Education Opinion

The Letter From: Why Market-Based Reforms Don’t

January 09, 2008 4 min read

Revolutions replace, reforms change. Vouchers offer a market-based revolution. Charter schools, comprehensive school reform and the results-based school improvement industry created by No Child Left Behind propose to move public education from centralized school systems to decentralized systems of public schools. So far, with a handful of k-12 experiments and die-hard supporters, the voucher revolution has been a political failure. Charters, CSR and SII have enjoyed enough bipartisan political support to become national phenomena. But while each idea has managed to achieve the critical mass necessary for a kind of sustainability, the first two have had marginal effects on the structure of public education, and the third shows every sign of following suit.


Proponents of the three reforms have a ready response. The traditional institutions of public education are remarkably able to resist unwanted change.

It’s not very helpful answer. The implication is either that reform is futile, or that it requires a level of support upfront that is quite unrealistic. It also conveniently puts the focus on external factors, rather than problems within the reform movement.
I have had the privilege and frustration of close involvement in all three reforms. Like many others, I joined each believing in their potential to change public education. I like to think that I was under no illusion about the formidable capacity of entrenched interests to delay, disrupt and deny progress, but saw weaknesses in that structure that could be leveraged to assure our success. Where I was naive – and might well be again someday – was in failing to appreciate the internal weaknesses of reform movements that probably doom most and keep the rest on the margins. Frankly, the intensity of the opposition to reform is one of the few factors that give reform efforts strength. Almost every other force dissipates their power.

In my experience, market-based reform efforts do not realize their mainstream potential for three reasons.

Leadership’s short horizon. The forefront of market-based reform efforts is full of gifted speakers able to communicate a vision and the need to make it a reality. But as a practical matter, a new movement’s leadership tends to view the world in terms of a political campaign culminating in a vote. They rarely make a study of relevant reform history. Once the empowering legislation has been passed, they lack the capacity to assume the responsibilities of implementation and have no inclination to step aside for those who do. This leads to a disconnect between those who represent the reform to policymakers and those in the trenches building the organizations required to make the reform possible. Ultimately the alienation of practitioners from spokespeople leaves the reform without legitimate representation and so without the political power required to protect the empowering legislation from ongoing attack.

Management’s narrow view of its job. There is no market-based reform without revenue generating organizations. Building a new business in a new industry is extremely hard work, but this country is truly blessed with talent in the nuts and bolts, heavy-lifting, block and tackle aspects of entrepreneurship. What differentiates the k-12 education market from every other is its political nature. The nation also has quite a few educators who understand this aspect of the business. Unfortunately far too few organizations have managed to create management structures with the right balance. The “business” led organizations blunder their way through known political minefields. The educator-led outfits operate on the narrow edge of financial viability. Finally, whichever community they come from, managers tend to spend far too much time on internal operations that truly can be delegated, and far too little on the larger problem of building political legitimacy for their industry through collective action.

The low priority placed on results. The idea that charter schools, comprehensive school reform and the school improvement industry offers recognizably higher levels of student performance on high stakes tests is the single most important reason enabling legislation gets passed. Similarly it is the basis of philanthropic support and venture investment. At the same time, reasonable people don’t expect results by the end of the first year, or even the second. Because the pressure isn’t immediate and operators face no end of immediate cash-draining challenges to build their operations, means of addressing program quality in general and assessing student outcomes in particular are put on a back burner – if they are even on the stove. Consequently, when the time comes to demonstrate student outcomes that really differentiate the new way from the old, the clear “slam dunk” results aren’t there.

When the results promised are not delivered, political and financial support erodes. The idea of maintaining an option replaces hope for a breakthrough as the motivation for keeping the idea alive. The reform is not on the margins because of intense opposition from “the system” – its wounds are mostly self-inflicted.

Listen to this as a podcast on SIIW Online.

Some Relevant Podcasts:

What’s a CODiE and How Do I Get One (And What Does It Tell Buyers)?

What Has Become of the Charter Idea? (I through IV) (starting here)

Measuring Your Trade Group’s Value

Barriers to Venture Investment

From Firm Risk to Political Risk

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