The Free Market and the Social Divide in Education

Monday April 20, 2009

The Federal Government’s approach to education is fatally contradictory.

Extending the market in education and improving social equity are incompatible policies.

Inevitably, it is equity which loses out, as it has in England and the US. Instead of improving student achievement, market-oriented school systems lead to greater social segregation and exacerbate achievement gaps in schooling.

These are among the conclusions of a research paper by SOS’s Trevor Cobbold.

Download the complete research paper – The Free Market and the Social Divide in Education


Privatisation of Schools Fails the Test

Sunday April 19, 2009

A new study of the privatisation of schools in Philadelphia shows that they have failed to keep pace with student achievement in public schools.

Student achievement growth rate in schools run by educational management organizations (EMOs) fell significantly below the growth of public schools in both reading and mathematics between 2002 and 2006. In contrast, in the four years prior to privatisation, those schools later run by EMOs had achieved growth rates significantly higher than the rest of the district in reading and statistically equivalent in mathematics.

bq.”By 2006, the achievement gap between the privatized group and the rest of the district was greater than it was before the intervention,” said the author of the study, Vaughn Byrnes, from John Hopkins University Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 April 2009].

These results were achieved despite higher government funding for the privately operated schools. Most of the privately operated schools received $450-$880 more per student than the publicly operated schools.

The study used 10 years of state reading and mathematics results before and after privatization of education services in the Philadelphia School District. It was based on a sample of 88 middle-grades schools.

The study is published in the May issue of the American Journal of Education

Its findings accord with those of two previous studies that found that public schools outperformed privately managed schools. Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the RAND Corporation and Research for Action in recent years both found that the EMO schools have achieved less than publicly operated schools.

In 2002, 45 failing Philadelphia schools were handed over to private managers as part of a state takeover of the school district. Over time, 17 schools were taken back. Today, the private managers run 28 city schools with roughly 13,400 children. The district spends $6.7 million annually for privately run schools.

Twenty of the schools are run by EdisonLearning, a for-profit company, which has been at the centre of controversy for over a decade in the United States. A recent study by Harvard University professor Paul Peterson found that students attending schools run by for-profit companies in Philadelphia did better in mathematics than public schools. The study was partially funded by Edison.

The new study and the Harvard study used a similar methodology as both attempt to compare each pre-intervention growth to post-intervention growth in student achievement. However, the new study makes use of five years of growth prior to intervention as a baseline for comparison, whereas the Harvard study compares the four years of post-intervention growth to only one year of pre-intervention growth.

Using five years of growth prior to intervention provides both a more reliable measure of pre-intervention trends from which to compare and results that are less vulnerable to statistical validity problems.

Advocates of privatisation have suggested that the EMO schools were given management of many of the lowest-achieving schools in Philadelphia. However, the new study includes statistical controls designed to remove any biases about pre-intervention test measures, student demographics and school structure.

Furthermore, the study shows that five of the worst performing schools in terms of absolute levels of achievement prior to state intervention were those under public management. They began with achievement levels as low as those of the EMO schools and with equally disadvantaged students.

It seems that these schools were the highest performers of all groups post-intervention as a result of other changes made to public schools. This further undermines the argument that the relative effectiveness of the district versus EMO management was due to pre-treatment differences in achievement levels and student demographics.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (9 April 2009), the School Reform Commission last year warned some operators that unless their performance improved significantly this school year, their contracts would not be renewed.

Privatization proponents have argued that the bureaucratization of the education system is at the heart of its failure and a main cause of the poor performance in many public school districts. They say that privatization would provide more efficient administration and use of resources, as well as greater innovation and improvement in the provision of services arrived at through competition in an open market.

The hand-over of schools to private operators in Philadelphia is the largest privatization experiment in the United States. It is a major test of the benefits of markets and competition in schooling. It appears to have failed the test.

Trevor Cobbold

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Teachers More Likely to Leave Charter Schools

Saturday April 18, 2009

Teachers at charter schools (independently operated government funded schools) in the United States are three times more likely to leave the profession or change schools than teachers in the traditional public school system.

This is the startling finding of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association this month.

