Why the corporate reform of education is misguided

And so the “education reform” debate continues in the US, with calls for improved performance based on standardized tests, and calls for merit pay and turning over staff of under-performing schools. All of this is based on a corporate competition model – the belief that competition leads to improved quality and efficiency.

This, of course, is misguided bull.

The competition model is profit-based, and requires a product or service. Two or more companies with similar products (or services) will vie for sales of their product over the competition. This requires two things: first, a market, and second, a non-essential commodity. The market may be individuals or corporations, but whichever they are, they are paying directly for the commodity. Fee for product or service – like buying a bicycle or dining at a restaurant.  And the commodity must be non-essential, because competition only works if there is a genuine risk of failure. If one restaurant or bicycle company goes out of business, there are plenty of other options, and even if all restaurants and bicycle companies went belly up, we would still survive.

Education violates both requirements. It has no direct market, and it IS an essential service.

In a publicly funded education system we don’t buy educated students, and we don’t choose an appetizer and an entrée, or a paint colour, or an oil change. The government pays for the education of students as an essential public good through tax revenue. This makes education more like the police or fire service, or like the water supply. In those cases an essential public good is paid for from collective tax revenue. Imagine governments cutting funding to water treatment plants with aging equipment because their water quality is slipping, or closing a plant and telling the public to get their water from somewhere else.

The reformers who are pushing for more charter and private schools are trying to push the first premise – they are trying to create a direct, fee for service market for education. Never mind that competition often leads to off-shore outsourcing, and reduced price at the expense of quality, and not always the holy grail of increased quality and efficiency. Even if that was feasible, the second point still stands: education is an essential service, and as such it cannot be placed in a position where it can be allowed to fail.

Now, you might ask, why is a Canadian (and one who teaches at a private school to boot) so concerned about public education in the US? The answer is simple and twofold. First, the US is the driving economic force on the continent, even the hemisphere. The prosperity of all of us, particularly in a nation so tightly linked as Canada, is dependent on the prosperity of the US, which is in turn tied to the education of its people. And second, the trends in US education will be watched and emulated by other nations – particularly when conservative governments are in power – so what happens there can happen here.

Education needs to move into the 21st century. Reform is necessary. But before we decide on how it is to be reformed, we need to have actual goals – and I mean other than misleading test scores. Only then can we decide how best to meet those goals, and use that knowledge to determine how to proceed.

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