Robin Lake: Market-based accountability won’t be enough



Editor’s note: This is the third post in our series on the future of parental choice and accountability.

Like it or not, many cities are moving toward nearly universal school choice. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, nearly all families have the opportunity to choose among district schools, charter, and private options, and few children attend an assigned neighborhood school. Parents are more empowered than ever to actively decide on a school and, hopefully, insist on better outcomes.logo bigger

But this explosion of choice brings serious challenges. It’s extremely important for schools to be held accountable to families, through the force of the market, but it’s not enough. In “high-choice” cities, parents with the least education and those whose children have special needs are struggling to understand and access their choices. Sometimes each school has different application timelines and processes. Schools aren’t always equipped for, or welcoming to, students with special needs. To make choosing even harder, each of the dozen or so agencies chartering schools in each city has different standards and accountability requirements.

Some neighborhoods have far too many schools, and parents are aggressively courted with cash and other rewards—but academic quality is rarely at the forefront. In other neighborhoods, no new schools want to locate so parents have no real choices.

When choice is unleashed in distressed, high-poverty communities, provider freedom to open schools and parent choice are not enough to accomplish the goals of free and excellent public education for all. Someone must be responsible to create new options for the most disadvantaged, and schools must be called to account when they don’t live up to their promises. That doesn’t happen often enough in places like Detroit and Cleveland, where the many charter authorizers have little incentive to close schools.

This challenge will grow when students are able to use public funding to purchase online courses, take courses in private schools, and spend part of their day in a community college. By 2025, more schools may serve as sites for a variety of online student learning programs rather than places where teachers deliver traditional lessons in classrooms.  Learning environments will, hopefully, allow students to move through material as quickly as they can master it, and assessments will keep pace with differentiated learning.

These are exciting possibilities, but it will be all the more difficult to make sure that disadvantaged students don’t get left behind. If we do nothing to rethink accountability, we will move even further away from being able to say exactly what provider is responsible for a student’s outcomes and the less aggressive and knowledgeable parents will be even more lost. I see three main challenges in making sure choice works for all children:

1. Deciding what information matters. Many cities are moving toward common accountability frameworks to make it easier to apply a fair standard to school closures and to give parents a common understanding of school quality. But as schools increasingly differentiate, it becomes harder to find common measures to capture whether or not schools are effective. As online courses and new school options proliferate, we will need a much richer evidence base. We’ll need to know which programs and courses work well and for what types of students. School principals may need to start reporting how each student’s learning accelerates or declines under various programs they engage in throughout the day, especially as grade levels become less meaningful than content mastery.

Also, it’s important to acknowledge that parents look to many other factors besides test scores, like safe and caring environments, when choosing schools. Even if that information doesn’t carry weight in school renewal decisions, government or community groups need to help parents access it.

2. Dealing with multiple oversight agencies. Cities with choice are quickly becoming more like highly fragmented systems of schools than school systems, with schools managed or authorized by a wide variety of entities. Who is to be held accountable for failure in systems that are hardly systems at all? Who is responsible to create options for families in benighted neighborhoods that school providers avoid? Where can parents turn if their children are denied entry to a charter school based on a disability? Who is responsible for ensuring that students of families who don’t choose get assigned to schools that are a good fit? Who will help students who are kicked out of several schools for severe behavior problems?

3. Guarding against unnecessary regulation. Schools of choice will be regulated, because there are real issues that need to be resolved around quality and equity. The choice community will have to fight vigilantly to avoid regulation that re-creates the onerous regulatory systems of the past. But it will also have to work proactively to resolve problems voluntarily before there is need for government intervention.

If we hope to hold schools of choice accountable in a way that doesn’t put them back in a regulatory box or create onerous testing mandates, choice advocates will need to develop:

  • Ways to hold schools accountable when students may not be present at one school for the whole day 
  • Ways to track how students are learning across a variety of programs and intervene if they are going off track 
  • Ways to create safety nets for students with extreme behavior problems or other special needs 
  • A common yardstick to compare schools and programs, for both parents and those tasked with identifying low-performing schools 
  • Online assessments that track student mastery in ways that aren’t burdensome for teachers or students 

These next-generation accountability questions will require creative thinking, honesty, and humility about the limits of market-based accountability.

