Success and charters (3): Notes on market thinking in education

At the beginning of this trio of posts on charter schools, I posited 3 topics I was going to address.  This week, the third, and then time to turn to something else!

3. The predominance of market ideology in American society is driving an increase in the number of charters (both for-profit and non-profit).

In my efforts to understand stories like that of Success Academy, and more generally the role of charter schools in our current educational ecology, I keep coming back to the importance of foundational assumptions, or interpretive frames.  As with so much ed policy rhetoric these days, neo-charter advocates are using economic language, and playing to economic insecurities,  to push for less regulation and ever-looser ties to the public education system, while taking advantage of the massive public investment in schooling as a business opportunity.

This is even though the evidence is not strong that charters are a net benefit to the American educational landscape.  Some specific charters are providing an excellent education for at least some of their students, and that is good.  On the whole, however, charters have not produced significant innovations to the enrichment of all children’s education.  Studies of student achievement measures have mostly suggested that charter students do not do significantly better than students in “traditional” public schools.  There are significant issues with the regulation, transparency, and accountability of charter schools.  Their status as “public” schools is less and less clear, as more and more are overseen or directly managed by independent oversight boards, “educational management organizations (EMOs),” and for-profit firms.  (A handy introduction to the research and other issues can be found in this review by Miron, Mathis, and Welner for NEPC. Other references can be found in the prior posts in this series.)

The relationship of charters to “traditional” schools is most often construed as competitive; advocacy groups like the Center for Education Reform, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the US  Department of Education, and the Hoover Institution, cast their positions in terms of parental or student choice.  Underlying this, in turn, is a commitment to “free market” solutions, and this commitment overrides all other considerations for the neo-charter enthusiasts.  It turns out, of course,  that the educational free market, like the supposed free market economy at large, is a mythical construct  (mythical in both senses of the word).

The truly excellent charter schools depend on foundation money and their prerogative to send low-performing students back to traditional public schools. They cannot be replicated to serve millions of low-income children. Yet the reform movement, led by Gates, Broad, and Walton, has convinced most Americans who have an opinion about education (including most liberals) that their agenda deserves support.
(Joanne Barkin)

The neo-charter movement envisions a competitive market, in which the product, commodity for sale is education, measured primarily by quantitative achievement measures, and the client is the parent. (Students, how do they fit in?  Raw material? Factors of production of test scores?  Questions are begged. )  The methods of production are to be “nontraditional”, and these methods are to be subject to as little oversight as possible (one American Enterprise Institute report argues that “describing any innovations to be used in the school” counts as “Administrivia” in an application for a charter, as it “has no bearing on the quality of a school”  (cop. cit. pg 6).

In the neo-charter view, the principal competitor in the marketplace is the public education system, which should be regarded as one among many educational products which parents may purchase;  perhaps the public school system just needs to attract more investment?  (Recall that in the first model of charters, the aim was to improve the public system, empowering teachers to experiment with an innovative idea, and if it was promising to incubate it to the point that it could enrich the whole system, maintained as a public good by the people for the people).

Some people actually note the evidence, of course.  I was interested to come across a comment about the (in)applicability of this model to education,  from no less a free-market advocate than Dr. Margaret Raymond, of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford’s Hoover Institution:

I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And (education) is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state. I think there are other supports that are needed… The policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools. But I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.   (Quoted in Stephen Dyer’s blog “10th period.”)

But to notice the evidence of problems or failures is not the same as asking,  Is it time to revisit my basic assumptions about this course of action? People like Margaret Raymond, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, or Bill Gates don’t seem to think so.  As long as arguments are cast in terms of narrow construals of success or productivity, and stay within the frame of education viewed as an economic phenomenon, there will be limits to what we can learn, and therefore limits to the improvements we can make to education for all.

Rudde and Shanker’s vision built on such ideas as Dewey’s Lab School and many other attempts to apply what Dewey would call the method of intelligent inquiry to the immensely ambitious vision of education for a democratic society, which cultivates each individual as a beneficiary and critical co-constructor of that society.  This is, after all, the most important, and most essential “product” of public investment, the true coin of our realm.  Charters were envisioned as activities of Homo sapiens, not Homo economics.  Where they realize that vision, they can contribute;  if we can change course when we receive and understand evidence of failures, they can be constructive.  But so much depends on what our ultimate intent is, and the congruence of means with ends.  

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