The myth of the rational education market

By Peg Tyre
August 11, 2011
By Peg Tyre
The opinions expressed are her own. 

In this excerpt from “The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve,” author Peg Tyre explains how the educational “free market” created by the charter school system doesn’t guarantee parents will pick the best schools for their kids. In fact, with objective information hard to come by, even more pressure is on parents to gain — and exploit — data about school quality in order to outperform the educational market.

The idea that school choice is automatically better than no choice has recently been reinforced again, with the “Parent Trigger” in California. Under a law passed there last year, parents whose children attend underperforming public schools can get together, and if 51% of them sign a petition, they can demand their district change the school administrators or convert the school to a charter. So far, a parent group from Compton “pulled the trigger,” but parents from poor urban schools and well-funded suburban schools have been seeking information on how to use the Parent Trigger law to improve their schools.

Similar bills, which are supported by education reformers on both sides of the political aisle, have been passed in Connecticut, Ohio and Mississippi. About a half dozen state legislatures—including New York — are expected to consider Parent Trigger type bills this year.

When it comes to education, this may well be The Year of The Parent. For decades, educational professionals have talked about the importance of “parental engagement” to insure positive outcomes for kids. But in the past, the limits of that engagement have been clear. Parents were expected to show up for parent teacher conferences, chaperone a class trip and maybe whip up some cookies for a bake sale. Suddenly, with the rise of the Parent Trigger, and similar measures around the country, parent engagement may start to truly become a force that pushes schools toward real reform.

Not sure you are up to the task?  Blame Milton Friedman. For the last forty years, economists have urged education reformers to unleash the power of the free market. If parents, the most highly motivated stakeholders in the education process, the theory goes, were given a choice about where to send their kids to school, and the state and federal funding followed each student, good schools would thrive and bad schools would wither and die.

And policy makers listened. In the last fifteen years, school choice has become the cornerstone of school reform. Middle and low-income parents routinely chose between district run, charter, magnet and specialized programs. Measures like the Parent Trigger now demand parents to take an even larger role—not just choosing schools for their child but selecting operators of those schools for their community.

With power comes great responsibility. Soon after parents embark on the process of selecting a school for their child—or helping to reform one—most parents quickly figure out 1) that, second to conceiving, this is probably the most important set of decisions they will ever make for their child’s future and 2) they don’t have a clue what they are doing.

Where do parents go to get the information they need? According to researchers, many parents rely on the opinion of other parents when deciding where to send their children to school. Sometimes that works. Other times it creates an echo chamber that can cloak real improvement and, even more troubling, hide a school’s worrisome deficits. Most parents look at test scores – but how many really know what test scores actually measure and how to interpret them? Some of us say we want schools that are safe, that are nurturing and that are close enough to home so that our children’s educational experience strengthens their ties to their neighborhood, their community or the place our family worships. Armed with that vague checklist, we tour schools and visit classrooms—clueless about what we are seeing and good questions to ask. Then we go with our “instinct.” It’s like buying a car without looking under the hood.

Currently, American parents of school-aged children are the best-educated people in the history of the country. We’ve seen how the economic downturn of the last three years has disproportionately affected people without a college education. We know how important succeeding in school can be. And we know that when it comes to evaluating schools, we should be doing better.

So here’s the good news and bad news. The bad news first: there is no one size fits all model for a perfect school. If you think about it, the curriculum that is perfect for the child of migrant farm workers in Sausalito is not going to suit the child of two biochemists in Darien. Anyone who tells you otherwise is dreaming. The good news, though, is that there are ways that all kinds of parent can inform themselves about education so they can make better decisions that suit their circumstances. Parents need to learn what a good preschool looks like, and why it’s important to make sure your child goes to one. How neuroscientists say we read—and why some reading programs commonly used in schools leave as many as a third of kids behind. How math-phobic teachers can depress your child’s achievement. What to do if your child is not working at grade level. (Hint: You need to act now.)  And how to spot an excellent teacher and to enroll your child in a school where teachers are scaffolded, mentored and retained, so that excellence is sustained, year after year.

