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Opinion: National experiment in school choice, market solutions produces inequity


The price of our unwillingness to learn from the successes and mistakes of others?

Repeat failures. And it occurs on a broader scale as well.

For example, Georgia keeps looking to unproven practices to jump start its schools when Massachusetts offers a proven blueprint. That northeastern state leads the nation in academic performance and has done so by  investing in preschool and teacher quality, raising rigor and adopting and sticking to whole school reform plans.

Yet, Gov. Nathan Deal escorts a contingent of lawmakers to New Orleans to study school reform. The performance of low-income students in Louisiana remains far below what Massachusetts -- and Gwinnett County for that matter -- is achieving.

Why didn’t the governor go to Boston or Norcross if he wanted to see successful practices in action?

The United States also resists looking to other countries to learn what’s worked and what hasn’t.

The knee-jerk reaction to any international comparison is always the same: This is America and things are different here.  We dismiss Finland’s success with the flip statement that Finland’s secret is a country full of Finns, disregarding that nation’s comprehensive campaign to raise teacher quality.

We refuse to learn not only from successful reforms in other nations, but from failed ones, too.

In this essay, two education researchers focus on what we could learn from the country of Chile and its experimentation with market-based approaches to education.

The authors are Alfredo Gaete of Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia.

By Alfredo Gaete and Stephanie Jones

Imagine a country that was once committed to quality public education, but began to treat that public good like a market economy with the introduction of charter schools and voucher systems.

Imagine that after a few years, most students in this country attended private schools and there was public funding for most of such schools, which must compete for that funding by improving their results. Imagine the state fostered this competition by publishing school rankings, so parents were informed of the results obtained by each institution.

Imagine, finally, that school owners were allowed to charge extra fees to parents, thereby rendering education a quite profitable business.

But let’s stop imagining, because this country already exists.

After a series of policies implemented from the 1980s onward, Chilean governments have managed to develop one of the most deregulated, market-oriented educational schemes in the world.

Inspired by the ideas of such neoliberal economists as Hayek and Friedman, the "Chilean experiment" was meant to prove that education can achieve its highest quality when its administration is handed over mainly to the private sector and, therefore, to the forces of the market.

How did they do this?

Basically by creating charter schools with a voucher system and a number of mechanisms for ensuring both the competition among them and the profitability of their business. In this scenario, the state has a subsidiary but still important role, namely, to introduce national standards and assess schools by virtue of them (in such a way that national rankings can be produced).

This accountability job, along with the provision of funding, is almost everything that was left to the Chilean state regarding education, in the hope that competition, marketing, and the like would lead the country to develop the best possible educational system.

So what happened? Here are some facts after about three decades of the "Chilean experiment" that, chillingly, has also been called the "Chilean Miracle" like the more recent U.S. "New Orleans Miracle."

  • First, there is no clear evidence that students have significantly improved their performance on standardized tests, the preferred measurement used to assess schools within this scenario of the free market.
  • Second, there is now consensus among researchers that both the educational and the socioeconomic gaps have been increased. Chile is now a far more unequal society than it was before the privatization of education – and there is a clear correlation between family income and student achievement according to standardized testing and similar measures.
  • Third, studies have shown that schools serving the more underprivileged students have greater difficulties not only for responding competitively but also for innovating and improving school attractiveness in a way to acquire students and therefore funding.
  • Fourth, many schools are now investing more in marketing strategies than in actually improving their services.
  • Fifth, the accountability culture required by the market has yielded a teach-to-the-test schema that is progressively neglecting the variety and richness of more integral educational practices.
  • Sixth, some researchers believe that all this has negatively affected teachers’ professional autonomy, which in turn has triggered feelings of demoralization, anxiety, and in the end poor teaching practices inside schools and an unattractive profession from the outside.
  • Seventh, a general sense of frustration and dissatisfaction has arisen not only among school communities but actually in the great majority of the population. Indeed, the ‘Penguins Revolution’ – a secondary students’ revolt driven by complaints about the quality and equity of Chilean education – led to the most massive social protest movement in the country during the last 20 years.

So even though there still are advocates of the private model of education, especially among those who have profited from it, an immense majority of the Chilean society is now urging the government for radical, deep reforms in the educational system of the country.

Very recently, in fact, an announcement was made that public university would be free for students, paid for by a 24 percent tax on corporations.

The ‘Chilean Miracle’ – like the ‘New Orleans Miracle’ – it seems, is not a miracle of student growth, achievement, equity, and high quality education for all. Rather, it is a miracle that a once protected public good was finally exploited as a competitive private market where profit-seeking corporations could receive a greater and greater share of public tax dollars.

It is also a miracle that such profit-seeking private companies and corporations, including publishing giants that produce educational materials and tests, have managed to keep the target of accountability on teachers and schools and not on their own backs.

Their treasure trove of funding - state and federal tax monies – continues to flow even as their materials, technological innovations, products, services, and tests fail to provide positive results.

So we don’t have to guess what the result will be of the current "U.S. experiment" with competition-infused education reform that includes school choice, charter schools, charter systems, voucher systems, state-funded education savings accounts for families, tax credits for “donations” to private schools, state takeover school districts, merit pay, value-added models for teacher evaluation, Common Core national standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced national tests, edTPA national teacher education evaluations, and federal “rewards” such as Race to the Top for states that come aboard.

Indeed, Chilean education reform from the 1980s to the present provides the writing on the wall, so to speak, for the United States and we should take heed. Chile is now engaged in what will be a long struggle to dig its way out of the educational disaster created by failed experimentation and falsely produced miracles.

The United States still has time to reverse course, to turn away from the scary language of crisis and the seductive language of choice and accountability used in educational reform, and turn toward a fully funded and protected public education for our nation.

 

 

 

 


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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.