Monday, December 21, 2015

Free Market Bad for Students with Disabilities

Disabilities Studies Quarterly, a peer-reviewed quarterly journal, published a paper back in 2012 that makes some sobering points about how a free market approach to schools works out (or not) for students with disabilities. In fact, it has a few sobering things about how free market schools treat all students.

"The Effects of Market-based School Reform on Students with Disabilities" was authored by Curt Dudley-Marling and Diana Baker at Boston College.

It begins with a history of the intersections between neo-liberalism, free market theory, and education. It's a handy primer, all fully sourced and pretty interesting. But the meat of the paper is the question of how various free market approaches work (or don't ) for students with disabilities. It's worth remembering that we're back in 2012-- but the conclusions here are still worth noticing.


There's not a lot of data available about the effects of vouchers on students with disabilities, but the available data is not exactly encouraging. The authors cite a study from 2011 that shows while Milwaukee has a SWD population of about 20%. However, SWD were only 1.6% of the voucher population. That seems to have been typical.

Charter Schools

The charter school system creates a new dynamic between students and schools-- specifically, it create a new role for students, and the writers of this paper explain it as well as anyone I've ever read.

...however they are structured, charter schools must produce acceptable test scores or risk the revocation of their charters (Swanson, 2004). In this context, students are transformed into "commodities" (Apple, 2000; Hursh, 2007a; Wills, 2006) who bring more or less value to charter schools. Students with high test scores enhance the reputation and, hence, the marketability of charter schools. Students who do not score well on tests threaten charters' competitiveness—and, ultimately, their survival. 

 Students' value is also determined by their impact on school budgets. For-profit charters, for example, seek to turn a profit; therefore, students who cost more to educate have less value than students who require fewer resources. Even in the case of charters managed by nonprofits, costly-to-educate students will have a disproportionate impact on fixed budgets. Students deemed to be disruptive will be valued least of all in such a system because these students both cost more to educate and interfere with the education (i.e., test scores) of other students. In a system where the survival of schools—and the jobs of teachers—depend on ever higher test scores, students with low scores or, worse, students who threaten the scores of other students by consuming a disproportionate share of scarce resources, including teacher attention, will be unwelcome. 

Emphasis mine. And it doesn't take deep insight to see that this commodification of students has implications beyond simply the treatment of students with special needs.

The report follows up with study after study after study providing examples of how this plays up. I note in particular that it takes us back to the days when New Orleans was only largely charter, and the success of that charter sector was used to sell the idea of expansion-- even though studies showed that charters were avoiding low-value students and posting suspension rates through the roof. Boston, Texas, Chicago- the list just rolls on and on. The study also documents some of the practices such as counseling SWD out or discontinuing IEPs for students who needed them.

One can certainly argue that in the three years since the study, charters have totally cleaned up their acts, but this seems unlikely, and it tells us just how much the charters has grown without developing any plan for teaching more "costly" students other than "make them go away somehow." In other words, charters who want to deny their past better be prepared to explain what they've learned about operating differently in the last three years. They should also be prepared for folks to look dubiously upon them, since they were telling us for years that they totally had a handle on this and it turns out that perhaps they were a bit truth-impaired when they made those claims-- so how would we know that they're telling the truth this time?

Testing and Accountability

The study suggests that the standardization pushed by NCLB and its successor programs launched one-size-fits-all tests, which tend to drive one-size-fits-all curriculum, which is exactly the wrong thing for students with special needs.

The testing and accountability mandates of NCLB "define education as a commodity whose production can be quantified, standardized, and prescribed" (Lipman, 2007, p. 46). 

And also this

This move toward standardization and one-size-fits-all curricula is potentially devastating for students with disabilities. Standardized curricula provide little space for teachers to make the necessary adaptations to address the specific needs of students with disabilities (Harvey-Koelpin, 2006)—as well as any student positioned outside the mythical norm (Dudley-Marling & Gurn, 2010). And when students with disabilities fail to achieve in the context of standardized curriculum, standardized assessment, and standardized instruction—all targeted to putatively "normal" students—failure is situated in the minds and bodies of students rather than in the schooling practices that produced failure in the first place (Dudley-Marling, 2004).  

Yes yes yes. When we start with the assumption that our educational plan and program is perfect, and then a student fails to achieve, we can only conclude that the student is "defective."

Stating the Obvious

While the paper makes the point that free market schools (particularly as tied to the policies of two administrations) are bad for students with disabilities, it is clearly also true for students who don't have any kind of special label or diagnosis.

This paper may be a few years aged, but it lays out in clear language and supporting citations just how the reformster program creates a toxic dynamic in schools while creating an upside-down world in which students exist to serve the needs of the school-- and those who cannot serve the school well must be rejected. It's amazing the degree to which the last three years have gotten us used to this unhealthy mess; a quick trip in the wayback machine can remind us why the reformy mess must be cleaned up.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the last paragraph. Of course, free market education reform will lead to the children being treated as a means instead of as ends in themselves. The goal is not educating children so that they can become fully developed, autonomous human beings capable of flourishing. The goal is to use the children to make money. If children with disabilities are not as profitable, then the for-profit schools will work to get rid of them. There is no room in the for-profit schools to actually care for the children, and students with disabilities definitely need care.