For parents, the learning curve will be steep. But we don’t have much choice. Our federal and state governments must provide all families with well-run schools and well-trained teachers. But it is up to parents to make sure our children get what they need. The economists were right in one respect: the desire to see our children succeed burns bright in parents from every walk of life. But it is up to parents to turn that spark into an enduring flame.

From “THE GOOD SCHOOL:  How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve” by Peg Tyre. Copyright © 2011 by Peg Tyre. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.

12 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Unions enter into contractual agreements with state’s governors. Some of these governors were supported during election campaigns by the teacher’s unions and some were not. To simply blame unions for the wholesale decline of education in the United States is purely political rhetoric. The problems facing education in this country are many and far reaching.

“No Child Left Behind” is a cruel joke. It’s stated intentions of raising the minimal amount spent on every child to around 4000 dollars per year was never realized during the last Bush administration. In fact after court challenges, the Bush administration provided only 25 cents on the dollar to all public schools. In essence said legislation was a net loss of around 1400 dollars leaving the federal contribution at roughly 1100 dollars when it had been in excess of 2300 dollars previously. To my knowledge the full funding of “No Child Left Behind” has not been publicly addressed by the Obama administration. I cannot say with any certainty if this travesty has been corrected.

Modernity has brought the advent and advantages of the internet. Yet it is exploited by the young and middle aged for shopping, gaming and socializing. The minority who use it as a research and communications tool are the only ones who shame our media into reporting what is really happening in the world.(ie…Wiki Leaks)

While the “Scopes Monkey Trial” is practically a century behind us some parents and school districts are again at odds whether or not to teach evolution, creation or both. Clearly the failing of educational system goes back many decades for such debate to once again arise.

The real problem is a “Crisis of Character” suffered by the American People and her leaders. Too many of us are either apathetic, unethical, intolerant, self centered or some combination of all the above. This mass mindset has led to public divisiveness and rancor leaving most of our institutions in a state of paralysis.

I don’t have the answers to this spiritual dilemma we all face. None the less we must find a cure (for lack of a better word) if we are to heal as a nation and face the responsibilities and challenges we have too long ignored.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Freedom.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Gee, I thought parental engagement included helping your kids with their homework and encouraging them to study hard. As to this “blame the teachers” twaddle, while I’ve had some teachers I’d acknowledge were bad, the problem is that there is no pure one-variable experiment to test the hypothesis; there’s always that second variable, the student.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

Fix yer typo miz educaitor.

First, make all schools small and local. This encourages community and parental engagement and prevents kids from becoming anonymous in the huge, consolidated schools that are the norm today. Economies of scale are for cars not people.

Second, do all the other stuff the article talked about! Scaffolding, mentoring and retaining teachers is particularly important, but above all else if we can return schools to their localities we integrate them into the families and communities they serve. Small schools mean that students can’t hide out. Community integrated schools mean that administrators can’t hide out either. Everything else, even sub-par teaching, is survivable.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

Your final conclusion is pretty dismal. Most parents lack both the knowledge and the experience to evaluate curricula, faculties, and methods. And even those who do are all too likely to be trying to give their kids the education they wish they themselves had received, or, almost as bad, to avoid the education they received but later never needed in their work, e.g., algebra. Education of the young has to be about more than job training. At the same time, the schools have to resist the temptation and obviate the need to do jobs for the kids that the parents should be doing (like learning to balance a check book). I have used real, not made up examples. And, finally, music, art, and sports are as basic to one’s education as, to use an ignoramus’s expression, the three Rs: readin’, ritin’, ‘n ‘rithmatic.

Posted by morphex01 | Report as abusive

Parents are and have always been the key to education. To a much lesser degree communities influence the outcome. Beyond that it has little to do with what is good for “the children” and everything to do with corruption and power. The whole concept of public education is wrong. Government programs intended to reach out like giant hands of God are supposed to level the playing field. Instead these programs damage the very tenants of fairness and need they profess to uphold.

Not long ago, the Church on Sunday was the School House on Monday and City Hall on Thursday. Children were taught their community’s values and deciding whose prayers needed answering was never problem. Think Little House on the Prairie. It was those one room schools that made us prosperous and America the land of opportunity. The most important part is not money or even opportunity but the individual child’s desire to learn.

