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Politics, Markets, and America's Schools: A Review

by Peter W. Cookson Jr. - 1991

A review of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. The author argues that market-driven school choice policies are a product of our times because they place self over society, individual gain over community action, and signal to parents and children that consumership is of higher value than the larger social good.

For over a decade, most educational and political policymakers have characterized the American public school system as a wasteland; indicting the public schools for society’s failures has become de rigueur. One wonders. Are all public schools really so bad? In our concern for school improvement, have we gone to critical extremes and, thereby, dismissed the accomplishments of the public school system? This is not to say that public education is not in need of reform, but it is to suggest that it may be time to stop the wholesale attacks on the public school system and recognize that many public schools are effective places of learning. Basic fairness should also propel us to acknowledge that inner-city schools function in an economic and social environment that is decidedly uncomfortable for children. Perhaps it is time that we applied to reform proposals commonsense standards that evaluate new ideas by their soundness, credibility, and applicability. Rather than passively accepting the advice of experts, self-proclaimed or otherwise, we might start asking critical questions of the critics. What evidence is there that a proposed reform will create a more productive, democratic, and just educational and social system? Is it not time to hold policymaker’s feet to the credibility flame and ask some searching questions about their assumptions, procedures, and wisdom?

In their recent well-publicized book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, political scientists John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe make the following statement: “Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea” (p. 217). They continue:

Choice is a self-contained reform with its own rationale and justification. It has the capacity all by it self to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways. Indeed, if choice is to work to greatest advantage, it must be adopted without these other reforms, since the latter are predicated on democratic control and are implemented by bureaucratic means. (p. 217; emphasis in original)

Chubb and Moe are convinced that market-driven schools are educationally more effective than schools that are democratically controlled. They honestly believe that deregulating the public school system will create the conditions of a genuine educational renaissance. According to the authors, anything less than a total commitment to market values will result in the failure of school reform. Make no mistake about it, Chubb and Moe are free-market fundamentalists. In an era that is beginning to feel the repercussions of the economically free-wheeling 1980s, it is indeed sobering to find two scholars who are still true believers in Adam Smith’s divine teleology.

Of course, not all school-choice advocates take this purist position. In fact, there are many sensible school-choice plans that attempt to balance the inherent tension between liberty—the rights of individuals and families, and equity—the rights of the community. By simultaneously promoting liberty and equity, well-designed choice plans, when coupled with other strategies for school reform, can result in improved school practices and greater racial and ethnic integration. But can choice “all by itself’ produce the kinds of outcomes predicted by Chubb and Moe?

The analyses the authors undertake in this book are based on two data sets -the High School and Beyond 1980 Sophomore Cohort First Follow-Up and the High School and Beyond Administrator and Teacher Survey, which was, according to the authors, “assembled” in 1984. The authors perform many analyses on these data, some of which are innovative and some of which are questionable. In any case, this is a book with a lot of numbers. A basic strategy of the authors is to divide their sample into low-performance and high-performance schools and to see which student achievement and school characteristics are related to this dichotomized measure of school performance.

The authors summarize their empirical findings as follows: “An effective school is one characterized by an academic focus, a strong educational leader, a sharing of decision making, a high level of professionalism and cooperation among teachers, and respect for discipline among students” (pp. 136-37). These are not surprising conclusions. In fact, what the authors discover about effective schools is not unique, but rather commonplace. Assuming, however, that their description of an effective school is accurate, the question becomes how to create this type of school.

Chubb and Moe’s argument is technical and densely written, almost hermetically sealed. Arguments that might be counter to the authors’ theses are seldom entertained. The voice that we hear in this book is the statistical monotone. There are times when the authors’ findings could have been strengthened by other kinds of data that would have allowed us to hear the voices of the students, teachers, parents, and administrators who are the reputed beneficiaries of market-driven school-choice policies. There are some oddities about their data analyses. One example—despite all the statistical Sturm und Drang, some of their statistical models are extremely weak. If all the variables in a model of student-achievement gains explain only 5 percent of the variance, what are we really talking about (see Table 4-8, p. 126)? Ninety-five percent of the variance is left unexplained, which means that we know almost nothing about what explains student achievement gains. Other examples of statistical curiosities pepper this book, but the real problem with this study is not in its methodology, but in its assumptions about how markets operate and the culture of private schools.

Essentially, Chubb and Moe believe that the natural operations of an unregulated market will drive out bad schools and reward good schools. They argue that “markets offer an institutional alternative to direct democratic control” (p. 167) and that through market mechanisms schools will become less bureaucratic and more autonomous. In effect, the authors hypothesize that an invisible educational hand will sort and select students according to their abilities and preferences. Because Chubb and Moe lack a comprehensive theory of the relationship between school and society, they assume a rather simplistic functional relationship that was abandoned by most sociologists of education fifteen years ago.