Robin Lake is director of the Center of Reinventing Public Education.

Coming Thursday: Patricia Levesque, executive director, Foundation for Excellence in Education.

4 Responses to Robin Lake: Market-based accountability won’t be enough

  1. Jim Bender June 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    From the article: In “high-choice” cities, parents with the least education and those whose children have special needs are struggling to understand and access their choices.

    Yes. Please let government intervene and save these parents from themselves. In Milwaukee, the vast majority of parents are not struggling to figure out what is best for their children. There are significant waiting lists at the best schools, regardless of sector.

    The problem is not too many low-performing schools. The problem is not enough high-performing schools. Figuring out the balance of parent motivations, gov’t regulations and “accountability” can spin into an endless waste of time when you have existing demand not being met by supply. Robin claims market forces are not enough. That may or may not be true, but come let me know when market forces actually get a chance to thrive first.

    Here in Milwaukee, vacant public school buildings are hoarded by the school district and city so schools in the voucher program cannot get access to them. Some of the highest performers in Milwaukee cannot expand to meet the demands of the neighborhood today.

    To talk of closing low performing schools via gov’t fiat utilizing this mystical, purely objective measuring stick does not improve education in any way. Pouring our resources into quality school leaders and schools so they can expand and meet the demand of their neighborhoods is step one. We can talk about how parents are incapable of making good decisions after that.

    Jim Bender
    School Choice Wisconsin

  2. Andrew J. Coulson June 11, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    Based on Dr. Lake’s resume, it seems as though she must be very knowledgeable about both traditional and charter public schools. And perhaps she means to restrict the scope of her comments to only those types of school systems. But that is not entirely clear. Some of her statements seem to refer to education policy generally, such as when she writes: “It’s extremely important for schools to be held accountable to families, through the force of the market, but it’s not enough.” This, if it is meant to be generally applicable, this claim is not consistent with the evidence.
    Effectively unregulated and minimally regulated markets of competing elementary and secondary schools do exist in various parts of the world. They have been studied by scores of researchers, and compared in their performance and efficiency to heavily regulated state school monopolies and sometimes to heavily regulated “choice” systems in which schools are nominally privately-run but paid for and constrained by the state. When I surveyed that research for the Journal of School Choice, of which Dr. Lake is a referee, I found that the most market-like, least regulated schools showed the greatest and most consistent advantage over state school systems:
    For readers interested in a vivid first-hand account of these market-like school systems, operating even in some of the poorest places on earth and serving some of the least educated parents in the world, I recommend prof. James Tooley’s high readable book: “The Beautiful Tree”.

    • Allison Hertog
      Allison Hertog June 11, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

      There ‘s a major difference between what I think Dr. Lake is saying about disadvantaged parents and questioning those parents’ decision-making capacities. Access to the information needed make school choices and to navigate various school bureaucracies (public, private, virtual, traditional) are highly important to disadvantaged parents, and to those who have more complex decisions to make (e.g. parents of special needs kids). For example, Step Up For Students on which I am on the Board and which co-host this blog drafts all their materials at the fourth grade level to help ensure that disadvantaged parents can access the process and make the right decisions for their children. That’s very different from saying that parents need to rely on government to make decisions for them.

      • Jim Bender June 12, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

        Allison, by gov’t creating a single measuring stick and applying sanctions based on that measuring stick is making decisions on behalf of parents. I have been on the Design Team for the State of WI report card. There are many subjective decisions that go into a grading system prior to the release of data. Parents do not have a seat at the table. Transparency of quality data is critical to all sorts of decisions getting made. But having gov’t decide what school can stay open and what will be closed strips that power away from parents. Now, the “it is for their own good” crowd will welcome that intervention. My point is, before we take away parents ability to choose a certain school and adopt a model that has gov’t making subjective decisions on their behalf – let the market actually work. Until now, their have been programs that apply some market forces, but nowhere, even in Milwaukee is that a “free” market.

        Vouchers are funded at 60% of public schools. Vacant buildings are hoarded and sit empty. There are bad schools in all sectors, but let’s not give up on market forces before they are even in place, especially by opting for more gov’t control.