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Opinion: In defense of school choice and market-based education reforms

An essay on the Get Schooled blog on three decades of schools reform in Chile by Alfredo Gaete of Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia sparked a lot of discussion nationwide -- and some criticisms.

Among those who sent me critiques were the Cato Institute and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. I am sharing their critiques as well as a response from Gaete and Jones.

First, from Andrew J. Coulson, director of education policy for Cato:

AJC’s March 24 op-ed on Chilean education by Gaete and Jones makes several factually incorrect claims. First, it asserts that “there is no clear evidence that [Chilean] students have significantly improved their performance on standardized tests” under that nation’s public/private school choice program.

On the contrary, a joint Harvard / Stanford study (“Achievement Growth” ) finds that Chile is one of the fastest-improving nations in the world on PISA — international test of 15-year-olds in three subjects. Moreover, as P rof. Gregory Elacqua has shown , the decade-long academic improvement of Chilean students is also visible on the SIMCE, Chile’s own national testing system.

Second, Gaete and Jones claim that “there is now consensus among researchers that both the educational and the socioeconomic gaps have been increased.” The evidence indicates otherwise. Prof. Elacqua cites PISA data showing that most of Chile’s academic growth is due to gains by students of low-to-middling socioeconomic-status. He observes that “Chile is the country that made the most progress in narrowing the achievement gap between 2000 and 2009 in PISA literacy.”

The latest (2012) PISA data confirm that Chile continues to improve faster than other participating countries, and is once again the highest-performing nation in Latin America.

Perhaps Dr. Gaete should seek out Prof. Elacqua to learn about the PISA and SIMCE evidence — after all, both gentlemen work at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

And from Robert Enlow, Friedman Foundation president and CEO:

Gov. Nathan Deal is under much fire for wanting to bring parent-driven reforms to Georgia with his plan to launch a recovery school model to the state, similar to what is found in New Orleans. His proposal would allow the state to take over consistently failing schools and enable private management companies to open charter schools in failing neighborhoods.

Skeptics say this follows in the footsteps of Milton Friedman’s greatest influence in South America – Chile– where reforms of the past 30 years have radically reformed and improved public education.

Two scholars who blogged for the AJC on the Chilean miracle seem to have repeated the mantra of the current Chilean Administration and left out key data points that a state like Georgia could only hope to achieve with a recovery district.

In fact, it is going to take a much greater infusion of parent choice and private sector influence – meaning competition from private schools, not just a few recovery school experiments – for Georgia’s public schools to be even more motivated to improve. We would like to see Deal take a bolder step and embrace vouchers for all children just as leaders did in Chile and watch beautiful changes unfold for children.

In a 2012 report, scholars Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessman found that during a 14-year period from 1995 to 2009, Chile ranked second in gains among educational leaders of the world with students gaining more than two years in learning compared to less than one year among American students.

A winter 2014 article in Education Next reported that Chile went from spending $360 per child in the 1990s to approximately $3,000 per full-time student today with parents now being able to choose public or private schools. Most of those private schools are for-profit schools. The results have been incredible improvements for students. Among them:

Testing was introduced at all schools to give parents information on how students were performing. And sanctions were imposed on low-performing schools including school-closures. Education policies were revised so that teachers from other professions were allowed lateral entry. The Chilean government implemented merit pay to incentivize teachers to work in schools that needed improvement and encourage teachers to work in schools that served low income families.

The government implemented a public-school teacher evaluation plan to dismiss teachers receiving negative evaluations for three years in a row. High school graduation and college enrollments soared as Chilean students now graduate high school at close to 90 percent compared to about 50 percent in the 1990s. Only 15 percent enrolled in college in the 1990s, while today 50 percent do.

Chile has moved to the top of the scale as the wealthiest nation in Latin America with a GDP per capita of $15,000 today compared to $6,500 in the 1990s. Chile has cut its poverty rate by two-thirds and has almost eradicated extreme poverty.

Education is the lifeblood of a successful individual and can spur economic growth.