In light of all the scandals concerning financial and corporate finagling in the marketplace, can we really be sanguine about the potential fairness and efficiency of a deregulated school system? Unfortunately, the work of Chubb and Moe provides us with very little historical or sociological evidence of marketplace justice improving school processes or increasing student achievement. On the contrary, history tells us that (1) markets are not benign, but are usually indifferent to the needs of the disadvantaged and can be manipulated through fraud and false advertising and; (2) markets do not operate naturally, but are socially constructed. The relationship between supply and demand is influenced by culture, class, and consumption. We gamble in the marketplace in order to profit, but should we gamble with our children’s education? A successful company is one that makes profits; a successful school is one that imbues in students a love of learning and a respect for others. Is it not ironic that as we enter the twenty-first century laissez-faire school deregulators offer us the antiquated market ideology of the eighteenth century as a solution to our educational problems? Will looking backward move us forward? Moreover, should the religious and entrepreneurial private schools that were founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries serve as role models for the public schools of the twenty-first century?

Since the publication of High School Achievement in 1982,1 researchers have been comparing public and private schools with regularity. Having spent the last nineteen years as a public and private school educator and as a public and private school researcher, I am increasingly skeptical about intersectional school comparisons that conclude that private schools “do it better.” Public and private schools are different. Their missions are different, their clientele are different, and their cultures are different. Sophisticated studies repeatedly find that the fundamental reason private schools produce greater achievement gains than do public schools is that private schools have the power to exclude students they do not want, and that the socioeconomic status of private schools students is, on average, significantly higher than that of public school students. Chubb and Moe themselves find that 83 percent of their study’s effective schools have student bodies with above-average socioeconomic statuses (p. 146). Because high-status students possess more “cultural capital,” they are more attuned to the middle-class culture of the school; working-class and poor students are often negatively labeled and placed in nonacademic tracks. For those of us who believe that education should provide all students with equal opportunities, the finding that a student’s social status is a major determinant of his or her success in school is troubling, to say the very least.

The authors do some artful dancing around being labeled private school advocates. They emphatically state, “This new movement puts choice to use as part of a larger set of strategies for reform within the public sector. It is not about privatizing the public schools, nor is it a surreptitious way of giving aid to religious schools” (p. 206). Yet, when we look at their data, we can see that the nonbureaucratic autonomous schools they believe are most educationally effective are, in fact, the private schools in their sample. They find that 38 percent of their high-performance schools are private and only 2 percent of their low-performance schools are private (p. 259). They admit, “Still, our empirical analysis leaves open the possibility that our results have more to do with differences between public and private schools than with differences among public schools” (pp. 259-60).

Earlier, the authors had argued that there are two paths to the “emergence of effective schools” (p. 190). The first path is through markets, “which act on private schools to discourage bureaucracy and to promote desirable forms of organization through the natural dynamics of competition and choice” (p. 190). The second path is less clear, but, apparently, there are special circumstances by which some public schools are less bureaucratic than others. The authors summarize, “Private schools therefore tend to be effectively organized because of the way their system naturally works. When public schools happen to be effectively organized, it is in spite of their system-they are the lucky ones with peculiarly nice environments” (p. 191). Lucky? To conclude that effective public schools are the result of chance seems a disservice to public school educators.

Virtually all of the findings in Chapter 5, “Institutional Context and School Organization,” indicate that type of control is a powerful indicator of effective school organization. This is particularly evident when discussing schools with high and low administrative and personnel constraint. In their analyses, the authors examine different models of constraint and discover that the less bureaucratic the school, the better. It is not surprising that private schools have less bureaucracy than public schools; private schools are much smaller than public schools. In 1987 the mean student enrollment in private schools was 234; only 7 percent of private schools enrolled more than 600 students.2

The authors seem convinced that private schools are educational utopias. From the distance of their data set, they imagine that private schools are “teams.” From my experience and research, I am not convinced that private schools are more team like than public schools. In fact, some private schools are more likely to resemble autocracies than democracies. Private schools, like public schools, vary tremendously in terms of quality. They simply cannot be lumped together as examples of educational efficiency and productivity. There is something disturbing about Chubb and Moe’s naivete when it comes to discussing the private sector because the imagery conjured up by them to describe private schools romanticizes them and, to that degree, distorts reality.

Will deregulating the public school system lead to more effective schools? From the data presented in this book, I think it highly unlikely. There is virtually no evidence that deregulation of the public school system will lead to better schools or alleviate the shameful condition of those millions of American children who are ill-nourished, ill-housed, and ill-educated. Imagine, if you will, what would happen to those children who are not able to get into their schools of choice in a system that relies on market mechanisms. If you think disadvantaged children are in trouble today, try to imagine what their lives would be like in a world of designer schools. Market-driven school choice policies are a product of our times because they place self over society, individual gain over community action, and signal to parents and children that consumership is of higher value than the larger social good. At the very time we need to mobilize our communities to improve our schools, Chubb and Moe are suggesting that self-interest is superior to collective effort.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 1, 1991, p. 156-160
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 241, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 12:30:01 AM

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