Educational choice: a changing global reality

Recent local elections and policy shifts in Colorado and across the nation are reflective of some worldwide trends in educational choice that are often unknown or ignored in the United States.

What Americans call “Charter Schools” are representative of a global educational phenomena that has dramatically expanded in recent years. Understanding this development- its causes and results- can provide a useful context for Americans as we struggle with the steep challenges that have long plagued our own schools.

A principal impetus for this trend has been- as in the United States- commonly abysmal educational outcomes for poor children, but it has also derived from growing evidence that the lack of choice and competition leads to quality decline and what an English writer calls the “creeping power of producer interests” and their tendency to outweigh the interests of children.

In Great Britain the idea of turning failing schools into self-governing “Academies”- first proposed by Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair- has advanced with astonishing speed in recent years. From 2010 to 2012 the number of these academies has leaped from only 200 to nearly half of all secondary schools in the country. These academies- still publicly funded schools with open enrollment- run by parents and teachers have with great consistency demonstrated that increased autonomy swiftly leads to higher standards of both discipline and learning.

In a report on Parental Empowerment- “Learning From Europe (2002)”- author Mogens Justeson notes that bold initiatives of decentralization and school site autonomy have caused the number of Independent Schools to soar in both Sweden and Denmark. He also reports that similar reforms in Holland have resulted in fully two-thirds of all Dutch pupils now being enrolled in Independent Schools.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of the success of this movement lies in the remarkable strides being made in developing countries where historically the most wretched educational conditions have prevailed. In his ground breaking work The Beautiful Tree: How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves (2009) James Tooley details how independent schools offer the best hope of a decent education in the slums of cities like Hyderabad in India. His research team found similar examples in Africa, and also describe how independent school networks in Brazil are teaching literally hundreds of thousands of pupils.

Strong evidence of the correlation between high student achievement and the growth of independent schools comes from test scores in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Here we see places that have significantly outperformed the United States- Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao- all enrolling 25% or more of their students in government supported independent schools.

For those who wonder how well the phenomena of publicly funded independently governed schools can do in the U.S. it would be hard to find a better example than Harlem Success Academy (HSA) where overwhelmingly poor and minority students are enrolled strictly by lottery. No cherry-picking here!

While only 62% of New York City’s public school 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders passed their 2011 math exams, the HSA pass rate for math was 99% and for science 100%. Furthermore similar success stories can be found all across the United States despite continuing establishment opposition to charters.

The meaning of this global trend is put in excellent perspective by the distinguished Harvard historian Niall Ferguson (The Great Degeneration, 2012) who argues that wide availability of educational choice will enhance quality and performance in both traditional and independent public schools. He persuasively asserts that “All over the world, smart countries are moving away from the outdated model of state education monopolies”. He points out that traditional public education made great contributions in the 19th and 20th centuries by providing basic education to most people in democracies. The challenge of the 21st century he says will be to lift educational quality and performance from “basic” to “very good” in keeping with dramatic changes in technology and the modern workplace. Without the invigorating influence of choice and competition he declares this just won’t happen.

Today United States education is not winning that race to the Future because in too many instances we have simply chosen not to compete.

Former Colorado Education Commissioner (1997-2007) William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Baltimore Sun.

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