Yet today there is push-back against these market reforms which help Chileans of all income levels. The resistance is led by the government of President Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist who is aligned with the country’s Communist forces. She is taking steps to dismantle the education programs that help those that need help the most.

Her mantra is income inequality and she blames the free market forces in education. According to the Cato Institute, income inequality still exists in Chile but dramatic progress is being made among low income students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – so much that the achievement gap between rich and poor is narrowing faster than in the United States where there is much less school choice.

As part of her campaign against the private sector, President Bachelet has banned the growing number of for-profit schools. It is unclear if these schools will close or convert to non-profit status, but either way, an estimated 1 million students could potentially lose a seat at their school if their school shut down.

The United States – and Georgia in particular – can learn lessons from this nation of almost 18 million where there is more private-sector school choice than almost anywhere else in the world. What was once an impoverished nation has now risen to become the most affluent in Latin America, thanks in part to the ability of more children to achieve a quality education.

If parents like their neighborhood schools and what they offer, they should have the ability to retain their children at those schools. But if they aspire for a greater challenge for their children, all children should have a chance at a different education that better meets their needs – and perhaps gives them a brighter future.

And here is the response from Gaete and Jones:

We acknowledge that in Chile, like in the United States, the debate over what counts as data, how data is interpreted, and the measures that are used to indicate educational achievement and improvement is ongoing and often influenced by broader political and economic ideologies and goals. That being said, we respond below to questions about specific claims made in our essay.

First of all, our statement is that there's no "clear" evidence that students' scores have improved. This is quite relevant, since a main idea inspiring the "Chilean experiment" was to show that a private, market based education would be "clearly" superior.

It is this that the last three decades failed to show. Controlling for socioeconomic variables, there are no big differences between the private and public system in the SIMCE. Moreover, there are some public schools, e.g., the "Instituto Nacional," that select students as much as private schools do and that, interestingly, do better than most of the latter in standardized testing.

According to former consultant to the Ministry of Education (and one of the leading Chilean researchers in the area) C. Bellei, not only do we not have empirical grounds to assert that private schools have been more effective than public schools; furthermore, he says, the outcomes of studies have tended to be biased in favor of private schools, in such a way that the latter may happen to be less effective.

At any rate, the average difference between private and public schools is so small that they are close to be irrelevant.

Now it is true that Chile has shown a certain improvement in his relative position in PISA scores. But (1) this may say less about Chilean improvements and more about other countries' relapse; and (2) these results are controversial among researchers anyway.

Additionally, standardized testing is neither the only nor the best way or criterion to determine the quality of an educational system, it is simply the way favored by market-oriented systems. Another criterion that could be used is equity and inclusion.

In particular, there is increasing agreement among educators and researchers that diverse, heterogeneous schools are better that homogeneous, segregated ones.

The following is an excerpt from the conclusions of a recent empirical analysis of the socioeconomic status school segregation in Chile:

 "Summarizing, we found that the magnitude of the socioeconomic school segregation in Chile was very high and tended to slightly increase during the last decade; we also found that private schools – including voucher schools – were more segregated than public schools; and we estimated that some educational market dynamics (i.e. privatization, school choice, and fee paying) accounted for a relevant proportion of the Chilean socioeconomic status school segregation.

We interpret these findings as broadly consistent with our hypothesis that links SES school segregation and market-oriented mechanisms in education, which is additionally supported by recent international reports based on PISA 2009 (OECD 2010a) and handbook chapters specialized on these issues (Gill and Booker 2008), which demonstrated that larger private school participation on educational market is not coupled with improvement on the average national standardized test scores but it is strongly related to more segregated and unequal educational systems" ("Socioeconomic school segregation in a market-oriented educational system. The case of Chile". Published in the Journal of Education Policy, 2014, Vol. 29, No. 2, p. 233).

All in all, and beyond the different possible interpretations of a same set of data (which is always possible in social science), what we have to acknowledge is that the privatization of education is far from being the panacea once sold by the advocates and designers of the Chilean neoliberal educational model.

The fact is that after 30 years Chilean people are not convinced by such a model and, moreover, they are massively demanding, not any change, but a radical change. The US should learn something from this.








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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.