What are your educational assumptions? What is your grade-by-grade curriculum? Do you advocate full-inclusion, spiraling, and social promotion? What do you mean by “kids can learn more”. That is just so vague as to be meaningless. What is your curriculum and how do you teach and test to make sure the students meet specific expectations? You need to cut throught the fuzzy talk and get to specifics.

    The problem is not just how you teach (what you unfortunately call treatments), but what you teach and what are the grade-by-grade expectations. It doesn’t matter how well you teach MathLand so that “kids can learn more”. The program is a failure and virtually guarantees that its students will be completely unprepared for careers in math, science, and engineering.

    Maybe you can’t choose, but most other parents can.

  22. Andy Freeman says:

    Many education debates, such as the above contrast between Mathland and Singapore, become process debates.

    One problem with such debates is that they ignore other important factors. We know that some teachers can teach some kids to read with whole language. We know that some teachers can’t teach some kids to read with phonics.

    Another problem with such debates is that they’re used to defend/excuse failure. That’s part of why MiT is so annoyed by my statement that we should get rid of teachers who fail, regardless of why they fail.

    The common factor in those problems is that they ignore why we fund education. We don’t fund education to fund process. We fund education to get results. Just as we don’t care why teachers fail, we don’t care why they succeed.

    If we want results from education, we have to select with those results. Yes, we’ll find that successful teachers have some common characteristics and behaviors, but those are secondary. They can’t be used for selection.

  23. superdestroyer says:

    Andy, that is the dumbest argument I have ever heard. You are claiming that teaching skills cannot be taught but can only be identified. Yet, you want those selected individuals to teach other people skills. Why have schools at all if by your logic, people cannot be taught anything?

  24. Andy Freeman says:

    > You are claiming that teaching skills cannot be taught but can only be identified.

    No, I’m not. I pointed out that teaching is more than a set of lesson plans, and that’s true even if some sets tend to produce better results than others.

    That fact has consequences, one being that we should judge teachers based on what we want, not on whether they follow a particular set of lesson plans.

  25. Andy wrote:

    “Many education debates, such as the above contrast between Mathland and Singapore, become process debates.”

    Actually, my point was that I know absolutely by looking only at the content and skills expected that Singapore Math is better than MathLand and that how you teach MathLand doesn’t matter one bit. Many seem to ignore that there is a destination and not just a process. Finding teaching methods so that “kids can learn more” is meaningless without defining specific curriculum goals.

    There are arguments over discovery learning versus direct instruction, but the real question is whether the school gets the student from point A to point B. Unfortunately, some curricula can’t even define point B or they define it in some vague fashion, like “creative problem solving”.

    Most modern reform (NCTM) math does not prepare students for rigorous high school college prep or honors math courses. You can tell this simply by looking at the content and skills expected by the curriculum. This has nothing to do with how the material is taught. Apparently, K-8 educators see this knowledge and skills gap and don’t care. What good is it to talk about process, teaching methods, or lesson plans if point B is not carefully defined or agreed upon?