Reviewed by Martin West (Worcester College, Oxford University)
Published on EH.Net (July, 2000)
Each year more evidence is published indicating the persistence of vast inequalities within the American public education system and the poor overall performance of its schools relative to those in other countries. Mounting frustration with the lack of progress towards solving these problems has produced a broad consensus regarding the urgency of reforming the administration and governance of public education, while recent economic expansion has increased the amount of resources available for this task. Unfortunately, there remains little agreement among scholars and policy-makers about the direction reform should take.
One of a large number of recent works attempting to provide guidance on this issue, the book under review is distinguished both by its unique approach and its challenging conclusions. Andrew Coulson, a former software engineer with Microsoft Corporation, is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University. In an attempt to identify the key characteristics of successful school systems, Coulson has turned to the history of education, with the hope that the lessons of the past will provide new insight into the best way forward. The conclusions he draws will not be encouraging to those who remain convinced that the American public education system is essentially on the right path, requiring only minor adjustments. Distinguishing between the ideals of public education and its practice, Coulson argues that free markets in education have consistently been more successful in terms of both efficiency and equity than systems funded and operated exclusively by the government; any hope of substantive improvement therefore lies in the wholesale abandonment of government and non-profit schools in favor of private, for-profit alternatives.
Coulson's use of international historical evidence to analyze contemporary debates typically driven by ideology is refreshing, and represents a major contribution to the field of educational policy. The obvious benefit this strategy offers is the opportunity to compare the performance of a wider variety of methods of educational provision and governance than is possible using data from the twentieth century, in which state-provided mass education has emerged as a universal feature of developed countries. The societies Coulson has chosen to present as case studies, which range from Ancient Greece and Rome to contemporary Japan, allow the consideration of a diverse range of alternatives. As he is ultimately concerned with identifying the common elements of successful educational systems across different cultures and time periods, the large amount of variation in the social and economic conditions in the contexts he has selected is a clear asset. And crucially, given the nature of his eventual conclusions, Coulson has not avoided addressing those periods, such as nineteenth-century England and United States, cited in the standard literature as prominent examples of the success of state education.
The first cases Coulson considers, Athens and Sparta, conveniently offer the chance to compare two contemporary societies with diametrically opposed models of school governance. Their educational systems serve throughout the remainder of the book as extreme examples to which subsequent systems can be compared. The complete lack of government regulation of education in Athens meant that anyone could establish a school, setting whatever curriculum he considered appropriate. The need to attract enough students to remain profitable, however, forced potential instructors to tailor their offerings to reflect parental demands and also required that they keep their fees competitive. The success of Athenian education, as reflected in its impressive literacy rates, economic prosperity, and immense contribution to the Western cultural tradition, can thus be attributed to the prudential behavior of its citizens in an open market for knowledge.
Education in Sparta, in contrast, was entirely the prerogative of the state. Boys were removed from their families at the age of seven and placed in state-run boarding facilities in which they received an education designed exclusively to prepare them for military service. In Coulson's view, Sparta's low levels of literacy, negligible contributions to science, literature, and art, and eventual economic decline are all directly related to the ineffectiveness of the state's totalitarian approach to the socialization of its young.
Moving forward chronologically, Coulson uses the experience of education in democratic nations in the nineteenth century to test two prominent claims made by conventional historians and defenders of state-run schooling: "that government education helped unite people of diverse backgrounds and thus forged stronger communities and nations; and that it brought literacy and learning to a wider segment of the population than would otherwise have been possible" (p. 73). Unsurprisingly, he finds both claims wanting. A brief examination of the origins of public schools in the United States and France reveals the manner in which they have been used repeatedly to exclude various religious, ethnic, and racial minorities. Rather than encouraging social harmony, he claims, state-run education is a consistent source of social conflict, as parents are forced either to accept that their children will be taught objectionable ideas or to force their own views on other people's children. Meanwhile, the English case is used to demonstrate that widespread popular literacy was commonly achieved prior to significant government intervention in education.
