Top-Down Reform vs. Market Reform of K–12 Education

Newly elected officials interested in “improving” K–12 education might sound a lot like Optimus Prime: “Reform and roll out!” But just like the Transformers, although policymakers’ reforms will differ and change, they’re all inherently the same.

America has seen “reforms” of public education since 1644, when Rev. Ralph Wheelock became the first teacher in the country’s first tax-supported school. Since then, we’ve witnessed:

Notably, in that annotated list, many reforms were polar opposites of each other. For example, states and districts spent decades consolidating schools to give students broader opportunities, but then—in a blast back to the distant past—small schools and schools within schools became all the rage.

That is not to suggest one is wrong and the other right. Rather, why should one particular reform be granted precedence over others and subsequently be imposed on all, or a large swath of, children and teachers?

Presidents, governors, legislatures, Congresses, and heads of education come and go, with each determining the trajectory of public education. Such instability among those influencing education, however, has led to, well, instability for those doing the educating.

Reflecting on his 43 years teaching high school English, one prominent teacher wrote about the constant and ever-changing reforms placed on his school and him:

More than four decades of education reforms didn’t make me a better teacher and haven’t made T.C. Williams a better school. Rather, the quick fixes promulgated by headline-seeking politicians, school administrators and self-styled education gurus have in some cases done more harm than good. I found that the most helpful professional-development experiences involved fellow English teachers sharing what worked in their classrooms—always with the caveat: “This works for me; it may not work for you.”

In 2012, a first-grade teacher in a challenging Los Angeles urban public school wrote:

Change can be good, but constant change is not, and is often frustrating. It is easier to teach at a school where the staff is stable, procedures and policies are in place, and there’s a strong sense of community. It is more challenging to teach in a place where there are always new faces, rules change, and expectations vary.

And, earlier this year, this lament of a middle school English teacher in Connecticut went viral:

I no longer have the luxury of teaching literature, with all of its life lessons, or teaching writing to students who long to be creative. My success is measured by my ability to bring 85 percent of struggling students to “mastery,” without regard for those with advanced skills. Instead of fostering love of reading and writing, I am killing children’s passions—committing “readicide”….

Those experiences, coupled with the prominence of such reforms, recently led former longtime New York Times columnist Bob Herbert to warn about a “plot against public education.” This latest “plot”—or, reform(s)—is “market-based,” according to Herbert. And it is being led by billionaires, namely Bill Gates.

As Herbert notes, Gates spent $2 billion, between 2000 and 2009, to make 8 percent of the nation’s public high schools smaller. Although Herbert is right in his assessment of the reform’s results, he’s wrong on their origin: market-based they are not. Rather, they represent a top-down approach, which is exploitable when the system empowers only one provider of a service.

Such billionaire-backed policies as small schools, non-traditional school leaders, digital learning, Common Core, standardized testing, etc., are more representative of what Adam Smith, the father of free markets, warned about:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

What Smith was referring to was the cornering, or monopolizing, of the market—in other words, imposing one’s will on everyone else, who have little to no recourse to respond.

That is not to suggest Gates or other individuals looking to reform public education in their vision have evil intent. Nevertheless, such altruistic impositions can be harmful to families and educators.

Herbert is right: “This hit-or-miss attitude—let’s try this, let’s try that—has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years.” However, trying new things and differentiating approaches are important—and needed. And there is a way to do it on a localized, personalized level in which educators and educatees work together. It is market-based. And it’s made possible through universal school choice.

Remember, even though many of the abovementioned list of reforms are at odds with one another, that doesn’t make some better or some worse. The quality of each should be determined by those it affects. After all, different strategies and approaches likely work in some situations, but not in others.

For example, different teachers have different strengths. Whereas “integrated math” might be taught well by Teacher A, perhaps Teacher B works best teaching math through more traditional methods. And then there’s the students: Maybe Jane learns best from Teacher A in a private Montessori environment, but John needs Teacher B’s structure in a public setting. The same goes for Common Core, high-stakes standardized testing, small schools, small class sizes, etc.

Students should be matched to schools, teachers, curriculum, courses, etc., and the matching should be done by their parents—through making a choice in a free education market.

Admittedly, allowing parents to choose where their children attend school will bring changes to K–12 education, some of which cannot be predicted any more than the iPhone could have been predicted in 1876. But at least such changes will be decided by those closest to education: parents and educators—not elected officials or bureaucracies, which can be heavily influenced by the top-down lobbying efforts of unions, corporations, foundations, and billionaires. Educators will be free to run schools as they deem appropriate, and parents will decide which schools have the opportunity to best educate their children.

Under a universal school choice plan, there are two ways that Bill Gates and anyone else for that matter—including public educators—can determine the course for K-12 schools:

  1. First, they could open their own schools, which could adopt any number of reform strategies, including small classrooms, Common Core, and instruction from non-traditional leaders.
  2. Second, they could finance research and development into new teaching or management methods and see if any schools—of their own volition—choose to adopt them.

In either scenario, parents would be free to send their children to schools with the reforms they think best fit for their children. Teachers, meanwhile, would be free to teach in schools that had approaches and environments they think are most suitable to their skills.

As Bob Herbert and the teachers quoted above know well, constant reform programs have led to a seemingly never-ending and often contradictory policy churn that affects their jobs, lives, and students. Those top-down reforms are the antithesis of market-based policies.

Parents and educators—through their school choice decisions—should decide what school reforms are best—one child, one classroom, and one school at a time. Now that would be transformational.