After a piece I wrote confronting Bill Gates and the market/corporate-based approach to education reform, I received several responses that are typical of the mainstream faith in market forces embraced among both conservatives and liberals. One email claimed the person had been swayed by my arguments against merit pay for teachers and charter schools, but offered further, “In many cases, schools do not see themselves as businesses.”
I responded that education should not view itself as a business; in fact, the growing body of research on choice, competition and market forces as tools for education reform shows that the hypothesis fails in reality. Further, the rise in calls for charter schools as a panacea for ailing public education exposes another flaw in market reforms – advocacy.
Recently, I completed and published a book, “Parental Choice?” confronting through a critical lens the idealized view of choice, specifically parental choice, because both the left and the right tend to be trapped within an idealized faith in parents as consumers. A close look at think tanks reveals that market-force advocacy is both powerful and resistant to evidence.
Beware the Claims of Think Tanks: Masking Advocacy as Evidence
Nationally, The Foundation for Educational Choice states directly that the ideals of its founders, Milton and Rose Friedman, drive the foundation's entire education reform agenda: “They knew that when schools are forced to compete to keep the children they educate, all parties win.”
In my home state of South Carolina, a consistent voice in the education debate is South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG), an advocacy group that promotes school choice. Like The Foundation for Educational Choice, SCRG openly promotes its market-based agenda for school reform, but a careful look at the basis for their positions reveals that the evidence for their claims centers on a report from 2001 – a decade of research ignored while the agenda still attempts the appearance of being research-based.
Think-tank advocacy focusing on education has increased over the past two decades, and although the think tanks have developed a strategy that involves creating the appearance of scholarship and research, the reality is that think tanks remain ideology-driven, not evidence-based.
Consider the dynamics surrounding a comprehensive study of Milwaukee public school choice – one of the largest and longest experiments in market forces for school reform in the country. The study comes from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which promotes itself as Wisconsin's free-market think tank.
When the study was released in 2007, WPRI fellow David Dodenhoff concluded:
Taken as a whole, these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools]. Parents simply do not appear sufficiently engaged in available choice opportunities or their children 's educational activities to ensure the desired outcomes…. Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district 's schools. Recognizing this, the question is whether the district, its schools, and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace more radical reforms. Given the high stakes involved, district parents should insist on nothing less.
The media report was just as condemning of the evidence about parental choice and market forces fulfilling their promise of reforming public schools (and surprised about the source of that evidence):
A study being released today suggests that school choice isn't a powerful tool for driving educational improvement in Milwaukee Public Schools.”
“But more surprising than the conclusion is the organization issuing the study: the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has supported school choice for almost two decades, when Milwaukee became the nation's premier center for trying the idea. The institute is funded in large part by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an advocate of school choice.
While, as I will examine below, the conclusion of this study should not be surprising since it matches what the growing evidence shows, it is key here to note the response by WPRI, both in the publishing of the research and in their press releases.
In the “Report from the Senior Fellow” prefacing Dodenhoff's study, George Lightbourne offers the following contradictory comments:
The report you are reading did not yield the results we had hoped to find…. [Dodenhoff] discovered that there are realistic limits on the degree to which parental involvement can drive market-based reform in Milwaukee…. The message from the study is that educational leaders and policy makers must continue to strive to increase parental choice and parental involvement.
Further, on the WPRI web site, Lightbourne condemns the media representation of the study – claiming that the evidence does not refute market forces because it addresses only public school choice – and makes this telling statement:
“So that there is no misunderstanding, WPRI is unhesitant in supporting school choice. School choice is working and should be improved and expanded. School choice is good for Milwaukee 's children.”
In short, regardless of the evidence, think tanks have advocacy agendas that are unwavering; they have a constituency that they must speak to and not confront. Many of those think tanks are committed to school reform through market-based policies; thus, the entire education reform debate is heavily biased toward market dynamics that are supported by ideology – but not the body of evidence.
School Choice: The Critical Evidence
Many think tanks, corporate leaders and politicians work within a market paradigm. Often, sensing the need to appear evidence-based, school choice advocates, like SCRG, cherry-pick data to give their advocacy the appearance of science. Most of that evidence is selected from the 1990 's and around 2000 or 2001, as the evidence was first building about school choice – evidence that was often created and promoted by think tanks advocating for vouchers.
In the past decade, however, the pattern found in the data on choice of all types reinforces the skeptical conclusion drawn by Dodenhoff concerning Milwaukee's experiment with public school choice. Those patterns include the following:
- When parents are offered choice, they tend to make their choices based on concerns about issues other than academics, and they also often fail to participate at all in the choice offered. Choice appears to increase stratification of schools by socioeconomic factors without impacting academics positively.
- Although complicated and difficult to identify, choice does not appear to impact achievement positively, either for those students experiencing choice or for those students left in existing public schools.
