The goal of market-style accountability is to improve student achievement by increasing the level of competition between schools. In this context, “good schools” demonstrate their worth by attracting students and maintaining sizeable enrollments, while “bad schools” are held accountable by parents who remove their children from the school. What parents deem to be “good” and “bad” schools is highly subjective, and can vary substantially. But for advocates of this type of system, that’s irrelevant. All that really matters, they argue, is that the educational consumer (parent/student) is happy. Public schools become much like private schools. Private schools determine their own goals, standards, and methods, and must satisfy their consumers if they are to stay open.
The pressure of having to compete for students requires that school leaders adopt a markedly different approach to school leadership than in traditional bureaucratic systems or even in performance-based accountability systems. According to Leithwood (2001), school leaders faced with the pressure to compete for students must continually “recreate their schools as marketable products” (p. 227). It appears that for some urban school leaders, however, in addition to ensuring that schools are marketable, competition with charter schools forces them to aggressively market themselves. Many school choice advocates contend that if traditional public schools were good enough, their outcomes would do the marketing for them; but this may or may not be true. Research has shown that parents choose schools for their children for many different reasons, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with student achievement. So could it be that these urban districts are forced into launching marketing campaigns in order to remain viable?
If so, that scenario raises a host of concerns. First and most fundamental is the question which underlies much of the school choice debate: should traditional public schools have to compete for students in the first place? There no argument against public charter schools having to compete for students. The element of parental choice is fundamental to charter schools. But in systems where charter schools are able to pull large numbers of students away from traditional public schools, traditional public schools are forced to compete for survival in a similar vein to the charters. Additionally, there are questions about the appropriateness of spending significant amounts of public monies on marketing campaigns when urban districts clearly have other areas of need. So here’s my question (just to get you thinking): are school choice policies putting traditional public school leaders into situations where competition forces them to improve, or do these policies force traditional public school leaders into no-win situations where curriculum and instruction dollars go to marketing campaigns rather than decreasing class size or providing additional instructional aides?
What do you think?
Leithwood, K. (2001). School leadership in the context of accountability policies. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4(3), 217-235.
Simon, S. (2009, August 17). Hard-hit schools try public-relations push. Wall Street Journal Online, http://online.wsj.com