Why markets can’t deliver excellence and equity in schools

Schools can’t be excellent and equitable in a marketised system. AAP

Australian education policies frame schools as ideally “excellent and equitable”. It is an alluring vision that very few Australians would argue against. The problem is, it is simply a myth in our current system.

It is a myth because instead of providing opportunities for schools to be better and fairer, governments on both sides advocate for market-based reforms in education. The problem is, markets don’t produce equity: they produce hierarchies and exacerbate inequalities.

Excellence and equity can mean many things, but the terms have taken on narrow meanings in the current debate. “Excellence” means student achievement in high-stakes global tests, including the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), and “equity” means socio-economic and other background factors have no bearing on student performance. Unsurprisingly, no truly ‘equitable’ systems exist by this measure.

The marketisation of Australian schools

The highest-performing and most equitable nations are those with higher levels of social and economic equality, an absence of high-stakes tests, and a highly educated and talented teaching workforce, such as Finland.

Australia, however, has not followed the lead of high-performing nations, but has instead adopted market-based reforms, even though these have proven deeply unsuccessful in the USA and the UK.

Common market-based strategies are:

  • Giving schools greater responsibility for self-management, marketing and recruitment

  • High-stakes tests and the public ranking of school performance data, which promote competition between schools

  • Increased alignment of senior school curricula with industry and economic needs

  • Competitive programs that require schools to compete for funding

  • Public-private partnerships to fund the building and maintenance of schools

  • Introducing performance-based pay for teachers

These reforms are known as quasi-marketisation strategies as they promote market-like conditions but remain tightly regulated by governments.

Why excellence, equity and markets don’t work

There is compelling evidence to suggest marketisation does not make schools excellent and equitable. The reasons are many, but here I will draw attention to four.

1) Marketisation positions schools to compete against each other.

Rather than working collectively for all young Australians, public schools are required to fight for limited resources and for the most talented teachers and students.

Competition has been significantly amplified by the publication of student performance data through My School. This has allowed for the collation of crude league tables and has seen good NAPLAN scores become valuable marketing strategies for schools.

While a heightened concern with achievement can have benefits, it also has a range of negative effects. These include the creation of unforgiving performance cultures, which result in teachers spending more time “working for the numbers” than delivering pastoral care or addressing issues of equity and inclusion.

2) In a market of competing schools, low-performing and high-needs students become liabilities.

Research I have conducted shows high-performing public schools engage in complex “selection and rejection” practices to attract the highest-performing students and “weed out” under-performing students during year 10.

This is because high ATARs are central to school marketability, which means low performers risk tarnishing a school’s brand value.

Schools go far and wide to attract top students. Many public schools, for example, engage in marketing tours to China to attract full-fee paying students who generate additional income and are also viewed as academically talented.

Put simply, rather than offering equitable opportunities for all, schools sift and sort students like produce in a marketplace to ensure maximum returns.

In this sense, market-based reforms are effective for producing excellence, but not excellence for all.

3) Principal autonomy over hiring and firing teachers – strongly promoted by the Coalition’s Independent Public Schools initiative – produces a marketisation of human resources, which can have negative effects for disadvantaged schools.

This allows principals in high-performing public schools (typically in socially advantaged areas) to lure the most talented teachers away from low-performing public schools (typically in disadvantaged areas).

The long-term effect will be a form of reverse snowballing, whereby the most talented teachers drift upwards to advantaged and high-performing schools, and the least talented teachers sink downwards. The cream of the crop will rise to the top, as the power of the market widens existing hierarchies.

4) Rather than producing greater diversity and choice in education, markets actually produce greater similarity.

Pro-market reformers argue schools should flexibly tailor education to local communities, allowing clients (parents, students) choice in markets that offer different products to different individuals.

However, in a market in which “excellence” is highly standardised and means either high NAPLAN scores or ATARs, schools find themselves “chasing the same pot of academic gold” rather than tailoring provision to diverse needs.

Young people are sandwiched, therefore, into the same cookie-cutter model of excellence that schools must adopt to retain market competitiveness.

A new political imagination?

Economics teaches us that in any market, there are winners and losers. In a marketised education system, there is no exception.

Political philosopher Michael Sandel is correct, therefore, in arguing that while markets might be effective mechanisms for governing some aspects of contemporary life, there are serious moral issues associated with extending their reach into spheres of public life that are central to the production of democracy, such as schools.

Policy makers who are truly committed to egalitarian principles should look beyond markets as solutions in education.