Monday, September 29, 2014

The Market Hates Losers

Fans of market forces for education simply don't understand how market forces actually work.

What they like to say is that free market competition breeds excellence. It does not, and it never has.

Free market competition breeds excellent marketing. McDonald's did not become successful by creating the most excellent food. Coke and Pepsi are not that outstandingly superior to RC or any store brand. Betamax was actually technically superior to VHS, but VHS had a better marketing plan.

The market loves winners. It loves winners even if they aren't winning-- Amazon has yet to turn an actual profit, ever, but investors think that Bezos is a winner, so they keep shoveling money on top of him. And when we enter the area of crony capitalism, which likes to pretend it's the free market, picking winners becomes even less related to success. Charter schools were once a great idea with some real promise, but the whole business has become so toxically polluted with crony capitalism that it has no hope of producing educational excellence in its present form.

But then, the market has only one measure for winning, and that is the production of money. The heart of a business plan is not "Can I build a really excellent mousetrap?" The heart of a business plan is "Can I sell this mousetrap and make money doing it?"

There is nothing about that question that is compatible with pursuing excellence in public education.

The most incompatible part of market-driven education is not its love of money-making winner, but its attitude about losers. Because the market hates losers. The market has no plan for dealing with losers. It simply wants all losers to go away.

Here's the problem. I teach plenty of students whom the market would consider losers. They take too long to learn. They have developmental obstacles to learning. They have disciplinary issues. They may be learning disabled. They have families of origin who create obstacles rather than providing support. What this means to a market-driven education system is that these loser students are too costly, offer too little profit margin, and, in their failures, hurt the numbers that are so critical to marketing the school.

In PA, we already know how the market-driven sector feels about these students. It loves to recruit them by promising a free computer and a happy land of success where nobody ever hounds you about attendance and all homework can be completed by whoever is sitting by the computer. But sooner or later, those students are sloughed off and sent back to public schools. And by "sooner or later," I mean some time after the cyber-charter has collected the money for that student.

The market sheds its losers, its failures (well, unless they can convince some patron or crony that they are just winners who are suffering a minor setback). Schools cannot.

For the free market, failure is not only an option, but a necessity. Losers must fail, be defeated, go away. For a public school system, that is not an option. Only with due process and extraordinary circumstances should a student be refused a public education. And certainly no traditional respectable public school system can simply declare that it has too many loser kids, so it's going to shut down.

The free market approach to schools must inevitably turn them upside down. In a free market system, the school does not exist to serve the student, but the student exists to serve the interests of the school by bringing in money and by generating the kinds of numbers that make good marketing (so that the school can bring in more money). And that means that students who do not serve the interests of the free-market school must be dumped, tossed out, discarded.

To label students losers, to abandon them, to toss them aside, and to do all that to the students who are in most need of an education-- that is the very antithesis of American public education. The free market approach to schools will no more unleash innovation and excellence than did 500 channels on cable TV. What it will do is chew up and spit out large numbers of students for being business liabilities.

Free market forces will not save US education; they will destroy it. To suggest that entrepreneurs should have the chance to profit at the cost of young lives is not simply bad policy-- it's immoral. It's wrong.


  1. In the words of the corporate Philadelphia School Partnerships Director Mark Gleason, "Dump the losers."

  2. Remember the blueberries?