TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Teacher Accountability Follows from Genuine Market Activity

In her paper “The Teacher Accountability Debate,” Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, took critical aim at a new Chetty-Friedman-Rockoff public school study. The study, she says, purports to prove a direct correlation between teacher quality and the likelihood of student personal and financial success in life, such as avoiding teenage pregnancy, going to college, and earning money in adulthood. The study, writes Ravitch, “reinforced the message [that] Teachers are to blame for the ills of American society.”

Although Ravitch convincingly argues against the use of standardized student test scores “to identify bad teachers and fire them,” her broader characterization of the accountability crusade is confused. She writes:

The teacher accountability narrative is part of a larger effort to restructure the teaching profession by turning it into a market-based activity. The teachers whose students get higher scores will get big bonuses as those who falter are fired. Over time, the theory goes, the profession will change as it attracts new people who want to earn big bonuses. Currently, people become teachers out of a sense of idealism and purpose; the goal of the corporate reformers is to change the motivation to the desire to earn a large salary, making teaching more like business.

But the “accountability narrative” that Ravitch criticizes has nothing to do with market-based activity or business. The market does not demand that students pass a government-imposed standard; the government demands it. That is not how the marketplace or businesses work. To see how they work, simply look at private schools, which are businesses.

In order to attract and retain paying customers, private schools have to attract and retain quality teachers—teachers who actually educate students in ways that satisfy parents. Tests may or may not be part of the equation, but if they are it’s because the schools think the tests are important or because the market demands them (or both), not because the government mandates them.

Likewise, Ravitch’s implication that the pursuit of financial reward is incompatible with “idealism and purpose” and that people in private enterprise somehow lack those qualities is ridiculous and insulting. Quality teachers, like quality professionals in any field, are motivated both by love of their work and by desire to be compensated for it. There is no dichotomy here.

Unlike “public” schools, which receive their customers and revenues by force of truancy laws and taxation, private schools must earn theirs. A business can thrive only to the extent that it produces quality products or services at prices people are willing and able to pay. Lacking the coercive power of government-run schools, private schools must continuously strive for excellence in product and service to succeed and prosper.

If Americans want to fix the fiasco that is “public” education, we must phase out government-run schools in favor of a free market, in which schools are run precisely “like” businesses because they are businesses. Parents and educators can then exercise their rights to contract voluntarily to mutual advantage, and the market will determine acceptable teacher competency and appropriate compensation.

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Posted in: Education Policy

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Anonymous

    If you don’t see the tie between government accountability drives and market based efforts to turn education over to the private sector, you are ill-informed or misadvised.

  • Anonymous

    Where individuals often diverge here is in their view of human nature. Those who disagree may hold the implicit assumption of a kind of Hobbesian philosophy. Meaning that people need to be protected from themselves.

    Concretely in this case their projection is that parents will move their kids out of “real” schools who have a strong curriculum if the child does not perform well, or get the “marks” (assuming that concept exists in those schools) that they think their child deserves.

    This has a whole host of other assumptions embedded into it, which need to be exposed and challenged. Just making a positive argument for how things should be is not a genuine intellectual challenge to people who believe in a malevolent universe.