Markets are Ineffective in Education and Create Social Inequalities

A new study has found that competition between schools and greater school autonomy do not increase student achievement. It also found that competition tends to increase social inequalities in school results. The study is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Education Policy.

The adaptation of the market model to school education is based on three basic principles. First, students and their families should be able to choose their schools with the result that these schools, no longer benefiting from having a captive public, would have to compete in order to attract students. Secondly, schools should enjoy a large degree of autonomy, which would allow them to make choices specifically adapted to their respective situations and to differentiate their provision from that of competing schools. Third, funding of schools should be proportional to the number of students enrolled which would penalise unattractive schools and thus prompt them to improve their educational practices.

The study used the PISA 2006 database to test this theory of the effect of competition and school autonomy on student achievement. It found no association between levels of school autonomy and between-school competition and student results in reading, mathematics and science:

….the levels of autonomy and competition experienced by the principals are not linked to the differences in achievement between schools. [p.521]

Even where some advantages from competition and school autonomy are observed, the study found that they are small and far from the benefits claimed by market advocates [p.525].

The study also tested whether the combination between autonomy and competition (as claimed by market advocates) is linked to student achievement. Again it found no significant relationship with student results in reading, mathematics and science.

….schools in which principals perceive a high level of autonomy combined to a high level of competition do not differentiate from other schools (in which for instance the principals perceive a high level of competition but a low level of autonomy or low levels in both autonomy and competition) in terms of student achievement. [p.521]

Thus, the study concluded:

Neither perceived school autonomy nor perceived between-school competition, nor their interaction, appeared to be associated with student achievement. [p.524]

The study also examined the counter claim that markets in education increase social inequalities between students and schools. It found that greater competition between schools strengthens the relationship between school socio-economic composition and achievement in reading, mathematics and science. It widens the gap between the results of schools with a concentration of advantaged students and those with a concentration of disadvantaged students.

However, the study found no link between levels of school autonomy and the impact of social composition on student achievement. A higher level of autonomy did not appear to be associated with stronger relationship between school composition and achievement.

These results suggest that it is greater competition between schools that drives the relationship between school composition and achievement. More competition widens the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools, regardless of the level of school autonomy.

The study suggests that the negative results of competition on student achievement and social inequalities are not unexpected because of inadequacies in the theory of markets applied to education. Defenders of the market maintain that market-related pressures and incentives will push educational personnel to make changes which should lead to an improvement of the educational services. However, the authors question this hypothesis because several theoretical components of market theory are not found in the education sector. For example, school choice is far from ‘free’, the opportunities for making a choice are unevenly distributed, and information about schools is incomplete, etc.

The theory of the market also assumes that education workers are strategically motivated, self-interested individuals who react above all when confronted by the prospect of sanctions or incentives. However, the evidence is that, that in the educational field, as in other sectors, the sources of motivation, commitment and identification are much broader. Teachers are subject to considerations of professionalism and a context of public service. The authors suggest that the key to improving educational quality should be sought within a framework of professional values and ethics on the one hand, and the idea of public service and attention to users on the other.

Trevor Cobbold

Xavier Dumay & Vincent Dupriez (2014). Educational quasi-markets, school effectiveness and social inequalities. Journal of Education Policy, 29 (4): 510-531.

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