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Improving Educational Outcomes Through Innovation

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While there are many reasons why public education performs poorly in the United States, the overriding cause is that it operates as a monopolistic system. Education is one area where improvement is genuinely in all of our interests. Public education can be improved through expanding the supply of schools, empowering parents, and diversifying within the existing monopoly.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much choice do parents have over their children’s schooling?
  2. How do U.S. students fare on national assessments?
  3. How do American schools compare with schools in other countries?

Additional Resources

  • Read CREDO’s comprehensive “Urban Charter Schools Report” and 22 state-specific reports that combine to offer policymakers unprecedented insight into the effectiveness of charter schools, available here.
  • Read CREDO’s report “Charter Management Organizations, 2017” to examine the lifecycle of charter school networks from founding of the flagship school to development and eventual expansion of the network, available here.
View Transcript

It is no secret that public education in the United States is failing to educate students all over the country.

While there are lots of factors that contribute to the problem, the over-riding cause receives little or no attention: For over 100 years, public education in the United States has operated as a monopolistic system.  

Each community has its own single provider of public education, and in most cases it produces the same product for every student year after year. Some families have dealt with the monopoly by opting-out with private education or selecting their monopoly by choosing where to live.  But a growing part of the population are captive because they can’t just pick up and move to a better school district. In those cases, the districts are the least likely to improve.

Innovation is the only way to discover better outcomes. Because they have no competition, monopolies don’t need to innovate or improve their products – which in this case are the educational outcomes of their students. So the quality of education that students get today is far below what it could be, if given the chance.

Luckily there is something we can do about it. Broadly speaking, there are three ways to improve educational outcomes for students in our current system. 

The first is to diversify the supplier – in other words, give other schools the opportunity to serve parents and students alongside the district-wide monopoly.

We know something about this option today. We have over twenty-five years of experience with charter schools that serve as terrific examples of what happens when new schools are allowed to compete with existing ones.[1]The upside is more choice for parents where charter schools exist. The downside is that expanding supply by adding charter schools is slow and extraordinarily difficult, and efforts to expand are being resisted with increasing force.  

The second way to improve public education is to empower parents to be better consumers. Few families see the direct impact that today’s education has on their children’s future. Putting actionable information into the hands of parents helps them better understand how well their school options are performing; it also can serve as a foundation for activism with better results.  

The trade-off to keep in mind is that giving parents better tools and resources doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily make informed decisions or prioritize for quality education. Research shows that parents are not well-informed about their schools; where available, online report cards and websites for parents are seldom viewed. And since schools change and student bodies constantly turn over, it would require an ongoing effort to educate parents of new students.

The last and perhaps most effective option within our current system is to maintain accountability at the district level, but decentralize decision-making from the district down to the school level.

Currently most school districts set uniform rules for all schools they oversee. But of course, what works for a handful of schools may not work for others. Uniform rules deny schools the flexibility they need to improve their students’ outcomes.

Allowing schools and their principals the discretion to adapt to better meet student needs, while maintaining strict accountability at the district level, would mimic the success the best charter schools and charter systems have achieved.

It would help schools be more innovative and ensure all schools are accountable for the success of their students.

The good news is that we see action on all three approaches for improving public education gaining traction across the country.  Education is one area where improvement is genuinely in all our interests – and that requires a public education sector that is designed intentionally to innovate.