Bringing Free Market Choices to Education

Americans have learned to trust free markets. Republican or Democrat, we believe the unimpeded exchange of goods and services will yield better solutions than five-year plans set by even the most well-meaning public servants. Free markets have sometimes led to excess -- reality TV and supersized soft drinks come to mind -- but have also given us incredible innovation, a remarkable degree of choice and the world's strongest economy.

And yet free markets are absent from K-12 education. We grant each school district a geographic monopoly, which creates a monopoly on how students within the (sometimes arbitrary) district lines are taught. Worse, we are setting state and national standards that move steadily toward greater central control of education.

The people who favor that control have the right intentions. Just as doctors don't extemporize while performing open-heart surgery, why, they ask, should 3 million K-12 teachers be inventing their own ways to teach? We need to figure out what works and then make every teacher do it.

It sounds so simple, but consider these facts:

  1. Almost everyone who has claimed to know what kids need to learn or how they learn has turned out to be wrong. Simply recalling "bilingual education" and "whole language" should make us far less trusting of big claims.
  2. Exciting discoveries in neuroscience are allowing us to fit educational methods to new understandings of how the brain develops.
  3. No two children learn in the same way. While we might agree that every American eight-year-old should be able to read and multiply, beyond those basics, there are few reasons to make every student follow the same path.

We need to think through a system that delivers the rigor, scientific basis, and accountability that the one-size-fits-all system promises, but does so in a way that unleashes the innovation, diversity, and customization that free markets, at their best, deliver.

One way would be to increase the role of education model providers (EMPs). These could be textbook companies like Pearson, charter networks like KIPP, or technology companies; each would be responsible for a curriculum, materials, tests, and professional development for teachers, and would slug it out with other providers for the loyalty of school districts or, better yet, individual schools. EMPs would distinguish themselves with their uses of technology, their focuses on specific audiences (e.g., offering the best curriculum for rural students), and their spearheading of new approaches (Democracy Prep teaches traditional subjects through the lens of citizenship). Giving more power to EMPs would necessitate long-term assessment of the students taught according to each model, as well as shorter-term assessments like NAEP or PISA (unlike standard multiple choice tests, these detailed assessments are divided among students groups in carefully chosen groups). Teachers would be given the freedom to do what they do best, but with EMPs providing structure and direction.

This sounds complex, but as in any market -- organizations (whether for- or not-for-profit) hang out their shingles, are judged by their results, and constantly evolve (think of how different your cell phone is from the one you carried a decade ago).

Under my proposal, parents, students and teachers would choose schools according to the education models they espouse (my kids, for example, are most engaged by a project-based approach). Assessments would be broad and deep. The results would spur a kind of arms race, as EMPs scramble to outperform each other.

H.L. Mencken noted that "for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." As we move towards the clear, simple solution of greater standardization in American K-12 education, we may want to start to work on an alternative, one in which the approaches schools use are not dictated by Washington, but created by EMPs that will live or die by their results -- a true race to the top.