Sunday, 7 October 2012

Evaluating Thatcherism II: pseudomarkets

In Vancouver for a wedding. An old friend who teaches in Chicago waxes bitter about the charter school system. He has terrifying anecdotes about the school management: hiring their own relatives at inflated salaries, wasting vast sums on school construction. "There's no oversight, no accountability," he says. I am embarrassed. This is not what the Economist says! (Ah, but -- side note -- the Economist is part-owned by Pearson Plc, which makes a lot of money from standardized testing and "learning services", and wants to make more.) My friend has interests too, he is now a union rep., but his stories are convincing, and he transparently cares about his pupils.

My friend is on weaker ground with school choice. "But why should parents be able to choose their kid's school?" he asks. That line is pretty much an argument-loser.

This all brings me back to the vicissitudes of the Thatcher agenda. As the neolibs moved from things you could privatize to things that, politically, you could not -- from telephones to trains to education -- they cast around for new ways to bring in choice. Their solution was to introduce incentives and competition, but with the government as centralized buyer: what this blog calls pseudomarkets. Schools could be evaluated by standardized tests for pupils; privatized services would have Ofcom and Ofwat to measure their performance -- these are not Norse gods, but official regulators; policemen could get promoted based on the number of crimes they cleared up.

And lo, the performance measurements increased and the government saw the statistics and was well pleased, so pleased that the Blairites took over this part of the agenda and pushed it further still.

And yet the people who actually experienced the public services were not as happy as the performance measurements suggested. And they started to mutter about "teaching to the test" and "valuing what you measure instead of measuring what you value". (And nerds among them pointed to a famous paper by Holmstrom; and the others retorted, "yeah, that's what we said" and took a headache pill for the maths.)

But the agenda was still very popular with politicians: perhaps because politicians do not have many ideas, and keep doing what seemed to work before; perhaps because they were inside the whale, and truly believed the statistics that their civil servants read out; perhaps because "choice and competition" enabled accounting shenanigans which made debts vanish from the government's books, but the debts would still come back in the end.

Which brings us more or less up to the present day. So what do we do now?