The Wisdom of the Market

Design vs Experience

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

I’m humbled that Andy Smarick thinks I “offered the most compelling philosophical explanation for a system of choice” among the recent Fordham Institute Wonkathon participants. However, he misreads me when he states that my “professed ‘humility’ (we don’t know everything) came across as agnosticism (we can’t know anything) given that we’ve learned gobs about choice over twenty-five years.”

Nowhere do I claim “we can’t know anything.” Of course we do, and of course we can learn more. But questions remain: who are “we,” what do “we” know, and is that knowledge sufficient to achieve “our” ends?

By “we” Smarick seems to have in mind “policymakers and wonks” and the “what” that “we” supposedly know is that markets alone just don’t cut it so some very, very smart people must bend schools to their will impose government regulations to ensure accountability. To bolster his case, Smarick cites a recent article in National Affairs by Chester Finn and Bruno Manno on the lessons they’ve learned from their decades of experience studying charter schools:

Both strongly support school choice, but they concede the “vexing reality” that “market forces alone can’t reliably generate academic effectiveness.” Overconfidence led to accountability getting short shrift early. “Those present at the creation of the charter bargain (ourselves included) paid too little attention to how authorizing would work.”

Throughout the article, the [Finn and Manno] explain how events played out differently than expected. Because they assumed “a barely regulated marketplace would provide more quality control than it has…we focused on quantity rather than quality.” They were excited by policies that would spur “infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism,” but “we didn’t take seriously enough the risk of profiteering.”

Smarick claims that my Wonkathon entry’s “sanguine title, ‘Let the market work,’ runs headlong into Finn and Manno’s reflections.” As Justice Scalia might say: pure applesauce.

It may or may not be true that “market forces alone can’t reliably generate academic effectiveness” but Finn and Manno cannot draw that conclusion from experience in the charter sector because charters are not operating in a free market, never mind a “barely regulated” one. Charters are secular public schools that can’t charge families tuition, can’t devise their own criteria for admission, they have to meet certain state standards, and they can be shut down by their “authorizers” even if a sufficient number of students and parents prefer the charter to make it financially viable.

In other words, charters provide more choice and competition than the status quo, but charters are not operating in a market. The lack of a price mechanism alone should make that apparent. Drawing any conclusions about what an actual market in education would or would not produce based on the charter experience is ludicrous.

There’s some truth to Smarick’s contention that “theory without experience is [mere] intellectual play,” but he’s drawing the wrong lessons from Finn and Manno’s experience. Although it’s impossible to draw solid conclusions about a market from a non-market, the charter sector has much to teach policymakers about the chasm between policy intentions and policy results.

For example, Finn and Manno lament that “charters in many places are hobbled by many operational constraints, too little money, and, often, insufficient attention both to the delicate balance between quantity and quality.” These constraints often stem from the very regulatory framework that was intended to ensure quality. A 2010 Fordham study found that “state laws were the primary sources of constraint on charter school autonomy, accounting for three-quarters of the infringement that these schools experience.” This year, an American Enterprise Institute study found that “one-fourth of average charter application contains inappropriate and onerous requirements,” and that authorizes “sometimes mistake length for rigor” and “often prize innovation less than they say they do.”

The fatal conceit of the charter school agenda was that granting schools a bit more autonomy and granting parents a bit more choice in a controlled environment would create a true “market” in education. But a market requires a price mechanism, a means of channeling dispersed knowledge. Smarick accuses me of believing that “we can’t know anything” but that’s not so. Policymakers can’t possibly ever know enough to design the education system from the top down but the market can channel dispersed knowledge to produce higher quality through experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

Smarick confuses the technical knowledge of experts for the dispersed knowledge of the entire system. Sure, technocrats have learned “gobs about choice” in a quarter-century, but they can’t possibly know enough to design the most effective possible education system. Likewise, a panel of a dozen Nobel-prize winning economists certainly knows “gobs” about how markets function, but they cannot possibly know enough to effectively set the price of tin on any given day.