We now spend hundreds or thousands of times more on state sponsored monolithic education and the product is mostly dysfunctional. The world has changed and teaching the 3Rs from a shared McGuffey may seem quaint but Sugata Mitra studies (see his talk on TED.com) show children can and DO learn without formal education.

Learning language is one of the most difficult challenges but infants do it outside of the classroom and without professional instruction. Their need to communicate with parents and siblings motivates learning. Repeated trial and error attempting to emulate those around them does the rest.

Schools would work as well if government got out of the education business. The only problem is the establishment won’t easily give up its benefits, perks and privileges even if it is FOR the children.

Posted by GLsword | Report as abusive

Which isn’t true, and yet even if it were doesn’t mean we aren’t the best educated people in our history. It would be suprising if we WEREN’T the best educated…lots more college folks out there then ever before.
And scaffolding and mentoring is all good, but you’re ignoring a simple fact…you have to PAY GOOD PEOPLE GOOD MONEY…or they will also exert the free market and go where they can make a living.
And yet people have this remarkable aversion to paying teachers good salaries.

==RED

Posted by REDruin | Report as abusive

Sorry Alfred but there are no persons in the United States or Europe who really want to read that do not have the freedom and are not aware of the opportunities to become literate. It takes very little if any money, no teachers or formal schooling and certainly nothing from government.

Any normal human with some intelligence can find more reading material in local recycling bins than most school children had access to before the industrial revolution. Free volunteers willing to tutor are available on every block, on most playgrounds and often sitting on park benchs.

It is true that 25 or more percent of adult Americans refuse to put forth the effort needed to become literate but implying that it is society’s duty to change them is similar to the fantasy of prohibition. It is time for society to quit worrying about credentials and simply allow or better yet, require people to be responsible for the kind of life their choices have qualified them for.

Institutionalizing human from age 4 to 24 and coercing the third or so of them who would prefer to farm, lay brick, shingle or just be an at home Mom with children is just as much of a crime as forcing others to dig ditches in slave labor camps. We cherish diversity when it comes to race but condemn it when the minority is those who wish to learn in the real world versus a government approved classroom. Elon Musk is well educated; Richard Branson is not; but without BOTH of these foreigners and their America friends Burt Rutan and Co – the hope of commercial space development would still be limited to view graphs and Star Trek conventions.

I personally know many functional illiterates who can carpenter, weld, stone mason and even operate heavy equipment far better than any PhD I have ever met. Indeed my experience has been that for many critical skill jobs too much schooling and theory spoils the soap (sic – pun intended). By limiting the definition of education to “book lernin” we devalue manual labor creating a society that must “import” those skills and suffer the consequences of exporting the wealth they create.

Posted by GLsword | Report as abusive

I am stunned. When I was a small boy (in 1953) my conservative father led the fight in Riverhead, New York against school centralization – claiming that this would diminish local, parental control. Now, it’s been so long since parents had any control that they have to be re-educated? Aren’t these the parents who graduated from these substandard schools?
The solution is always meritocracy – a system where local control is strong, but made so boring that only the best educated parents take part as an empowered school board. The rest of the parents need to stay home.

Posted by sandy12345 | Report as abusive

Moving to a higher viewpoint

As we know in the Quality Assurance industry ” A failure of Quality is a failure in Management ” the educational system is no different and ” A failure to produce Educational Excellence is a failure in Educational systems management. ”

The teachers sure are a part of the puzzle but not the only part or really even the driving part.

Posted by Ideapete | Report as abusive

Let’s stop blaming unions and address the real issue. Unions are there to protect teachers who are treated unfairly and work to help them attain a livable salary and reasonable benefits. Firing any teacher without following well defined procedures which require documentation is unfair. It is unjust when administrators do not use the negotiated agreement to evaluate, support and ultimately terminate employees who fail to do their jobs well. I have been teaching along time and I agree, there are teachers who should not teach but generally it is not the union protecting them. Sadly, I have seen two very poor teachers returned to the classroom because the union could clearly establish that there was no documentation to support termination. So, is that the union’s fault? I want the best schools for the children I raise and the children I teach, but damning a system that protects teachers from being replaced because inexperienced and less educated folks are cheaper or from being fired unjustly…that is only going to weaken the system.

Posted by teacherlady | Report as abusive

TRUE THAT(!), teacherlady.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive