Incentivising excellence: School choice and education quality

British author and director of research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education, Gabriel Sahlgren brings us back to Economics 101 with the contention that there is one root cause of all problems afflicting education today: a lack of proper incentives for quality. He argues that the strongest system would be built on a functioning, choice-heavy education market. From there, his argument proceeds rationally: Readers are treated to a thorough explanation underpinning school choice as it relates to competition and quality. Sahlgren evaluates an impressive body of research, covering studies that are cross national (such as Hensvik’s 2012 finding that school competition eventually leads better-qualified individuals to become teachers), large scale, and small scale. And he uses all of this to arrive at his ideal education market, which includes, among other things, vouchers, closures of failing schools, for-profit schools, and better information and accountability systems. From 10,000 feet, much of this seems like old news. But as one parachutes into the grass below, Sahlgren proves himself to be a refreshingly realistic proponent of market-based education reform. He acknowledges the meager gains that many choice programs have produced (which he attributes to programs borne of political compromise and ideology) and repeatedly warns politicians that implementing his reforms could prove politically treacherous. For Sahlgren, reform is all or nothing. He’s not wrong. But, then, he doesn’t have to get elected.

SOURCE: Gabriel H. Sahlgren, Incentivising Excellence (England: The Centre for Market Reform of Education Ltd., 2013).

Brandon L. Wright
Brandon L. Wright is the Editorial Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.