In the charter schools, nearly a quarter of the teachers ended up leaving by the end of the school year, 14 percent of them leaving the field altogether and 11 percent transferring to another school. By comparison, the average turnover rate in the regular public schools in the same states was around 14 percent. Half the departing teachers were leavers and half were switchers.

The study by researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville found that the higher turnover rates are due in part to the fact that charter school teachers are, on average, younger and less likely to hold regular teaching certificates. The paper found no linkage between higher turnover and charter schools’ personnel policies that make it easier to get rid of under-performing teachers.

The study used federal data from the 2003-04 school year on 14,428 teachers from charter schools and traditional public schools in 16 states.

There was little difference in turnover rates between charter schools managed by private outside providers and those managed by some other entity.

The researchers said that their findings could help explain why research so far has failed to turn up any consistent advantages for charter schools in terms of student achievement.

For further details see Inside School Research blog

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The Free Market and the Social Divide in Education

Wednesday April 1, 2009

The following speech was presented by SOS National Convenor, Trevor Cobbold, to the National Public Education Forum held at Old Parliament House, Canberra, on 28 March 2009.

As Geoffrey Robertson has just said, education is a human right. Education for all without discrimination is an essential feature of a democracy. It is also a guarantee of democracy.

However, the right to a successful education for all is being undermined by subjecting schooling to the market forces of competition, choice and privatisation. This program launched by John Howard and David Kemp is being maintained by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. They are extending it with the publication of tables of individual school results.

The Prime Minister says that it is designed to get parents “to walk with their feet”; that is, to make the market work better. David Kemp used the same euphemism incessantly.

The Prime Minister’s ultimate market discipline is to subject schools to a form of bankruptcy proceeding – schools that fail to improve will be subject to “tough action” that includes firing principals and senior staff and closing schools. This is something Kemp could only dream of.

The Government’s approach presents some startling paradoxes.

Rudd’s market paradoxes

Paradox 1

The first paradox is that the Government has given John Howard and David Kemp another term in office.

Labor strongly opposed Kemp’s major initiatives such as the massive expansion of private school funding under the SES model, fewer restrictions on new private schools and reporting the results of individual schools. Yet, Labor has maintained these market-based policies, and is extending them by publishing tables of school results.

Julia Gillard’s “new progressive approach to schools” is to implement Kemp’s goal to efface the difference between the public and private sectors. According to Gillard, “the old progressive assumptions about the roles of different schools and the nature of disadvantage don’t hold”.

Advocacy of the special role of the public sector to ensure universal access, social equity and democracy in education is now disparaged as a “sterile” and “fractious” debate, just as it was by Howard and Kemp.

As under Howard, private schools continue to share proportionately in all new initiatives such as the new infrastructure program, despite their much lower proportions of disadvantaged, Indigenous and special education students. They even get a windfall gain on these students because their government funding is already linked to government school costs.

Who would have thought that a government that sees itself as progressive would be completing the work of its conservative predecessor? This is the real revolution in the Labor’s education policy.

Paradox 2

The second paradox is that the Rudd Government is extending the market in education at a time when markets are discredited as never before in the past 30 years. As one of leading voices of free markets, Financial Times economics writer, Martin Wolf, said on 8 March:

bq.Another ideological god has failed. The assumptions that ruled policy and politics over three decades suddenly look as outdated as revolutionary socialism. “Governments bad; deregulated markets good”: how can this faith escape unscathed ….

A Financial Times editorial on the future of capitalism opined on the same day:

bq.The credit crunch has destroyed faith in the free market ideology that has dominated Western economic thinking for a generation.

The Prime Minister himself has joined the chorus of criticism. He has criticised the “neo-liberal extremism” of market fundamentalism that has landed the world economy in its current mess. He says that “unchecked market forces have brought capitalism to the precipice” and that “the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed”.

Yet, he has shut his eyes to the failure of the market in education. He doesn’t even seem to be conscious of the paradox.

Paradox 3

Another paradox is that the Government is looking to the failing English and American market models, especially New York City, rather than the most successful education system in the world – Finland – which has rejected the market approach. Australian students are 6-12 months ahead of English, US and New York City students but about a year behind Finnish students in reading, mathematics and science. It is clear where we should be looking.