In the most comprehensive consideration of the existing evidence on vouchers, Cecilia Elena Rouse and Lisa Barrow (2008) frame their conclusions as follows:
Keeping … limitations in mind, the best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero. Further, what little evidence exists about the likely impact of a large-scale voucher program on the students who remain in the public schools is at best mixed, and the research designs of these studies do not necessarily allow the researchers to attribute any observed positive gains solely to school vouchers and competitive forces. The evidence to date from other forms of school choice is not much more promising. As such, while there may be other reasons to implement school voucher programs, one should not anticipate large academic gains from this seemingly inexpensive reform. (p. 37)
- Choice fails to create competition for traditional public schools; therefore, choice and competition proponents may be able to point to this research as evidence that competition hasn 't been shown to be ineffective, but that choice has failed to create competition. 
These patterns are reflected in dozens and dozens of studies, most peer-reviewed and many coming from school choice advocates such as the work from Dodenhoff. With the evidence offering powerful reasons to place education reform outside of market dynamics, continued support for and shifting calls for market-based and corporate reform in a variety of forms suggest that market-based advocates for school reform are bound by ideology and not evidence.
Advocacy, Charter Schools and Failing Education
Market dynamics impose onto all institutions functioning within that paradigm the need for advocacy – building customers through promoting the institution. Advocacy is the enemy of transparency and truth; thus, some fields are best outside the market paradigm. Consider the field of medicine.
Throughout the 1970 's, 1980 's and 1990 's, doctors prescribed greater and greater doses of antibiotics, rarely identifying whether the illness required those antibiotics or not (antibiotics work against bacteria, but not viruses such as the common cold). The result was an increase in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the most well known being methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The dynamic at the heart of much of this problem was doctors allowing patients to behave as consumers. In other words, doctors abdicated their expertise to the demands of the patients as consumers. Doctors found that patients gravitated to doctors who would indiscriminately prescribe antibiotics (patients with common colds wanted antibiotics after spending money on a doctor visit) – many thus caved in to that consumer pressure for the sake of keeping a vibrant (and profitable) practice.
The medical profession has responded, issuing policies that warn against the misuse of antibiotics. Stuart Levy, in an introduction of a report on the use of antibiotics, explains:
Increasing awareness of the problem of antibiotic resistance in the community and the threat that resistant bacteria may pose is a key first step in addressing this problem. Training health care practitioners to identify potential pathogens accurately and to treat them with effective agents and appropriate regimens are important additional steps. Patient education is also crucial in ensuring that the public understands and participates in efforts to control the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria [emphasis added].
The failure of the medical profession to maintain its expertise against the pressure of consumer/market forces reveals a central problem with applying market-based reform to education. Consumer-driven dynamics (think parental choice in school reform) allows the consumers to trump the expertise of any given field – regardless of the expertise of those consumers.
Further, once the consumer is recognized as the driving force in the field, those organizations wanting customers can distort the market through advocacy – regardless of the outcomes (note that the medical profession has attempted to regain its expertise for the good of all with limited success ). The rise and damage done by the tobacco industry is an extreme but not uncommon example.
And here, we come face to face with the rise of corporate charter school advocacy as the newest version of school choice promoted by market force advocates. In my home state, the news media carry consistent news stories and letters to the editor promoting the success of this or that charter school – the claims are often simplistic, suggesting causational relationships between charter schools and outcomes without the rigor of making such claims. The current evidence on charter schools showing charter schools failing to outperform public schools on balance and creating many equity and stratification problems remains mostly ignored. 
The think-tank advocacy process is chilling but effective: make claims through the media and move fast to the next thing before anyone has time to consider the evidence. Yes, the media is complicit here, because we know that think tanks and advocacy receive disproportionately more coverage without scholarly scrutiny when compared to university-based and peer-reviewed studies. 
Over the past two decades, market-based calls for school reform have moved from vouchers to public school choice to tuition tax credits and, now, to charter schools. The basic claim remains while the format shifts, but the evidence remains the same – in direct contrast to the ideology.
We have faced the “Texas Miracle,” the “Chicago Miracle,” and the “Harlem Miracle” – all proving to be pure advocacy and fully deflated against the weight of evidence. But the media and the public remain enamored with the promise of choice and competition despite the evidence to the contrary. 
So, for the past two years, we have been bombarded with “Waiting for 'Superman '”-type media hype surrounding charter schools, the need to fire bad teachers and the scourge of teachers ' unions on our schools. Recently, 60 Minutes entered the waters and presented a jumbled tribute to The Equity Project in Manhattan, which has received media attention for promises of paying teachers $125,000 a year.
What was buried in the glitz and the praise?
“But then we get to the tough part,” wrote Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post. The actual outcomes after their first year in operation.” 'The results were disappointing [reported Katie Couric]. On average, other schools in the District scored better than TEP.'”
“Principal Vanderhoek responds, 'We don't have a magic wand. We are not going to take kids who are scoring below grade level and bring them up in a year.'”
Once again, the caution of evidence – advocacy is the enemy of transparency and truth.
Like medicine, then, education and education reform will continue to fail if placed inside the corrosive dynamics of market forces. Instead, the reform of education must include the expertise of educators who are not bound to advocating for customers, but encouraged, rewarded and praised for offering the public the transparent truth about what faces us and what outcomes are the result of any and every endeavor to provide children the opportunity to learn as a member of a free and empowered people.
Education “miracles” do not exist and market forces are neither perfect nor universal silver bullets for any problem – these are conclusions made when we are free of the limitations of advocacy and dedicated to the truth, even when it challenges our beliefs.
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