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Market-based schooling: Operationalizing a bifurcated system

Government spending in education is an investment in human capital resulting in increased productivity and innovation. This invariably stimulates and promotes economic growth (Woessman et al., 2003). Yet, government spending in education does not necessarily result in improvement in student achievement. In an OECD report published in 2003 by Woessman et al., three policy reform strategies were outlined based on a market or corporate culture orientation. These strategies are centered around three factors: accountability, autonomy and choice. The evidence is overwhelming that indeed, educational reform driven by a strong accountability model, school autonomy (or decentralization) and demand-sensitive schooling (choice) that actualize improved test scores would increase a country’s GDP and lead to better economic outcomes. Comparative analyses of various OECD countries underscore the impacts of these reforms.

The challenges:

I raise a banner for standards but I am passionately opposed to standardization. Accountability models have standardized curriculum (through a more factory model-approach: information in, product out) and standardized testing has, in my opinion, fractured the very “soul” of education. What is the purpose of education? Shouldn’t there be a greater goal than solely preparing workers for the labour market? Pedagogy has also transformed into a subset of strategies that will support the goals of the tests, whatever these may be; exit exams, standardized testing, SAT, you name it. Teaching to the test has, in effect, become normative. Testing itself, the creation, administration and supervision, is big business.

On another level, we must carefully also acknowledge the equity challenges inherent in market-based reform. I refer here specifically to the correspondence principle. Several questions come to the fore for me: What do we make of the fragmentation of curriculum and subjects, the competitiveness inherent in testing, and/or the drive for high results or marks rather than enjoyment of the content and thus deep exploration of subjects for their own sake (extrinsic/intrinsic reward argument)? Is it in fact proven that government funding of both public and private schools creates an environment of “choice?” Will “competition” lead to student achievement that is meaningful in the long run? Who, in fact, stands to benefit from the “choice” arrangement? Wouldn’t effectively maintained inequality (EMI) be operant?

Moreover, when our educational systems are driven by standardization (test scores) and economic models (sanctioned by the labour market), aren’t we buying into meritocracy? Doesn't the national leagues table covertly highlight the "winning" and "losing" schools? What's more, how did we come to accept accountability systems that "sanction" entire schools (and close them down) based on their performance when a closer look would reveal these very schools often grapple with socio-economic and cultural challenges and variables that cannot be addressed by working or studying “harder?"

Finally, what happens for example when pedagogy becomes driven by parental demand, often based on tradition, latest fads or even peer pressure, and not on educational research evidence? Take for example Montessori education. Montessori is popular in my field (early childhood). The Montessori principles are good. I use it in my own program, however it has its limitations and was written for a particular audience at a particular juncture in history (the early 20th century). Firmly grounded in modernism, Montessori promotes memorization of facts, computational skills such as ordering, seriation for example, and focuses primarily on academic skills. Young children regurgitate academic content impressing parents, however few Montessori programs engage deeply in inquiry skills or co-constructed learning, the arts or non-cognitive skills such as collaborative group work or social play, skills necessary to navigate a postmodern landscape.

I believe it is important to reflect deeply on the “narratives” that read us. Policies have direct impact on all of us stakeholders (administrators, teachers, students, and society at large. Ultimately student achievement is our collective goal. How we will realize narrowing the achievement gap, keeping all our children in school and ensuring a strong educational pipeline from early childhood to College in a bifurcated system is the challenge before us. Macro-level challenges cannot be solved through micro-level solutions. My blog is not an attempt at a solution, but merely to reflect on the challenges inherent in the system. Investment in education is the hope for any country’s economic future. Let’s be sure we are, as a society, supporting the implementation of policy reform that in fact will yield returns and benefit everyone involved.

Drop me a line, I would love to hear your thoughts.




Woessmann, L., Luedemann, E., Schuetz, G., & West, M. R. (2003). School accountability,autonomy, and choice and the level of student achievement: International Evidence from PISA 2003. OECD education working paper, No 13. OECD Publishing.

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