It is said that Finland is not a good model because it has a relatively homogenous population and faces an easier education task than Australia. Australia must look to England and the US because they have more diverse populations. However, the evidence shows this is a furphy.

Australia has a higher proportion of immigrant students than these countries, yet it has the best results for immigrant students of all OECD countries, and it is well ahead of those in the UK and the US. Children from immigrant families perform as well as native born Australians whereas there are large gaps between the achievement of immigrant and native born students in the UK and the US.

Australia’s most disadvantaged students have much higher average outcomes in reading, mathematics and science than those in the UK and the US. Australian disadvantaged students are 6 months or more ahead of those in the UK and 18 months ahead of those in the US.

But, Australia can do much better. Our results are much lower than those of the most disadvantaged students in Finland. Finnish disadvantaged students are some 12-18 months ahead of the Australian students. Overall, Finland’s most disadvantaged students are over 18 months ahead of those in the UK and about 2½ years or more ahead of those in the US.

Finland also has the lowest achievement gap between rich and poor students in the OECD. In contrast, the US has the largest gap and the UK has the third largest.

All this suggests that we have something to learn from Finland in its rejection of the market in education. The lesson is not to copy – but to examine, evaluate, learn and adapt as required.

Paradoxically, this is what many educators and governments in the US are starting to do. For example, last week the Christian Science Monitor reported that many political and education leaders are studying Finland’s approach in order to improve their education systems.

But we remain stuck with a discredited model because a blinkered Federal Education Minister cannot see behind the halo of her hero, Joel Klein in New York City.

Paradox 4

It is paradoxical also that Julia Gillard preaches the virtues of evidence-based policies but ignores her own advice when it comes to extending the market in education. It shows the triumph of ideology over evidence.

Major research studies demonstrate that reporting school results and greater competition and choice do not lead to significant improvements in student achievement. As Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and the co-author of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt, says of school choice and competition: “the theory sounds great, but evidence confirming it has been hard to find”. A major study by the London School of Economics concludes that “choice and competition does not seem to be generally effective in raising standards”.

Only last week, a major new study on charter schools published by the RAND Corporation found against the two key arguments of market advocates. It confirms the finding of several other studies that student achievement in charter schools does not differ substantially from those of traditional public schools. It also concludes that competition from charter schools does not increase student achievement in nearby traditional public schools

The Minister has failed to support her case with evidence. The best she can do is to cite the misleading and selective evidence used by the Commonwealth Treasury.

Paradox 5

A further paradox is that the Federal Education Minister argues that reporting individual school results is necessary to provide transparency about school performance. Yet, she is not applying the same standard to herself. She has restricted public information and debate about her proposal. It is all being decided under the cloak of secrecy.

The Minister has denied teacher and parent organisations, as well as the general public, any opportunity to examine and discuss the proposed arrangements. This is not the open government promised by the Prime Minister.

The Minister has taken her cues from her champion, Joel Klein, on how to force through controversial measures without public debate. Secrecy and avoidance of public debate are characteristic of how Klein has implemented change in New York City’s schools. There too, teacher and parent organisations were excluded from the process.

Paradox 6

It also paradoxical that a Government which espouses the rhetoric of social inclusion has weakened national equity goals while extending the market in education.

Under Gillard’s stewardship, national equity goals have been substantially weakened. The new Melbourne Declaration removes the key goal of achieving social justice in schooling which was in the previous Declaration. It also weakened the commitment to eliminating achievement gaps for disadvantaged students and other social groups.

It also switches the emphasis from equity in student outcomes to equity in access to education. Offering a commitment to equitable access to schools, rather than a commitment to equity in outcomes, has always been the way out for conservatives. Now Rudd and Gillard are singing from the same song sheet, yet again.

The head of Nokkia, Finland’s most successful and well-known company, said in the Financial Times this week that the Nordic way of capitalism is a model for the world in the current crisis because of its social solidarity system and its good, egalitarian education system. These provide the answers that are needed he said.

It suggests that weakening Australia’s commitment to an egalitarian education system in the new national goals portends grave consequences for Australia’s future prosperity.

