Evidence linking market systems with efficiency in education is "fragmented" and "inconclusive"

Janet Downs's picture
The evidence that market mechanisms in education have a positive effect on outcomes is “fragmented and often inconclusive”. So says a major review of empirical research on markets in education.

The reviewers found that the scope of much research had been limited. It focused only on test scores in reading and maths and neglected other subjects or other kinds of achievement. Where positive effects were found, these were small and limited to reading alone. Researchers came to conflicting conclusions depending on what was being measured, for example, the results for maths tended to be lower.

The review found: “the evidence provided by large-scale quantitative studies focusing on the impact of market mechanisms on student achievement is unstable among research methods, subjects, subgroups, contexts and research methods. If any conclusion is to be drawn, it might be that market mechanisms bear potentially positive effects, but even in cases where positive effects are found, they are very modest in size.”

Evidence revealed that more choice carried a “risk of increasing segregation between schools in terms of ethnic, socio-economic and ability segregation”. This was made worse when schools set out to attract certain types of students more than others – faith groups, for example, or more academic students.

Findings about the impact of market mechanism on efficiency – increasing achievement while lowering costs – were inconclusive. One major body of research had found efficiency gains but other researchers analysing the same statistics found no such gain. Researchers also found that schools faced with competition shifted expenditure from instructional to non-instructional spending such as marketing.

Innovation in the classroom was not found to be linked to market mechanisms. The opposite was true in many cases – with schools becoming more traditional in outlook: researchers found that in the UK this resulted in increased emphasis on school uniforms and teaching academic subjects at the expense of vocational ones.

The authors highlighted difficulties in deciding how effective schooling was measured. They noted that there was much argument among researchers about whether raw exam results were reliable indicators of school quality. Most of the researchers believed that value-added scores were needed and that ability levels of pupils when entering school should be taken into account. It was not easy to separate “good”, “average” or “bad” schools using test scores alone. This had led some researchers to conclude “that publishing league tables to inform parental school choice is a somewhat meaningless exercise.”

The research suggests that when market mechanisms are introduced in education this can affect how schools relate to each other. Schools may become more competitive while some may collaborate to see off a common competitor. The evidence led the authors to conclude that “competitive behaviour of schools increases rather than decreases over time.”

The authors admitted that little was known about the long-term effects of newly-adopted choice policies. However, they warned, “Compared with government aims when market mechanisms are introduced in education and the fierce tone of the political as well as the academic debate on these issues, the effects as reported in empirical research are modest to say the least.”

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 31/03/2012 - 08:32

There is substantial and significant evidence of the benefits of free market practices in education in countries where education does not have complete coverage or a responsibility for the most vulnerable.

The theory and evidence regarding free market practices in countries will systems of state education with complete coverage suggests that only small benefits can be obtained and that changes should not be made without serious consideration of the reasons for the status quo and analysis of the implications of change which could be negative rather than positive - especially if the changes are generated by disaffected pressure groups and are not properly consulted with those who understand the reasons for the status quo.

Here are some key references:

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