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Opinion: Why competitive model fails schools. No one should lose in education.


An academic essay by two education researchers  published on this blog sparked discussion around the country and promoted strong responses, two o f which I shared.

The authors of the piece comparing the school privatization program in Chile with what we are now seeing in the United States were Alfredo Gaete of Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia.

The pair sent me a second essay that addresses some of the criticisms:

Newspaper editorials are not the ideal form for opening up complex problems, and yet they play a key role in informing the public and generating dialogue and ideas of what might be possible.

We wrote an essay that was criticized by institutions that support the privatization of education and the idea that an unregulated free market is the best way to organize a society, including the public education system.

We responded to one of the critiques and largely perceived the second critique as a public relations effort. The Cato Institute has published a second critique , however, and we wish to respond to that criticism here.

Both criticisms focused on one or both of the first two points, out of seven, that we made in our original essay about the results of Chilean market-based education reform after 30 years of implementation. We acknowledge these two statements could have been phrased more precisely – and we will do so here.

But before doing that we want to note that even if we cut off these two points from the list, there are still five points virtually untouched by the criticism we have received so far – and also that these five points alone are everything needed to raise serious doubts about the desirability and success of the market-based educational model in question.

We claimed that the following seven facts were helpful to assess “the Chilean experiment” (the last 3 decades of market oriented educational policy in Chile):

  • First, there is no clear evidence 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.

Now, regarding point one, we neglected to include up-to-date data showing that in fact there are some relevant gains both in PISA and SIMCE scores (the two measures invoked by our critics) during the last 10 years or so.

Yet, researchers (including Professor Elacqua, whose work was cited against our assertions) have reasons to believe – and our critics have neglected to report this in turn – that these gains are not due to the competition mechanisms of the market-oriented scheme, but rather to other factors such as, for instance, the implementation of the “Ley SEP,” a recent affirmative action legislation developed precisely to alleviate the inequalities of the scheme.

It is this same affirmative action legislation that may explain the improvements in the last decade that have been made on equality, especially regarding the academic achievement gap. So it would not be in order, we think, to invoke this progress as evidence of the alleged advantages of the privatization of education. Nor does this render false our second point, namely, that Chilean society is more unequal (both academically and economically) today than it was before the privatization of education and that the correlation between family income and student achievement is clear.

And finally, we regret to acknowledge that in our original essay we fell into the trap of highlighting and questioning test scores as part of our argument against the privatization of public education. The testing and accountability fetish being used to support privatization efforts is destroying the integrity of the teaching profession, engaging in what we consider child labor where children’s forced and repetitive work on test preparation and testing has financial benefits for adults and private companies, and diminishing what the word education means in practice and theory.

Regardless of the “miracles” claimed by proponents of competition and privatization efforts, it seems as though the dirty – and much more complex – truth comes out at some point. The Texas Miracle used to design No Child Left Behind was a case of cooking the books; the Atlanta Miracle included systemic cheating to save jobs and schools from being closed and educators are now sentenced to serve time behind bars; the New Orleans Miracle continues to be an embarrassment with the retraction of research reports indicating success and criticisms about bad data; and in 2013 there was confirmed test cheating in 37 states and Washington D.C., but surely it is more widespread than that given the high-stakes of the very tests that have been criticized for their bias, invalidity, very high cost, and damaging effects on what schooling has become.

Not everything is a competition, not everything should be designed as a competition, and education – especially – should not be treated as a competition where there are guaranteed winners and losers.

No one should lose in education.

Education is a public necessity that calls for collaboration; the sharing of resources, information and practices; and justice. It should be the job of a healthy state aiming for the common good, not a game for businesses with a focus on profits, losses, and hedging financial bets.

 


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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.