Sunday, December 14, 2014

Schools, Transparency, and the Free Market

Scoop of the Week award goes to Stephen Dyer, who reported on his blog the surprising words of CREDO charter fan Margaret Raymond, who was speaking in Cleveland when she said

I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And (education) is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state. I think there are other supports that are needed… The policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools. But I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.

This is not surprising in a "Gee I never thought of that" way. It's surprising in a "consider the source" way, coming from someone who works with a raftload of people who believe in the Invisible Hand and its magic powers.

Now, I disagree with her about education being the only sector where market mechanism doesn't work-- health care comes rapidly to mind followed by the food industry and by the military-industrial complex and by, well, almost everything. The free-ish market in this country is heavily bound up in regulation and government control, and much of that is not exerted on behalf of citizens, but on behalf of corporations for whom government regulation is just one of the avenues for using giant piles of money to tilt the scales. From Vanderbilt to Carnegie to Gates, rich folks just love the free market until they're winning, at which point they aren't so keen on the "free" part.

But you can get her point, particularly in follow-up comments that she sent to Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post.

In other industries, real markets are able to develop and function because suppliers and consumers get to meet each other in an unfettered set of offers and demands for goods or services.  There are no intermediary agents who guard access to supply or who aggregate demand and thus sway the free exchange of supply and demand.  Part of that free exchange relies on complete transparency about the attributes of the goods on offer and their prices, and the transactions are “known” by the participants in an open and complete way.

Again, I think she overestimates how many real markets work like this, but her point is well taken. To have a free market, you have to have transparency about all aspects of the transaction.

You also have to have some agreed-upon vocabulary. If I'm trying to sell you a "luxury" automobile or "good" maple syrup, we both have a pretty good idea of what I mean. But if I'm trying to sell a "good" school, nobody is sure what the heck I mean. The reformsters have tried to clear this up by imposing a definition of "good" on schools and teachers, but that definition is "high scores on a couple of standardized math and English tests" and nobody really believes that it's correct.

Some markets have taken years, decades to create that shared vocabulary. For instance, most of the market agrees that "good" maple syrup is "rich and thick."  Except that if you grew up around actual maple syrup, you know that it's thinner and slicker than water and cuts into your food like the sweetest battery acid ever imagined. Marketers had to train the public to associate rich and thick with maple syrup, just as marketers taught us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

The American free market doesn't run much on transparency. For some products, like cigarettes and beer, the market depends on a definite lack of transparency. We Americans are hustlers. We like smoke and mirrors. We expect to hear and see bullshit, and we deal in a little bit of it ourselves from time to time. I'll repeat myself here-- the free market does not foster excellent products; the free market fosters excellent marketing.

When it comes to education, the general public does not agree on what they want, how to get it, or how to recognize it when they see it. Add that education is a product that every citizen is required by law to purchase, putting educators in the unique market position of having to market a product to people who do not want that product. And that education is a product that everybody thinks they are qualified and capable of producing. Open the market, as the Obama administration and various state governments, and you have a market that is absolutely ripe for charlatans, humbugs, and well-meaning incompetents.

Finally, layer on our love of invisible regulation. We hate regulation, but we take for granted that nothing we buy in a store could actually hurt us. We hate regulation, but we never check our groceries for possible poisons, and we assume that any electrical appliance we bring into our home will not electrocute us. We like to believe that our world is just naturally safe in some magical unregulated way.

In that same way, people in the education marketplace have just assumed that some place that calls itself a school must automatically have certain programs in place, must address certain student concerns, must have some actual commitment to staying open. As many many many folks in Ohio can now tell you, making assumptions about what a charter is going to do (or not do) turns out to be a huge mistake.

I think Raymond's love of the free market blinds her to many hard truths about it. But as with any bad relationship, it's great to see her at least recognize that things aren't working out now. I believe that her faith that things can some day work out between the market and education is misplaced, but baby steps. Baby steps.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, you articulate the truth well....thank you.