Currently public education holds a virtual monopoly in most countries around the world. The problem is that each school district is the sole provider for education for all students who cannot afford much more expensive private education. Worse, students are often forced to go to the school which is geographically closest to them which often forces them into bad schools. This kind of monopoly is exactly what we try to avoid in business, and many high profile cases have happened over the past decade have demonstrated how concerned our judicial systems are with breaking up monopolies.
This argument has been used to allow other types of schools to open, like charter schools for example. Charter schools are examples of public funding being used to open a different kind of school and provide some choice for public school students. They don’t seem to be having much success in actually boosting scores of students however and recent studies have shown that charter schools are no more or less capable of educating our kids.
Some school districts have tried to allow vouchers so that students can use their tax dollars (or a portion of them) and send them to whatever school they choose to attend. This would allow some measure of choice for the students, and the hope is that this would force the schools in question to improve, or potentially close because of a "lack of clients".
Neither of these alternatives to public education has shown signs of success. Charter school results have been ambivalent and most of the voucher systems have been failures. In fact, almost all education reform efforts have made very little progress in improving graduation rates and recent improvements in some large school districts (think NYC) have been shown to be false progress.
So what is the problem then if allowing more choice for schools hasn’t worked in improving the quality of education? The issue lies in the fact that almost all of these solutions have been subject to the ultimate authority, that of standardized tests meant to measure the success of the schools. We haven’t actually been offering more choice when we require schools to fall within a small set of standard norms. Some charter schools have been exempt from standardized testing, but of course the progress of these schools have been so difficult to measure that we do not know yet if just exempting a school from standardized testing has any impact on the student learning in those buildings.
So long as we require every school to meet a set of standard norms and tie their funding to their success in meeting these norms, then we should expect all schools to become more similar to each other. This negates the effect of more choice when all schools have to meet the same objectives, and generally rely on the same flawed learning methods to achieve their goals.
The solution is to throw away the cheap standardized tests as measures of school success and look at more expensive measures. There are lots of other options to standardized tests, including portfolio assessment, individual education plans for every student, or community assessment of schools. None of these options is as cheap as standardized tests, but one could argue that in a continual "band-aid" approach to the real problem of the educational monopoly, we have spent far more money.
There are actual examples of schools around the world where real learning is taking place. If you examine these school districts, you’ll often find that they lack the myopic focus on a standardized test that have spread across Canada, the UK, the US, and Australia. In other words, by ignoring the standardized test and focusing on student learning, they have managed to offer a much improved education for their students. We should be looking at these examples and finding ways to diversify the ways in which we measure the success of our students and be willing to fund the costs of these alternate measures.