SWG #7: Schooling and the Marketplace
Group Members: Sarah, Brenda, Mike and Scott

“If you want to develop a class of high jumpers, after all, you don’t necessarily have to teach every student proper jumping technique. You can just lower the bar.” ---Malcolm Gladwell

Schools and their Connection to the Marketplace

Connecting school and the marketplace can, at first glance, seem daunting. How do our schools and our educational systems connect to our marketplace? One can interpret schooling and the marketplace as how schools prepare students for work in the marketplace, and how their education prepares them for their lifetimes. Furthermore, one can interpret schooling as a marketplace, by privatizing schools, introducing vouchers and competition in the educational markets, and analyzing its effects on how a school's graduates performs in the marketplace. Many economists favour privatizing schools as they claim that the quality of schooling must necessarily increase for schools to retain their students and subsequent funding. How does one define quality of education? Is it based simply on the grade level achieved, or what skills and values are acquired while in school? What are the key factors influencing the education students receive? We pursue these ideas further in this electronic research essay, concluding with an example of the "No Child Left Behind" bill, a public educational policy inducted by the United States.

An introductory lecture discussing how our educational system has become what it is today, and how the marketplace sets standards for what is "important" in education:

Why, why, why?

William Hare [1] discusses the case study of Brian Carter, a grade 9 history teacher who has passion for teaching history and has always found the subject compelling. During a seemingly innocent Tuesday class, he was subject to what many teachers will, at some point, hear from their students: "What is the point of doing this?" Although many teachers have pondered this themselves, Brian was ill-prepared to answer this question off-guard, and responded with a simple "Nonsense!". His students, a group of evidently acute adolescents, would not be persuaded with his one-word rebuttal.

This question was sparked by a recent piece in the national newspaper, disputing that a degree in liberal arts bore no practical significance in the workplace. If a subject has no application to the real world, why would students concern themselves with it? Brian knew that this was a legitimate question; why should these students, who have no genuine interest in 19th century British political history, be forced to learn about an issue that appeals to none?

This article, while dealing mainly with the issue that students don't spend time learning something that they deem uninteresting, also briefly mentions the other side of the argument: can you deem a subject "uninteresting" without spending a length of time exploring its avenues? Should sociology be dismissed by someone with no formative background in sociology, or should one be required to learn about it before creating an opinion? In addition, the article asks a very fascinating question with regards to schooling: is a subject worthless if it does not constitute a credential of some sort of job?

Given that governments, corporations, and Ministries of Education form school curriculums, and that they certainly have their own ulterior motives for what is taught in schools, one must agree that these classes exist for a reason. For our purposes, the Ontario government sets requirements for high school students to graduate; this include credits in various areas of study, including mathematics, social sciences, physical education, general sciences, the arts, and language. Why are these requirements in place? Why would the Ministry require that every student who wants to graduate high school take courses in the social sciences, regardless of student interest in that field of study? Should we form a society in which the vast majority of its citizens are jacks of all trades, masters of none?

A Public School Voucher System

The compelling debate of public school reform still resonates in the minds and writings of many pedagogical analysts. There are many people who stand firm in their beliefs of what is and what could be. There seems to be many supporters of a voucher-type system in which parents would freely choose a school for their child to attend. These supporters insist that their envisioned system would “unleash the drive, imagination and energy of competitive free enterprise to revolutionize the education process" [2] . The late Milton Friedman, a previous Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago, establishes his opinion based solely on economic grounds, ignoring the innumerable influences, direct and indirect, measurable and non-measurable, that affect education. Instituting a free market educational system may forcefully evolve our current system into one that behaves similarly to other services on the free market, with fluctuation in supply, demand, cost, and so on. However, the instilment of this system would not guarantee analogous behaviour. According to the Education Act, every person living in Ontario, once they reach six years of age, must attend an elementary or secondary school until they reach 18 years of age[3] . The economic principles employed by Friedman imply the assumption of choice like any good or service on the free market: the ability of walking away. Much like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, our students are shackled into education without the freedom of declination.

One of the many faces of a good teacher: Robin Williams
One of the many faces of a good teacher: Robin Williams

While the quantity of hours a student receives is easily quantifiable, the quality of education is a far less tangible aspect of education. As previously mentioned, innumerable factors influence a teacher’s effectiveness with their students, making it nearly impossible to develop a finite list of qualities a good teacher possesses. In contrast, the goal of measuring two teachers against one another becomes much more attainable. According to the research of Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of public policy research at Stanford University, a good teacher will be able to instruct 1.5 years worth of material in one year, meanwhile, a bad teacher will only instruct 0.5 years worth of material in one year. [4]

Can you measure fear in centimetres?
Can you measure fear in centimetres?