The technocrats’ approach is attempt to define quality, measure it, and shut down any school that doesn’t live up to it — even against the will of parents. As Finn and Manno wrote:

Charter doctrine is clear: Bad schools should be closed (or “non-renewed”) by their authorizer. Yet it turns out to be as hard to close bad charters as traditional district schools. Hundreds of kids are affected, and the alternatives for them are often no better than the troubled charter. Furthermore, parents are almost universally hostile to the demise of their children’s current schools.

First, why are those parents “almost universally hostile” to closing down their chosen school? Could it be because “the alternatives for them are often no better” and probably worse? Could it be that the schools are effectively providing some things–safety, discipline, good values, a love of learning–that the parents legitimately prioritize over test scores in a few subjects?

Attempts to define and measure quality too often come at the cost of innovation. At present, states’ standardized testing regimes assume that all students should progress at the same pace across all subjects — a system that is anathema to reforms like competency-based learning which dispense with Carnegie units. Moreover, the focus on a few subjects both creates a perverse incentive for schools to focus on those subjects to the exclusion of others and overlooks the other, often more important areas where a school may be performing quite well. As AEI’s Michael McShane wrote:

Recently, I have been influenced by the work of Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson, whose fascinating NBER working paper calls into serious question policy’s recent overreliance on math and reading scores as the primary measure of the “goodness” of schools and teachers. As it turns out, teachers have important and measurable impacts on both the cognitive and non-cognitive development of students. While it’s certainly true that test scores can tell us something important about a teacher, what is troubling for the test-score types is that it looks like (1) non-cognitive scores are better predictors of later life success (completing high school, taking the SAT, and going to college) and (2) that it is not the same set of teachers that is good at raising both cognitive and non-cognitive measures.

Such has to be the same for schools, right? If there are teachers that are increasing non-cognitive, but not cognitive skills, surely there are schools that are doing the same. As a result, trying to assess if a school is “good” or “bad” relies on a complex web of preferences and objective measures that, quite frankly, cannot be taken into account in a centralized accountability system. We need something more sophisticated, and something that can respect a diverse conception of what “good” and “bad” means.

This is not to say that there should be no standards or accountability. The question is who imposes the accountability on whom. As I’ve noted previously, the absence of a government-imposed standard does not imply the lack of any standards. Rather, it leaves space for competing standards, which in turn fosters innovation and diversity. Parents can then evaluate the quality of education providers based on their own experience and the expert evaluations of appropriate external providers, and the entire system evolves as parents select the providers that best meet their children’s needs.

So yes, policymakers should be humble about what they know or think they know, but we can have greater confidence in a system that channels dispersed knowledge to produce greater quality and innovation. This is more than mere “intellectual play.” It’s the process by which we’ve seen enormous gains in productivity and quality in nearly every other sector in the last century — not top-down technocratic tinkering but bottom-up experimentation, evaluation, and evolution in a free market.

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4 Responses to The Wisdom of the Market

  1. jasonbedrick says:

    Also, this statement from the Finn/Manno piece is jaw-dropping:

    “…And it illustrates the vexing reality (doubly vexing to school-choice advocates such as ourselves) that market forces alone can’t reliably generate academic effectiveness. Milton Friedman may have gotten this part wrong, at least over the short run.”

    Friedman called for a universal voucher program with no prohibition on “topping off” tuition with one’s own funds and in which schools could set their own admissions criteria. If you want to test Friedman’s prediction, you have to study a system that actually resembles it. Charters don’t even come close.

  2. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    Excellent. I very much agree with you about the limits of cognitive indicators. Like you(?), I sometimes feel that the original charter dreamers, after 30+ years of work, often assume the shape and manners of school technocrats of old.

  3. pdexiii says:

    Our school’s rating on Great Schools is below average. The comments from parents are generally very positive. Our test scores are good relative to neighboring schools, but only slightly above average for all CA schools.
    We’ve never gone the whole school year below our capacity, and the HS graduation rate of our students (8th graders) is above the state average, and definitely above the average for our neighboring high schools.
    Our best accountability has been the success of our graduates, and that parents (families with siblings especially) keep sending their children to our school. What we do best may not be captured by test scores, but seems to be serving our customers quite well.

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