When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale
reviewed by Dorothy Shipps - 2001
Title: When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale
Author(s): Edward B. Fiske and Helen F. Ladd
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815728360, Pages: 320, Year: 2000
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"Choice" and "decentralization" are two popular solutions to the problems of urban education widely promoted in recent decades. Along with "accountability" and "standards," they form the core of our contemporary reform rhetoric. Yet, too often, their invocation has more symbolic than substantive meaning. Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd have found substantive bedrock under these concepts. They have written a clear-headed, compelling and skillful analysis of New Zealand’s recent experience with school choice and decentralization. And, although they never directly address it, the implications of their study have much to say about the issue of accountability. Their book should be this summer’s required reading for every education policy maker in the United States.
When Schools Compete follows in a long tradition of looking abroad for guidance about our own school reform efforts. Fiske and Ladd sought out New Zealand in 1998 because its experiment with parent governance, combined with nation-wide open enrollment and school competition, was a "laboratory" in which to study how "self-governing schools operate in a competitive environment involving parental choice over a long period of time." For them, the "main lesson" is that "governance and management changes alone are not going to solve the problems of overburdened schools." But the book has more to say than that: it demonstrates how to construct a system that holds administrators and policy makers accountable for their decisions just as test scores hold teachers and students accountable for some kinds of performance.
If one accepts the premise that accountability is hollow without some reasonably accurate technique for monitoring performance, then it is clear that few if any of the American school accountability systems in place today are equipped to hold accountable the administrators and policy makers who enact and manage those systems. Instead, any flawed decisions they make (e.g., an inappropriate promotional cut-score on a standardized test, insufficient resources provided for teacher selection and retention, poorly designed remedial programs) have repercussions for others, but may never affect the decision makers themselves. In principle, of course, those policy makers who hold elective office, may be turned out for enacting bad policies; but that too presupposes some monitoring system exists for determining which policies are bad and for whom.
New Zealand provides a model for developing such a performance monitoring system, missing in America, that goes well beyond the aggregation of individual student test scores. Fiske and Ladd give us a detailed description of how that nation’s educational policy has evolved from the late 1980s. First, under a Labour government guided by a populist impulse, an elected group of parents was put in charge of each of the country’s 2,700 schools (As they point out, New Zealand is about as large as a mid-sized American state.). A few years later, under the ‘new right’ economics of the National Party, the reforms turned more managerial. School functions were privatized and schools were required to compete for students. Throughout it all, the state, through the Ministry of Education, held individual schools responsible for meeting its larger goals: improving education for all students, including New Zealand’s poor and under-performing minorities.
Sound familiar? This is a pattern repeated in many of our states over the last decade and a half. The similarities point to one aspect of globalization: the homogenization of schooling worldwide as national and regional decision makers in quite different societies converge on "reform" solutions that are less home-grown than they appear.
Fiske and Ladd analyze a compelling array of data and testimony leading them to conclude that decentralization—combined with uncontrolled choice—exacerbates the polarization between students, and significantly, schools. Low socioeconomic status minorities (Maori and Pacific Islanders) and high socioeconomic status whites (Pakeha) and Asians are further apart than ever educationally.
This polarization also leaves the state with a sizeable minority of (under-subscribed) urban schools burdened by highly concentrated and intractable educational problems. While more families have choices and can opt for schools they think will benefit their children, those left behind are trapped in schools that are demonstrably worse off. Simply to let the market close such schools without constructing alternatives is not politically feasible in a democracy, since they are the only viable option for the students attending them. Constructing new, more effective alternatives is both fiscally prohibitive, and an educational journey into the unknown.
To some, this early outcome will sound predictable. But in explaining it, Fiske and Ladd also reveal the accountability mechanism that allows them to make their comparisons. New Zealand has an unusual monitoring system that categorizes each of the nation’s schools according to the educational challenges it faces. These challenges take into account a range of risk factors commonly associated with poor student performance. The New Zealand Ministry of Education created a system of ranking schools one to ten—based on six indicators of the socioeconomic status and racial makeup of the school’s students—where each successively higher designation indicates a smaller educational challenge. Those schools with low decile rankings receive more block grant funding to address their higher level of need.
In New Zealand’s choice system, parents use decile rankings as one measure of a school’s attractiveness, and over time, its schools have become increasingly polarized, with greater and greater numbers of at-risk students concentrated in fewer urban schools. Without this decile ranking system, it would have been impractical for Fiske and Ladd to measure this increasing concentration with any precision. With the system, such changes become apparent each time the rankings are adjusted. Some school’s rankings drop—meaning they now have a greater concentration of at risk students than before—and some rise. Unsurprisingly, decile rankings track well with other indicators like graduation rates and test scores.
If schools are to be the unit of change and the unit of accountability, and especially if they compete with one another for students, it makes sense to keep records on individual schools that show improvement or decline over time. Some cities and states in the United States are toying with accountability systems that disaggregate students’ test score data by race as one way to address concerns about increasing racial polarization. The problem with such systems is that they ignore the school as the unit of accountability, and provide no way of comparing school performance over time in terms of the range of well-known and statistically sound indicators of educational risk. Moreover, they imply that it is solely the teacher’s problem to close the performance gap between poor and rich, the disadvantaged and the favored, rather than a common shared problem of the state and the school. Absent a system like New Zealand’s, administrators and policy makers are not likely to be held accountable for decisions they make that may benefit many students (or students on average), but leave a sizeable minority behind.
So, what happened when the bad news came in New Zealand? Fiske and Ladd report that parents and other citizens brought the increasing disparity to the attention of policy makers, who determined that market-based accountability and competition might work for many schools, but those in the lower deciles need more than the freedom to fail. They need targeted help that it is the government’s responsibility to provide. Policy makers are now examining how market-based, decentralized governance arrangements can be changed to help those schools at the bottom of the rankings. This is accountability worthy of the name.
Dorothy Shipps is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Organization and Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University currently researching the nexus of business, politics and school reform in Chicago. She is co-editor with Larry Cuban of Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping with Intractable American Dilemmas, (Stanford University Press June, 2000) and lead author of "The Politics of Urban School Reform: Legitimacy, City Growth and School Improvement in Chicago" with Joseph Kahne and Mark Smylie (Educational Policy, 1999).