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Hitching Free-Market Ideas To Online Learning

Several weeks ago, Chris Lehmann tweeted from the Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz., "Educators—if you don't see that there is a billion-dollar industry wanting to take over schools using tech as the Trojan Horse, wake up."

If I were to have one quibble with the metaphor, it would be this: The free marketeers are not hiding inside the horse, ready to jump out only after they are let in the gates of schools. They are riding right on top of the horse, shouting, "Hey, this is a great horse! Let me tell you how we plan to use this horse to advance our free-market ideology in the education sector." The guy riding on the horse then starts reading "Education Reform for the Digital Era,"Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader the most recent release of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

My summary of the free-market argument for reforming educational systems to allow more online learning (as I've gleaned from the report) looks something like this:

"The free market is the most efficient system in the world for generating and distributing high-quality goods and services. Education is no different from any other sector of society—it provides a service for which people pay money. In the United States, however, 14,000 school districts have a local, state-run monopoly over education, and the leaders of these systems have little incentive to innovate and improve. We should replace this system with markets where students and parents can choose their schools, their classes, their teachers, and anything else they want. Students will leave crummy schools, which will shrivel and die, and the remaining schools will compete for these students by becoming progressively more innovative and effective.

"Online learning provides free-market advocates the chance to take their model to a new level: This competition can shift from the school level to the course level. Why force students to purchase all their classes from one school? Why not let them buy Algebra 2 from Khan Academy, Spanish 1 from Rosetta Stone, and P.E. from their local charter school?

"To make this vision of learning possible, the key policy action is to stop funding schools and start funding kids. If a kid really needs a human connection, and he wants to buy a spot in his local public school, then that's great. If he wants to learn from the best lecturers in the world, then let him enroll in massive online courses led by a newly created group of mega-stars of education. Let each kid spend their per-pupil-expenditure on any learning experiences that he or she deems satisfactory. Quality control will happen by students voting with their feet."

This is a radical reimagining of what it means to participate in schooling. Networked technologies have transformed numerous sectors of our economy over the last decade: business, journalism, politics, and even our own identities. Should education be next? If so, is this the direction to go?

—Justin Reich


Improving U.S. Education And Surpassing Shanghai

How would we redesign the American education system if the aim were to take advantage of everything that has been learned by the countries with the best education systems?

This question is the premise of Marc S. Tucker's recent edited volume, Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems (Harvard Education Press, 2011). The essays in the volume examine the countries with the highest-performing systems and how the United States can improve its current academic performance based on how these successful systems operate. With only six contributors, the book is not your traditional collection of essays and many of the authors wrote, or co-wrote, more than one essay.

Reviews of the book have been mixed. Jay P. Greene's review, which appeared on Education Next's website, disagreed with the book's premise. Greene does not believe in "best practices," writing that "if imitation were the path to excellence, art museums would be filled with paint-by-number works." In his review, Greene argues, "Since there is no scientific method to identifying the critical features of success in the best-practices approach, we simply have to trust the authority of the authors that they have correctly identified the relevant factors and have properly perceived the causal relationships." For Greene, neither Tucker nor the other contributing authors adequately prove in their essays that the characteristics they choose to discuss actually led to successful education systems.

Tucker's response, which appeared on, as well as in his Top Performers Blog—which is hosted by—took the line that "unhappy with our conclusions, [Greene] chooses not to debate them, but to savagely attack our goals, our methods, and me personally."

Jack Jennings, who wrote about Surpassing Shanghai on the Huffington Post's The Blog, took a more balanced approach, noting that "some will argue that the United States is unique—that what brings success in other countries is not relevant to our situation," before concluding that "now is a good time to ask whether we are on the right path to better schools. If not, we had better change fast if we want to be competitive in the world."

—Catherine A. Cardno

Vol. 31, Issue 31, Page 12

Published in Print: May 16, 2012, as Blogs of the Week
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