This indicates that the vast majority of a student’s development is dependent on their teacher’s abilities. In other words, the relevancy of where a student is taught is greatly exceeded by who they have as a teacher. (Malcolm Gladwell described this phenomenon with an analogy to football quarterbacks here [5] .)The assumption we have of attending a prestigious school is that the education received will be superior to education attained in the public school system, but with such a variety of educators, one can fall victim to a fallacy of implication.

The effect that teachers have on students is downplayed in comparison to the effect of the school on the students. Bill Gates presents a brief lecture on our many great teachers.

“The kids in our classrooms are infinitely more significant than the subject matter we teach.” ---Meladee McCarty

What is Choice, Really?

grin550l.jpg If what we seek is a school system where all students can develop important skills for the future, then we must critically assessthe state of our education system as it stands right now. Inequality in education is a predominant issue, especially in the U.S. How can we close the gap between education of the wealthy and education of the poor and, at the same time, maintain standards of quality? Martin Carnoy, a labour economist at Stanford University, takes a closer and more scrutinizing look at the implications of enhancing choice in our educational systems.[6] He argues that the choice debate is really a question of whether or not we should privatize. If this is the case, then a market-based system could lead to competition between schools, which could mean that schools would have to try harder to attract students. One study conducted by the C.D. Howe Institute indicates that Catholic schools in Ontario tend to show higher achievement scores on standardized tests than public schools. The argument is that Catholic schools have to work harder to get students because Catholic families have the option of public school. But can we say that higher scores are directly linked to choice? One alternative offered by Carnoy is that perhaps Catholic schools have a greater morality for academic achievement. He also notes that although Catholic students do not outperform public schools in the U.S., they are more likely to graduate and attend college. Further, Carnoy makes an interesting argument when he points out that not everyone will exercise their choice. Regardless of the fact that voucher systems are meant to provide lower income families with the ability to move from public to private school, he argues that it is more likely that educated families will make the move. Educated parents are also more likely to choose schools with families of similar or higher socioeconomic status and with higher scoring students. These results will not only increase the segregation of classes but they will lead to greater variance in test scores among schools. Another point of contention for privatization is in market values. If we look at the marketplace in terms of goods, part of that system is built on efficiency; keeping customers satisfied but at lower costs. What does this mean for education? This could mean lower salaries for teachers and screening out “high-cost students”[7] . Thus, effective education from a market perspective does not necessarily mean better education and brings up issues of equity.


Hope for a New Way

Although Carnoy brings up valid arguments against privatization of education, recent research shines some light on this seemingly complex and volatile issue. Another publication released by the C.D. Howe Institute claims that greater school choice can be a “winning educational strategy” and, most importantly, one that “preserves social equity and equality of opportunity.” [8] They claim provinces like Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec have the highest scores for student achievement. These provinces partially fund private schools and more of their school boards have open enrolment policies (students are not limited to one district). The Institute further suggests the possibility of preserving social equity through the use of vouchers, tax credits, high quality information for parents, external standards of quality education, and performance measures to ensure school accountability. In these areas, government would act as arbitrator rather controller. Not only does the research indicate that more choice can have positive effects, it also suggests that “Greater choice need not mean taking the “public” out of “public education,” but simply redefining public education to mean “choice for all” instead of “the same for all”.

Overall, the choice/privatization debate is largely complex but not without merit. One important thing to think about is the notion of quality. This can mean different things to different people. As it stands, standardized tests are the norm. It is important that students achieve the standards in math, reading, and writing but if quality education means something more, then we will have to find other ways of assessing it.

An Example Of Criticism in the Public School System

Perhaps due in part to the growing competition from the private sector, calls for reform in public school boards across North America have occurred. In the United States these reforms have taken shape in the extremely controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy enacted by former President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002. The lofty goal of NCLB is to ensure that one-hundred percent of American school children are proficient in math and reading by 2014. While on the surface such an ambitious plan seems to represent a healthy desire for reform within the United States, it lacks any serious depth or understanding of the needs of the education system within the country.

As Malcolm Gladwell aptly points out, a major problem with this proposal is that “children aren’t widgets” and every child cannot be forced through the education system on the same conveyer belt. Every child is different and learns at a variety of speeds and through various styles. NCLB appears to ignore this basic fundamental and instead assumes that if every child in America can become proficient in math and reading then they will armed with the necessary skills to contribute to adult life.

