Eureka moment on public education and testing

Something dawned on me while I was reading about the failure of standardized testing to improve the quality of public education.

Testing is an attempt to use means other than the market to perform a market role.

Think about it. How does the market ensure quality? It puts producers in competition with each other in the market. The producers who offer a product with a higher price and lower quality lose out to the producers who do better. But people have to be able to make choices for the winners to emerge and then be trounced by even better producers.

In public schooling, there is no real competition. A school can produce a poor quality product at a really high price — and they are — and suffer no consequences in the marketplace. A disgruntled customer (a parent) can’t just demand his or her money back and try another provider.

So how do you get accountability without a market? Tests are the only real way. But if tests actually told you what you wanted to know, which they don’t, what do you do about it? Even when tests tell us schools are failing, nothing radical changes. The kids who are zoned for that school still go there. Money still flows to that district. Sometimes individuals schools close, and the students are bused to other, nearby, nearly identical schools. Sometimes teachers are fired in droves. But does that help? Is there any evidence that that helps anyone?

The only way to introduce market accountability into education is to introduce a market into education. That’s been tried to an extent with vouchers and charter schools. But again, measuring these programs’ success always centers on standardized testing. And the benchmark is always whether the students in charter and private schools (with vouchers) perform better on them than the students at nearby public schools.

Here’s my thought: in any free, competitive market, you’ll have a good or service available at a variety of prices and qualities. Of course there are levels of freedom and competitiveness. There is no totally unregulated, legal market in America. But let’s take the market for food for example. You can pay a lot for filet mignon, or you can pay a little for beans. Both will keep you alive and fill you up, but they cost different amounts to buy.

I propose that a free, unregulated market for education would be the same. You can pay for Harvard prep, or you can pay for tech school. Both will provide educational value, but they’ll cost different amounts to buy.

Here’s where I think most people would agree with me. And here’s where I will lose most of them: I think that’s as good as it gets.

People see education as the key to America’s upward mobility and meritocracy, and the idea that poor kids would get a worse education than rich kids is a social evil that must be eliminated, in our lifetimes! Throw money at it, stat!

Fact is, poor kids get worse public educations than rich kids, even when the state spends more money per pupil on them.

We’ve got to first face facts about education, then privatize it, thereby introducing a market where there was none, and lastly let the market do to education what it’s done for food, medicine, clothing and other necessities: made it cheaper, move available, and higher quality.

This is long and rambling, but I think I’m on to something. I care so much about public education. I need to think about this some more and write something that makes sense.


  1. Colleen

    Let’s not forget that standardized testing only tests a student’s ability to recall memorized material. Most schools spend the entire school year teaching students the material that well be on these test. The students don’t learn how to think about it, or how all the material relates to one another, past events, or current events. These schools only care about getting funding for the next year, not the education of the children. In the end, students end up with basic knowledge of a wide ranges of subjects. Is it any wonder why, upon entering college, most kids don’t know what they want to major in or what they want to do with their lives?

  2. Cathy

    True enough, Colleen. I think most reasonable people agree about the limitations of standardized testing. I think where reasonable people disagree is about alternatives. Do you think the market is a good alternative? There are some that denigrate for-profit schools as, as you put it, only caring about getting funding for the next year. I guess the difference is that under competitive pressure, schools don’t have to “care” they just have to perform.

  3. Colleen

    I fully agree with the TOTAL privatization of schools. Government is not competent enough to handle anything, much less the education of our children.
    Across the board government standards and ownership only hurt children and retard their intellectual growth. The privatization of schools would lead to a vast expansion in the number of school and the type of schools available to families.
    Most people criticize this because ‘poor children’ would not be able to get an education. They fail to realize that charity is most prominent when there is less government. There would be many private charitable organizations that would charge little or nothing to ensure that children got an education. These people also ignore the fact that families could education their children themselves, or the children could educate themselves, if they wanted to.
    Government schools can not and do not educate. From my experience they make the whole process of education so repugnant to kids, they end up hating reading and learning.

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