The discussion of Victorian England, however, provides a telling example of Coulson's disappointing tendency to present oversimplified and partially misleading accounts of complex chapters in the history of education in order to support his overall argument concerning the relative efficacy of educational markets. While correct in his assertion that the exaggerated claims made by conventional histories of state education are no longer tenable, Coulson fails to acknowledge that the state may nevertheless have had an important role to play in the expansion of mass education. He asserts that even the poorest and least-educated English parents in the pre-compulsory era reliably discharged their responsibility for their children's education, a fact used later in the book to support his contention that modern parents would prove equally competent if that responsibility were returned to them.
While it is certainly true that "virtually all children were receiving some schooling" (p. 94), there remained a small but substantial minority in many regions who had no contact with school at all, a consequence of the lack of a clear economic return for the acquisition of literacy as well as what the Newcastle Commission described as the "indifference, thriftlessness, and recklessness of their parents" (pt. II, p. 57). Furthermore, although the vast majority of working-class parents were willing to make considerable sacrifices to provide a basic education for their children, a combination of myopia, self-interest, and financial necessity meant that the schooling most children received was irregular and brief, a pattern obviously detrimental to educational progress (Smelser, p. 257).
As Coulson is eager to point out, reliance on for-profit schooling serves to tune the supply of education precisely to parental demand. This implies, however, that if demand for education is sub-optimal, this fact will be reflected in the quality of the schools that emerge to meet that demand. In the case of Victorian England, the deficiencies of parental demand were directly reflected in the nature of the working-class private schools that emerged in large numbers throughout the nineteenth century, a fact Coulson categorically denies. Although he acknowledges that conditions in Victorian private schools were frequently far from ideal, Coulson contends that "what little evidence is available on the comparative effectiveness of subsidized versus entirely private schools tends to favor the private schools" (p. 95). This unique claim is apparently based on evidence compiled by David Mitch in his comprehensive 1992 study of the growth of popular literacy in nineteenth-century England. Strangely, however, Mitch's interpretation of his own data is precisely the opposite, leading him to conclude that the subsidized schools were in fact modestly more effective in teaching students to read and write. While Mitch's reservations about the quality of the data force him to acknowledge that "it would be rash to dismiss the ability of Mid-Victorian private schools to transmit literacy"(Mitch, p. 149), it is difficult to understand how they can be made to support Coulson's interpretation.
The history of education indeed holds important lessons for contemporary policy-makers, but I would contend that these lessons are more complex than Coulson has acknowledged. Educational markets, while offering certain benefits, are also deeply flawed. And yet there is no guarantee that the political control of the provision of education will in practice produce superior results. The ideal balance between political and market control of schooling in a democratic society is an empirical, rather than ideological issue with a unique resolution for each particular time period, nation, and level of education. Restoring the virtues of market competition in education while minimizing the associated vices is the task currently confronting education policy-makers around the world. The development of a balanced historical understanding of the role the state has played relative to the market in education during various periods has the potential to contribute greatly to this task.
The strength of Coulson's sweeping historical survey in this respect is its acute awareness of the problems associated with the dominance of education by the state and their implications for the quality of education. He offers concrete examples of the ways in which these problems, which include bureaucratic inefficiency, the excessive influence of special interest groups, and the potential for social conflict have combined to hamper educational progress. The unfortunate result is the pattern of stagnant or declining academic performance with which modern societies are so familiar.
Coulson proceeds in the final segment of the book to examine several recent proposals for reforming American education on the basis of the extent to which they succeed in restoring what he identifies as the five beneficial characteristics of educational markets: choice and financial responsibility for parents, and freedom, competition, and the profit motive for schools. It is in addressing these contemporary policies that Coulson is at his best. With the same clear, engaging style that characterizes the entire book, he provides a thorough analysis of each of the most prominent market-based reforms. His criteria allow him to account for the modest positive results they have achieved thus far, but also suggest they are essentially half-measures which will ultimately fail to achieve the level of success proponents promise. As Coulson points out, history provides countless examples of states increasing their control over the provision of education, yet none of the reverse. In their attempts to restore market dynamics to education, therefore, contemporary policy-makers are essentially on their own.
"Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England." Parliamentary Papers, 1861. Vol. 21, pts. I-VI. .
Mitch, David, The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian England: The Influence of Private Choice and Public Policy (Philadelphia, 1992).
Smelser, Neil J., Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, 1991).
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Martin West. Review of Coulson, Andrew J., Market Education: The Unknown History.
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