The social divide in Australian education

Already, Australia has a large achievement gap between rich and poor by comparison with other high performing OECD countries. This, together with the gaps between outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and between successful immigrant groups and low-performing immigrant groups, is the major challenge facing Australian education today.

If you have any doubt about this, just look at the evidence on educational divides in NSW compiled by a recent Auditor-General’s report. It shows that the proportion of children in the south-western and western Sydney who do not reach national benchmarks in literacy and numeracy is ten times that in the northern suburbs. Yet, they all have access to education.

The latest PISA results show that nearly 25% of 15 year-old students from low socio-economic families in Australia do not achieve expected international proficiency standards compared to 5% of high SES students. In contrast, the proportion of high SES students achieving the highest proficiency levels is about 5 times that of low SES students. On average, 15 year-old students from low SES families are 2-2½ years behind their high SES counterparts. But, they do have access to education.

Large achievement gaps also exist between girls from low and high income families, just as there are large gaps for boys. But, they have access to education.

About 40% of 15 year-old Indigenous students do not achieve expected international proficiency standards compared to 13% of all Australian students. On average, 15 year-old Indigenous students are over 2-2½ years behind non-Indigenous students.

The Government’s response to the socio-economic divide in education is the National Partnership Agreement between the Federal, State and Territory Governments to inject $3 billion into 1500 disadvantaged government and private schools over the next 6 years.

This looks impressive. It amounts to about $330 000 per year for each school. Spread over an average school size of say 250 students, it means an additional $1320 per student – just over 10% of current average expenditure per student in government schools, which is $11 874 according to the latest figures published by the Productivity Commission.

Extensive research shows that the funding required for low achieving disadvantaged students to achieve adequate levels of achievement is two to three times the cost of educating an average student– or something like 20-30 times what the Government has on offer. No wonder they have shifted the goal posts.

What will happen of course in 5 or 10 years time is that someone will review this program, find it didn’t work to any significant extent, then the right wing think tanks will jump on it to argue that money doesn’t matter in schooling and funding for the disadvantaged will be seen as a waste of taxpayer funds.

A fundamental contradiction in policy

The Government’s approach to education is fatally contradictory. Extending the market in education and improving social equity are incompatible policies. Inevitably, it is equity which loses out, as it has in England and the US. Instead of improving student achievement, market-oriented school systems lead to greater social segregation and exacerbate achievement gaps in schooling.

Publication of tables of school results represents a critical stage in the introduction of a market in education. It could well tip the balance against the public system by misrepresenting its performance and giving succour to politicians and others who want to shift people out of the public system and reduce the taxpayer commitment to public education.

Until now, public education has managed to hold its own as federal and state governments have chipped away remorselessly at its democratic task for over a decade now. Its resilience in the face of a multi-pronged attack is due in no small part to the overall quality of teaching in government schools, the commitment of most families to their local school and to the egalitarian values of most Australians.

But, now there is a real threat to public education. Just listen to the words this week of two experts on the state of education in the UK and the US, experts who can hardly be called left-wing radicals – sorry, I should have said “old progressives”.

Former head of the NSW Board of Studies and now director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, Gordon Stanley, urged Australia not to make the mistakes of the UK and the US in ranking schools.

bq.We could well end up with a similar situation to the UK, where you get a whole industry created around improving performance on the tests rather than necessarily improving students’ learning skills.

He said that in the US there had been an “enormous manipulation of data” since schools were asked to show “adequate yearly progress” and it is corrupting the professional process.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education to President George Bush Snr., Diane Ravitch, questioned whether the New York City public education system will survive the “embrace of big money” and the market model being imposed by Julia Gillard’s hero, Joel Klein.

bq.At some point the music and the upheaval will stop. But when it does, will there still be a public school system? Or will the schools all be run by hedge fund managers, dilettantes, and Education Management Organizations?

These are the prospects we face. What the Rudd Government education policies promise is not progress – but a step backwards. They are a threat to egalitarianism and social solidarity. They will lead to greater educational divides, which will flow on into greater social divides as they have in England and the United States.

