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Home | Mises Library | What Is the Proper Way to Run a School?

What Is the Proper Way to Run a School?

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Tags EducationFree Markets

05/05/2004Robert P. Murphy

An article in the April 5 issue of Time reminds us how deeply ingrained collectivist habits of thought are in this country. The piece deals with the Chicago school board's decision to stop holding back (or "flunking" as it used to be called) so many students. The article begins like this:

Eight years ago, Chicago moved to end social promotion of its students, and the city has since been a bellwether in the debate over whether to keep kids who don't meet standards from moving on to the next grade. But the city's school board changed its program last week. In a new policy, it pledged more support for struggling students and ended the practice of holding back kids solely on the basis of their math scores.

Now these few sentences raise a whole host of issues, some of which we'll consider below. But what I want to point out first is the subtle collectivism in the very premise of the article. Who decided to end social promotion of students? Why, according to the article, Chicago did. And which students does this change affect? Well, according to the article, "Chicago" ended the social promotion of its students. Thus, the entire city apparently made a decision, concerning all of the children it apparently possesses.

Many people would probably wonder at my commentary so far. Don't news writers talk like this all the time? After all, the "United States" invaded Iraq, and "Israel" and "Palestine" have peace talks. So why can't "Chicago" make a decision about "its" students?

But that's my point: This type of language is so pervasive that we don't even think about it. Nonetheless, it's still perverse, and perpetuates collectivist attitudes that have wrought so much misery in the last century.

Of course, there are problems with this announcement that go beyond semantics. Like any good bureaucrat, Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan "insists the changes do not amount to a reversal." Duncan elaborates: "This is an evolving process . . . I think we're getting smarter." (That's fortunate; at least some people in Chicago are learning.)

Naturally, the political school board can rely on an "independent study . . . conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago." What was the major finding of this study that prompted the non-reversal reversal? According to a leak to the Chicago Sun-Times, the study finds that tests scores of third graders who flunked showed "no appreciable increase," and that the test scores of sixth graders who were held back actually declined.

But what does this prove? One of the primary functions of a punishment is to motivate people to avoid it in the first place. Perhaps the strongest argument against so-called "social promotion" is that kids would have no reason to study if there were no possibility of failure. Whether or not students who are held back do better the next time through a grade is not the major consideration. For an analogy, suppose researchers discovered that people who served prison time twice for armed robbery were more likely to commit future crimes than those who had only served prison time once for armed robbery. Would that be an argument for legalizing theft?

I do not want the reader to misunderstand me: I am not saying that I oppose "social promotion." But I am also not saying that I endorse it. The thing is, the decision to pass or fail a student is a complex one, and should not (indeed, cannot) be reduced to a few rules. In my own classes, I have discovered that different students require different types of motivation: Some respond well to guilt trips, others to pestering, and others to threats. I conduct my classes at the elective level far differently from those at the introductory level, even though these are all undergraduate economics classes. It makes me shudder to think of the poor teachers in Chicago who must take orders from ignorant government busybodies.

What's the solution? Fortunately, we don't have to decide one way or the other. We have the option of allowing free individuals to reach their own conclusions. In a private educational setting, with no government meddling, individual schools could set their own policies. Parents and students would then be free to patronize whichever schools seemed the most successful to them. If "social promotion" is truly the feel-good New Age gobble-de-gook that many old-timers believe, then it would fail the market test and would quickly be replaced by more traditional methods.

I'd like to point out that one of the most pernicious effects of State-controlled schooling is that we're reduced to such petty bickering over details. Squabbles such as this one blind us to the outrageous uniformity that the State imposes on all forms of official schooling. Even those of us who, in the abstract, favor a completely free market in education often lose sight of this, and consequently we should take a moment to seriously imagine the possibilities of an unregulated market, where innovative entrepreneurs are free to experiment with new curricula and teaching methods.

A Free Market in Education

The desire for education is as universal (and as open-ended) as the desire for food or housing. And even though these markets themselves are far from laissez-faire, the options here range from Taco Bell all the way up to five-star restaurants with master chefs, and from tiny apartments all the way up to mansions situated on golf courses.1 In contrast, there is not nearly the same qualitative difference between an education at a community college versus an Ivy League school; the material and format of the college experience is largely the same, except that the difficulty at a Harvard or Yale is higher.

As in other contexts, the proponent of massive deregulation in education is at a loss to describe exactly what the market would erect if the State's propaganda centers were allowed to crumble. After all, that's one of the strongest arguments for liberty: We just don't know what improvements will be discovered by clever entrepreneurs. (If we did, concerned parents would already be lobbying for such changes at their current schools.) But one sure sign that the present system is horribly failing is the success of the homeschooling movement. In my experience, some of the very best students were not products of institutionalized schooling, but instead were taught by Mom and Dad (even through the high school level).

On the one hand, this phenomenon is a tribute to the abilities of average parents who are concerned with their children's education. But on the other, it is a shocking indictment of government and even many private schools, for we should certainly expect the division of labor to operate in the area of education as well as in other contexts. (We would certainly be surprised to discover that the children with the straightest teeth were those who had braces applied by their parents, rather than professional orthodontists.)

Too Many Students?

Although it is impossible to predict the specific improvements that would occur in an unshackled market for education, one thing is clear: There are currently too many students enrolled in schools. At the lower levels, compulsory attendance laws literally make schools a prison sentence for many children who would otherwise choose to go into the work force. Proponents of compulsory attendance would no doubt retort that our nation will not tolerate millions of children who lack basic reading and math skills. But guess what? That's exactly what the current system is producing. I can't think of a better way to sabotage learning than to fill classrooms with children who are ultimately only there because of armed police officers.

Even at the higher levels, massive government subsidies encourage far too many students and force a watering down of educational quality. If the prevailing wisdom is that "every child should get a college degree," then it necessarily follows that a college degree won't stand for much. The problem isn't merely that standards must be lowered in order for the weaker students to pass. No, even the brightest students suffer from the presence of grossly outmatched classmates, since the teacher can't cover as much material, and because the best students become lazy when even a minimum of effort guarantees them an "A" in the class.

All of this would disappear virtually overnight with the introduction of market discipline into the educational system. Children who had no desire to sit through classes would no longer be forced to do so. The remaining children would be the ones who wanted to learn. Moreover, once students (or their parents) were forced to pay the full tuition expenses, the students would work much harder and schools would become much more competitive. Although, on average, students would receive fewer years of formal schooling, this would not translate into less educated students, for the time spent in school would be used far more efficiently. Yes, fewer students would have college degrees, but even high school diplomas would be a much stronger signal to employers once schools were completely privatized.


Education in this country will never truly be "fixed" until the government stops its counterproductive meddling. If it really wants to help students, the Chicago school board should resign and encourage the abolition of the government's role in education. Its performance thus far has earned the board a big fat F.


  • 1. Even though the government regulates the food and housing industries, the interventions are largely prohibitions on unacceptable products, rather than prescriptions for approved ones. For example, if the State were to regulate the food industry in the same way it regulates schooling, all restaurants would be required to serve a well-balanced meal consisting of items from the different food groups.
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