The problem with this is the fact that what is “proficient” to one person might not be to the next. To compound the vagueness that surrounds this term, NCLB has allowed individual States to come up with their own ways of testing the proficiency of their students. With financial incentives for those States that meet the standards and supposed harsh penalties for those who do not, the playing field being used by NCLB is certainly not even and is ripe with discrepancies and loopholes. The more pressure that exists on school’s to increase their proficiency standard, the more likely they are to use a more liberal definition of “proficient” [9] .

There is also enormous pressure on teachers to get kids passing these tests no matter what the cost [10] . The result is that individual teachers and schools have structured their programs around “teaching to the test” rather than teaching to the curriculum. Students are spending a disproportionate amount of time each day on math and reading exercises at the expense of science, art, social studies and other non-NCLB subjects.

Worst of all, NCLB has not demonstated an improvement in the math and reading abilities of children since implementation [11] .The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an independent national test, has shown students results in these areas is about the same as it was back in 2001.

Since the United States have elected President Barrack Obama within the last year, critics of NCLB have been eagerly awaiting a change within the status-quo. While that change will not include the elimination of NCLB, there will be some substantial reforms within the system. Some of these proposed reforms include a nationalized test that eliminates the possibility of individual States to lower their standards of what is proficient. A wider breadth of subjects will be included on these tests and penalizing school’s who fail to meet the standard each year will likely be re-examined as well. Those schools are the ones that need the most support for their students.

While there may never be a perfect scenario that makes all students, parents, teachers and education practitioners content with the system, there is at least a healthy amount of discussion and review taking place so far in the 21st Century. We will constantly be searching for ways to assess how our schools are preparing students for the working world. The debate between public versus private education will likely never cease and nor should it. The day the debate on the quality of education ceases is the day the assembly-line model pushes ahead without anyone left to criticize its glaring lack of substance.


Creating a school system that consistently caters to the marketplace's relentless flux is implausible at best. The marketplace's demand today may not, and in all likelihood will not, correspond with its demand years down the road when the fresh crop of graduates are ready for harvest. The current school system currently prepares students, in the best manner it presumes possible, for the future of our country's citizens and its marketplace. For parents that believe the public school system is flawed, there are alternative approaches to education available. One learns through economics that if demand is sufficient, the market will supply.

Henry Adams once quoted, in an admirably Foucaultian fashion, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends." The fates of our nation's children lie in the hands of our nation's teachers. Looking down, we see that those hands are ours.


  1. ^ Case Study: O Reason Not the Need [from What to do?: Case Studies for Teachers, William Hare & John Portelli, Halifax: Edphil Books, 1998, pp. 53-55].
  2. ^ Friedman, Milton, Public Schools: Make Them Private [Education Economics, 5 (3), 1997, pp. 341-344].
  3. ^ Education Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2. Ministry of Education. http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_90e02_e.htm#BK25
  4. ^ Hanushek, Eric and Rivkin, Steven, "Teacher Quality" [Handbook of the Economics of Education, V.2, 2006].
  5. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm, "Most Likely To Succeed" [The New Yorker, 15 December 2008].
  6. ^ Carnoy, Martin, School Choice? Or is it Privitization? [Educational Researcher, 29 (7), 2000, pp. 15-20]
  7. ^ Carnoy, Martin, School Choice? Or is it Privitization? [Educational Researcher, 29 (7), 2000, pp. 15-20]
  8. ^ Card, David et al. 2008. School Choice and the Benefits of Competition: Evidence from Ontario. C.D. Howe Institute. Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute
  9. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm “Making the Grade” [The New Yorker, 15 September 2003].
  10. ^ Tehrani, Alex, "How To Fix No Child Left Behind" [Time Magazine, 24 May 2007].
  11. ^ Lee, Jaekyung, "Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of No Child Left Behind on the Gaps: An In-Depth Look into National and State Reading and Math Outcome Trends." [Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2006

Initial Readings

Friedman, Milton, Public Schools: Make Them Private [Education Economics, 5 (3), 1997, pp. 341-344].

Carnoy, Martin, School Choice? Or is it Privitization? [Educational Researcher, 29 (7), 2000, pp. 15-20]

Levin, Henry, Education and Jobs: A Proactive View [from Education and Work, Conference proceedings, Vol. 1. Toronto: O.I.S.E. pp. 61-69].

Gladwell, Malcolm “Making the Grade” [The New Yorker, 15 September 2003].

Case Study: O Reason Not the Need [from What to do?: Case Studies for Teachers, William Hare & John Portelli, Halifax: Edphil Books, 1998, pp. 53-55].

SWG 7's PowerPoint slides

Group member contacts

Scott - swest101@uottawa.ca
Brenda - bmich087@uottawa.ca
Mike - rmcin085@uottawa.ca
Sarah - sdelu079@uottawa.ca