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Charter Schools Largely Fail to Improve Student Achievement

Thursday March 26, 2009

A new report published by the RAND Corporation shows that charter schools are not having the positive effect on student achievement claimed by their advocates. The study adds to the growing weight of evidence that competition between schools does not improve student achievement. It serves as yet another warning to the Rudd Government that this is not the path to school improvement.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools within the government education sector in the United States, but which operate independently. They were seen as a way to promote parent choice and to provide a source of competition for traditional public school to improve student achievement.

The RAND study examined charter schools in Chicago, San Diego, Philadelphia, Denver, Milwaukee, and the states of Ohio, Texas and Florida. It found that student achievement in charter schools does not differ substantially from those of traditional public schools.

In five out of seven districts, charter schools are producing achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of local traditional public schools. In Chicago (in reading) and in Texas (in both reading and math), charter middle schools appear to be falling short of traditional public middle schools.

This confirms a key finding of several other studies. For example, a review of major studies published last year in the Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy concluded:

“Research to date provides little evidence that the benefits envisioned in the original conception of charter schools – organizational and educational innovation, improved student achievement and efficiency – have materialized….In none of these states have charter schools, on average, had large or unequivocally positive effects on student achievement.”

The RAND study also shows that competition from charter schools does not increase student achievement in nearby traditional public schools. It concluded:

“Our findings support the hypothesis….that charter-school competition is unlikely to create a rising tide of school performance, in the absence of dramatic changes in the structures, incentives, culture, and operation of conventional school districts.

….the near-complete absence of positive competitive effects (excepting small positive effects estimated in Texas) should be a disappointment to charter-school supporters who hope that healthy competition will induce TPSs (traditional public schools) to improve.”

The study shows low performance among two specific groups of charter schools: charter schools in their first year of operation; and, in Ohio, “virtual” charter schools that serve students remotely via technology rather than in a conventional school building.

The only promising results for charter schools relate to the long-term outcomes of high school graduation and college entry. In the two locations with available data (Chicago and Florida), charter high schools appear to have increased the probability of graduating and enrolling in college.

Across seven school districts examined, there was no evidence that charter schools are “skimming the cream” in recruiting high achieving students from traditional public schools. Students entering charter schools generally have prior achievement levels that are comparable to those of their peers in traditional public schools. In a few places, they were slightly higher achieving than their former peers; in other places, they were slightly lower achieving, and, in Ohio and Texas, they were much lower achieving than their former peers.

However, there were differences for white students, who constituted a minority of charter entrants in all locations. White students entering charter schools were, on average, slightly higher achieving than the white students in their previous schools.

Transfers to charter schools did not create dramatic shifts in the sorting of students by race or ethnicity in any of the sites included in the study. In most sites, the racial composition of the charter schools entered by transferring students was similar to that of the public schools from which they transferred.

There was some variation between locations. Transfers to charter schools tend to marginally reduce racial integration in Philadelphia and in Texas while marginally increasing racial integration in Chicago. African-American students are more likely to self-segregate. Those students transferring to charter schools moved to schools with higher concentrations of African-American students in five of seven locales.

The Prime Minister and the Minister for Education have placed faith in the role of competition to improve school performance. The PM has said that the system of reporting individual school results is designed to get parents “to walk with their feet” while the Education Minister looks to the failed New York City model of school competition.

Yet, major research studies, such as the new RAND study, demonstrate that competition and choice do not lead to significant improvements in student achievement. They show that the Rudd Government should abandon its commitment to the Howard/Kemp model of school improvement.

Trevor Cobbold

Link to the RAND study

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Choice or Equity in Education?

Saturday August 23, 2008

This paper, by Trevor Cobbold, was delivered to the Education Summit in Sydney in June 2008.

It argues that choice has failed the promise of its advocates to improve education outcomes and that it has not only deflected education systems from dealing with the major challenge of inequity in education, but has exacerbated inequity.

The result has been to reinforce privilege in education. The paper further argues that while choice in any education system is inevitable and cannot be denied, it should be strictly controlled in order to give priority to improving equity in education. The paper also sets out some fundamental steps to improve equity in education in Australia.

Choice or Equity in Education.pdf