Economics education Politics privatization reform vouchers

No Easy Answers – 5 Slow, Difficult Steps for Reforming Education

Todd started the discussion with his post about reforming education in America and Tracy added her two cents. Tracy agreed with me about the less-than-impressive track record of charter schools, but both thought market-style competition were the solution.

I disagree that bringing up charter school problems is a pot shot, since charter schools are exactly what many reformers and proponents of privatizing public education want. My main point is not that I think privatization is morally wrong or doomed to failure, but that we should take a more scientific approach to charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of privatization.

Here are five slow, difficult steps for reforming education in America.

1) We should try more than one alternative model. A lot of people are big on for-profit companies running schools with public money—why not non-profit organizations instead? We have some evidence it works, since many private schools and colleges are non-profits. Looking at colleges, the non-profit model has apparently been more successful than the for-profit one. Why don't we try just privatizing some aspects of school systems, like facilities? Many large corporations outsource their maintenance work. How many advocates for “choice� and “freedom� are willing to try charter schools run directly by teacher's unions?

2) We should make reforms systematically such that results can be compared in some meaningful way. If we privatize the cafeteria in a middle-class suburb and costs go down, we cannot conclude that private charter schools will be effective and save taxpayers money. If we have a successful charter school in a wealthy suburb we cannot conclude the same model will work in the inner city. We need to be able to get comparable metrics in order to make comparisons.

3) When trying to reform school systems, raise test scores, or otherwise improve education, we should base our attempts on some kind of actual research, not just ideology. For example, are we even reforming in the right place? Let's see a cost/benefit analysis - where can changes make the largest difference? Programs like Raising a Reader and First Book have followed the numbers pointing to early childhood literacy intervention. From this FastCompnay profile of JumpStart:

By kindergarten, on average, a child from a middle-income background has received up to 1,700 hours of one-to-one reading time while a child from a low-income background has received only 25. As a result, at first grade, the middle income child will have a vocabulary that is four times greater than his low-income peers. Since a child's knowledge of the alphabet in kindergarten is the strongest predictor of reading ability in 10 grade, this discrepancy is telling.

4) We should learn some lessons from the current experiments with charter schools and other approaches and do better. I think it might be worth looking into increasing oversight of these schools and investigating the role political connections and campaign contributions play in how contracts are awarded. There's strong evidence that charter schools affiliated with a district are much better than completely independent schools. This is not just about finding bad news. What are some school doing right?

5) More pizza parties. I'm only half kidding here. How often have we heard that “throwing money at the problem� isn't a solution? Granted I haven't done a lot of research, but I don't think there have been many cases where too much money was given to a school system. Let's add this to our list of alternatives to try: spending a ton of money on a poor school district to improve the building, the materials, the library, the competitiveness of teacher salaries, the nutrition of the food, the before- and after-school programs and activities, etc.