US Education pathway – paved with Gold?


The educational pathway taken by the United States is paved with some glaring failures. Despite this, US policies remain an El Dorado for Australian reformers.

The Rudd Government’s warm embrace of former New York City education chief Joel Klein epitomises the flow of ideas. A new opportunity for Australia to borrow, or learn from, the US is afforded by the current Gonski Review of education funding.

Some commentators are calling for the introduction of such US innovations as vouchers (which parents can take to state or private schools) and charter schools (which are publicly funded and privately managed, sometimes by for-profit firms).

The principle of consumer choice is at the heart of this agenda, supported in Australia through the relatively crude mechanism of expanding public subsidies for private schooling.

The US offers far more sophisticated and developed policy approaches. A wide range of public and private options are presented to parents, with novel school structures and supports to encourage mobility between schools.

If the answer to Australia’s problems is more choice, the US represents a system saturated with it (or at least choice policies). But the now substantial track-record of school choice reform in the US is far from compelling.

A stream of studies on voucher programs, which have been around for two decades, have failed to find clear evidence of improvement in the achievement of students who use vouchers to attend private schools. Instead, growth in achievement is indistinguishable from, and sometimes less than, the gains of comparable children staying in public schools.

However voucher programs in the US are dwarfed by the charter school movement, which began in 1991 under the promise of increased achievement, access and innovation. These programs radically restructure school governance by (for better or worse) foregoing the American tradition of local control in favour of publicly-funded schools independent of local elected authorities — modelled largely after private schools. This model has been enthusiastically embraced by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, each government putting hundreds of millions of dollars into their expansion.

There are now some 5,500 charter schools across the US. Few if any researchers find greater innovations in charter school classrooms compared to other types of schools. They are also developing new and unique ways to exclude poor children.

Despite a few bright spots, most research shows charter schools are underperforming, on average, compared to other public schools. Less than one in five is obtaining higher scores than demographically comparable public schools, while one-third are clearly inferior, according to a multi-state Stanford University study.

In view of this paltry record, the obvious question is, why are policymakers so enamoured with market models for schooling? And why are they still investing millions of taxpayer dollars in strategies that aren’t just unproven, but have proved to fall short of meeting the challenge set out for them?

For example, when repeated evaluations of the means-tested voucher program in Milwaukee showed that the results of public schools students were equal if not surpassing their peers who had used vouchers to attend private schools, the voucher program was expanded.

Similarly, when repeated studies showed that charter school students are behind their public school counterparts, the Obama administration required states to eliminate restrictions on the growth of these schools in order to help them access billions of federal dollars.

Certainly, the idea of choice has appeal. Parents appreciate having alternatives to schools, especially when they are otherwise assigned to failing public schools.

However choice is not an end in itself, but a means to greater goals such as innovation, improved learning, and more equitable opportunities for disadvantaged children. The ‘luxury’ of choice is not itself an adequate justification for the continued expansion of choice programs, and may in fact be detrimental to more important goals for schools.

Instead, to understand the persistent attraction of market mechanisms, we need to understand the enormous amount of money at play around this issue. State-supported education involves hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The similarities of efforts in various countries to re-orient the systems providing these services highlight the globalisation of market ideology, which is presented as a universal model for consumer and social services.

And these efforts are promoted by well-funded coalitions of foundations and think tanks which are playing an increasingly central role in brokering the information available to policymakers on these issues.

Foundations have been particularly active in the US in commissioning and funding reports that support their agendas, and supplanting traditional forms of research, such as that from universities, especially when such research would undercut reformers’ plans for re-configuring schools. Then, not content with shaping their own country’s social policy, many of these groups become evangelical in spreading the market gospel — creating satellite centres, intellectual groundwork, and facsimile programs in other nations.

The record indicates that there are limits to the magic of the market. We need to be cautious that research and policymaking are not also made into commodities to be controlled by monied interests.