Friday, January 7, 2011

Friedman or Finland?: Why we shouldn't rank schools

Note: This article is based on ideas from: Reframing Public Education - Countering school rankings and debunking the neoliberal agenda by Donald Gutstein, available at:

BC teachers have spent considerable time and effort debunking the Fraser Institute rankings. For those of us working in schools with children, we know instinctively that these rankings are not reliable, and do nothing to help children and education. We see first hand the negative effects low rankings have on children and schools. We often look to Finland, an education system that consistently scores near the top of international rankings but has no standardized testing internally.

But often the focus of our critique is that the rankings are unreliable – they use the wrong data, they don’t take into account other aspects of school life, they are a narrow measure. While all of this is true, we need to engage the public in more significant discussion – that ranking in and of itself is wrong.

School rankings go hand in hand with school “choice”. They are part of an educational framework in which parents select schools and the rankings are the means by which they make a judgement about which school to select. School choice is seen as a “right” of parents and a mechanism for accountability – bad schools will be identified because parents will flee. The model is based on market forces. Students are “clients”. Schools provide “services”. Competition is the mechanism to ensure quality.

This framework did not come out of nowhere. In fact, its origins are with Milton Friedman, one of the primary proponent of neo-Liberal ideology and the privatization of public school systems. Donald Gutstein, in his excellent analysis of the origins of these ideas, explains Friedman’s enterprise:

“The school report card is a prime illustration of how neoliberal think tanks repackage doctrine in a form that second-hand dealers in ideas, in this case commercial media, can retail to the general public, or at least to parents of school-aged children. The doctrine was first enunciated by Milton Friedman in his 1955 essay, “The role of government in education”.

Friedman worried about “the trend toward collectivism” and called for “the denationalization of education”. He complained that public schools, “government schools” he called them, had an unfair advantage over private schools because parents could send their children to public schools without special payment. Very few parents could send their children to private or parochial schools unless they too were subsidized.

… Friedman proposed a system of vouchers, which local governments would give to each child through the child’s family to pay for a general education at any type of school the family deemed appropriate.

…In 1995, Friedman renewed his call to privatize public education in a major article in the Washington Post. Public schools were not really public at all, he claimed, but simply private fiefs primarily of the administrators and the union officials. Government schools needed competition from the private sector, which could transform education, just like UPS and Federal Express had transformed package and message delivery. Once again Friedman recommended vouchers as the way forward, but vouchers were not to be seen as an end in themselves. They were a means to make a transition from a government to a market system. Vouchers, however, were a hard-sell in a country that believed in the separation of church and state. Many people were opposed to the use of government-financed vouchers to send children to religious schools.

So neoliberals developed report cards as an interim measure, to build momentum for vouchers.”

Friedman’s ideas were actively adopted by the Fraser Institute, who hired Peter Cowley with the purpose of creating a Canadian school ranking system to further the privatization agenda.

In British Columbia, the subsidization of private schools came not in the form of vouchers, but in another form: government legislation that provides 55% public funding for private school students. And the ability for parents to “choose” schools came with the opening of catchments in 2002 and the ability of parents to select a school of their choice. Combined, they provide public funding for private schooling and the illusion that a market driven system is guaranteeing school quality. Ranking provide the mechanism for parents to do the “shopping” and have the illusion that school choice = school quality.

But what is lost is the basic tenet of a public system – the notion that every child in every neighbourhood deserves an equal educational opportunity. What is also lost is a large portion of the funding that should be going to public schools instead being diverted into the private system through the 55% funding regime. In fact, over the last decade the amount of public money going to support private schools has increased while public school funding has stagnated.

And so the need to “reframe” the rankings discussion. It’s not that the rankings are bad rankings. It’s that ranking schools is bad.

What is at stake is not whether or not the rankings are good or bad, justified or flawed. What is at stake is the notion of a public education system as a public good. A system equally available to everyone. A system where each and every child gets a high quality education. Where the right is to a quality public education, not to choose a school. Where every school is excellent.

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