Market-Based Education Policies in the US Have Failed to Increase Student Results

A review of market-based education “reforms” in the United States has found that they have not delivered the success promised. The report found that test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in cities that introduced comprehensive market reforms compared to other urban districts.

It also found that test-based accountability has thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers. School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money. Charter schools have disrupted school districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.

The report found that market-based education policies miss a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance. School systems that have implemented these policies have failed to provide programs to alleviate the effects of poverty on student outcomes. They have drawn attention and resources away from policies with real promise to address poverty-related barriers to school success.

The report, Market-oriented Education Reforms’ Rhetoric Trumps Reality, assesses the impacts of market-based reforms in three large urban school districts: Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago. It was published by The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, an organisation established to support a well-rounded approach to education that goes beyond test-based accountability.

A specific set of market-based education “reforms” have dominated education policy debate in recent years in the United States. Proponents such as former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, emphasize three particular policies as the answer to improving student achievement and reducing race- and income-based achievement gaps:
• The use of student test score data to make decisions about hiring, firing, and rewarding teachers and principals.
• The use of student test score data to target “failing” schools for “turnaround” and/or closure.
• The expansion of student and parent choice about schools, in the form of increased access to charter schools (often as replacements for neighbourhood schools closed for under-enrolment).

The findings from the three cities do not show that the reforms have succeeded. Most test scores have not increased any more than in other school districts that did not adopt the same reforms or in the period predating the new policies. Some test scores have fallen and achievement gaps by race and income are as wide, or wider, than they were prior to the reforms. Analysis of the most reliable, comparable data – National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores – shows that the rhetoric did not match the reality: test scores stagnated for low-income and minority students and/or achievement gaps widened in the reform cities.

The leaders of market-based policies in all three cities have claimed that they had boosted student achievement and closed achievement gaps. However, the report shows that when state test scores were recalibrated to make standards consistent, compared with NAEP scores, and disaggregated by race and income, gains vanished or turned out to have accrued only to white and high-income students.

For example, New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (and his former schools chancellor Joel Klein) claimed to have halved the white/Asian to black/Latino achievement gap in city schools from 2003 to 2011. However, scores on state-administered tests, averaged across fourth and eighth grades in reading and math, show that the achievement gap stagnated; it was 26 percentage points in 2003 and 26 percentage points in 2011. New York City had the second-smallest average test score gains among 10 large, low-income urban districts studied.

In Chicago, low-income, black, and Hispanic students gained virtually no ground, and actually lost ground in some cases. In Washington D.C., the gap between low and income student increased dramatically under the policies implemented by Michelle Rhee.

The report found that new teacher evaluation systems based heavily on student test scores seem to have increased teacher turnover, rather than improved teacher quality. It was claimed that using student test scores to evaluate teachers and to reward and fire teachers would improve the quality of teachers in low-income schools. However, using narrow, unreliable test data has turned off great teachers, increased turnover and drained experience from teacher pools, with no boost to student achievement. In particular, increased teacher turnover in low income schools has been shown to be a major impediment to improving student results.

For example, the teacher evaluation system in Washington D.C., which bases evaluations (and dismissals) heavily on test scores, is associated with higher teacher turnover. The share of teachers in the district leaving after one year increased from 15 per cent in 2001–2007, the period before the evaluations began, to 19 per cent in 2008–2012. The share leaving after two years increased from 28 per cent to 33 per cent, while the share leaving after three years increased from 38 per cent to 43 per cent. After four years 52 per cent of teachers left the system, compared to 45 per cent before the evaluations began.

While the Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee made a point of firing teachers deemed ineffective, the report found that the higher attrition rate cannot be attributed largely to teacher terminations. Instead, most teachers left of their own volition. The termination data show that the majority of teachers who left the DC system during Rhee’s tenure had not been rated ineffective.

Test scores were also used to target schools for closure. Schools deemed to be “failing” were closed so students could transfer to “better-performing” schools. However, the report shows that most students whose schools were closed went to other schools with even lower test scores.

In both Washington D.C. and Chicago, students ended up in schools that, on average, had lower test scores than those they left. In all three cities, closures affected black and low-income students disproportionately, with New York City’s neediest students suffering a gradual loss of staff and other resources as their schools were closed. All three districts failed to protect their most at-risk students from the damage that can occur due to school closures; those students experienced more upheaval and less support in the process and lost ground as a result.

Charter schools, which are independent public schools, have been promoted as offering options and outcomes for students in “failing” public schools. However, charter school outcomes in the cities studied and across the country are uneven. Charters serve fewer of the highest-needs students than do regular public schools and can disrupt school districts logistically and financially. High-performing charters tend also spend more per student than regular public schools.

The report notes that some charter schools have been highly successful, but the gains may not be replicable on a broader scale for several reasons. For example, using funding to extend school days and provide enriching extra-curricular activities may not be feasible in larger numbers or based on public school budgets. Parent contracts and commitments cannot necessarily be obtained from most parents, nor can all parents provide the consistent support that benefits some charter school students disproportionately.

The report found that market-based education policies have missed a critical factor in achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance. In all three cities, a narrow focus on market-oriented policies diverted attention from the need to address socio-economic factors that impede learning.

In 2010, student eligibility rates for free- and reduced-price meals were 67 per cent in Washington, D.C., 72 percent in New York City, and 77 percent in Chicago. Clearly child poverty has been a significant factor contributing to low student test scores and graduation rates in these three cities. The report said that failing to provide supports that alleviate impediments posed by poverty ensures continued low student test scores and graduation rates, and large gaps between average test scores of white and affluent students and test scores of minority and low-income students.

The report concluded that the market-based policies implemented in Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. should not be used as models for other school districts.

…the many other cities that are implementing or considering market-oriented strategies have no reason to think that they will increase student or school success by relying heavily on student test scores to evaluate teachers, principals, and schools; closing “failing” or underenrolled schools; or treating charter schools as a fix for “dropout factories.” [p.71]

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