The Creep of Marketplace Reasoning into Public Schools (Part 3)

In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel says that today “almost everything is up for sale.” He gives some examples.*

$Rent out space on your body to display ads: Air New Zealand paid 30 people $777 to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos advertising their flights.

$Volunteer to be a guinea pig for pharmaceutical drug trials and earn up to $7500 or more depending on how much toxicity accompanies drug.

$Stand in line to hold a place ($20 an hour) for Capitol Hill  lobbyists    who want to attend congressional hearings.

$If you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas (TX) school for each book you read you will get paid $2.

And it is this last item that I want to elaborate because schools have  become reformers’ favorite targets for cash incentives to change student and teacher behavior that go well beyond the business involvement I described in Arlington (VA) in the 1970s and 1980s. The “creep of marketplace reasoning into public schools” is the unexamined use of these cash incentives in current school reform efforts to solve larger national problems –producing skilled graduates to strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness and reduce inequalities in the U.S.

Of course, schools have welcomed the marketplace since the early 20th century. For example, in the 1920s, Ivory Soap gave bars to children for soap-carving tournaments. Since then the Campbell Soup Company provided lessons on nutrition; Proctor and Gamble sponsored materials on why disposable diapers help the planet (Sandel, pp. 197-198). Such gifts of instructional materials saved districts money.

Slowly, recognition among teachers and policymakers grew that such sponsored materials, freely given to schools, degrade the norm of teachers using unbiased materials in classroom lessons and undercut the goal of students becoming critical thinkers (unless teachers have students analyze the Campbell soup and Proctor and Gamble lessons for bias).

Commercialized instructional materials are easier to detect and stop. Far harder to halt is the slide of cash-strapped districts becoming marketers to raise lost taxpayer dollars. Since the 1980s, budget cuts that gutted staff and programs and a public hostile to tax increases  have pushed districts school boards and school chiefs to use marketplace reasoning to raise funds.

Districts found money in businesses who paid school boards to place ads on sports facilities, buses, school grounds, and textbooks.

They found money in corporate sponsorship of school events.

They found money in installing vending machines for soft drinks, candies, and even nutritious foods where the district and vendor split proceeds (e.g., Coca Cola or Pepsi, carrot sticks).

They found money in getting electronic equipment in exchange for showing ads to students (e.g., Channel 1)

Schools scrounging funds to replace lost tax dollars helps to explain, in part, how marketplace reasoning has slowly entered schools. But these instances of corporate-sponsored instructional materials and advertisements placed on public property are not the same as paying children to read books, come to school, and do well on standardized tests. Or pay teachers more whose students have scored well on standardized tests.

Such reform-driven policies dole out cash to change student and teacher behavior. Using cash incentives is pure gold coin in the economist’s realm. Although such payments to students and teachers may or may not work (see here and here), Sandel sees these “perverse incentives”  corrupting basic values of public schooling.

Why is that?  “There are,” Sandel says, “some things money should not buy” (p. 7).  [See Sandel YouTube excerpt on this point].

Markets are supposed to be value-free. “If someone is willing to pay for sex or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is, ‘How much?'” (p. 14). We have seen the results of such reasoning in Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers in  the near-collapse of the economy in 2008. Still there are moral limits to buyer and seller transactions. As Sandel points out, we prohibit parents from selling their children and citizens selling their votes because they degrade and corrupt public and private morals.  When policymakers approve cash incentives for students, is that corrupting?

Sandel answers yes. Paying students to attend school, read books, and pass tests changes attitudes toward achievement–better to read for the cash rather than reading is worth doing in of itself. Moreover, cash incentives degrades the school culture. If a positive school culture is what Kent Peterson and Terry Deal say is a “shared sense of what is important, a shared ethos of caring and concern, and a shared commitment to helping students learn” then paying students and teachers reduces human relations to shopping at 7-Eleven (el199809_peterson, p. 29).

Forget about schools trying to build communities where adults and children work together, help one another, and respect differences among themselves. Cash incentives for students and teachers, Sandel argues, is market reasoning that damages their mission to build healthy, engaged citizens. I agree.


*Readers should know that Debra Satz, a philosopher at Stanford University, makes a similar case in Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale (2010)–a source that Sandel fails to mention in his book. Readers may want to read her argument, one that she made to graduating seniors in 2010.


Filed under school reform policies

27 responses to “The Creep of Marketplace Reasoning into Public Schools (Part 3)

  1. Well said Larry. Last week I was up in Boston for the Bruce Springsteen Fenway Park concert. during the day we visited the Boston Public Library. It is our nation’s first publicly supported municipal library. Our first large library open to the public in America, and the first public library to allow people to borrow books. On the East Side all along the top you’ll find this inscription “THE PUBLIC LIBRARY ОF THE CITY ОF BOSTON • BUILT BY THE PEOPLE АND DEDICATED TО THE ADVANCEMENT ОF LEARNING”
    Being an SOSer I cold not help, but admire those citizens of old that built for the public good. Call me naive, but I still view out public school system as being something the people see as worthy symbols of our commitment to continuing that belief in the public good. A public good that should not be for sale. It is something hard to believe in a world where the Common Core David Coleman is also listed as the treasurer for Michelle Rhee’s Studentsfirst. These so called reformers have selling us a bill of goods that proclaims the public good is for sale. I reject their bill of goods.
    Thanks for a great blog,
    Jesse The Walking Man Turner

  2. Thank you for this series of posts – I’ve learned a lot from them! Interestingly enough, I was just talking with a friend about related matters – how students whose teachers focus on a learning orientation in their classrooms do better than those whose teachers focus on a performance orientation (i.e., focusing on test results). If cash incentives don’t lead to focusing on performance only, I don’t know what would!


  3. Great piece; you could also reference the robust research showing that paying for performance severely undermines intrinsic motivation to work hard and do well. The numerous Fryer-type experiments have likely done untold damage to students’ ultimate chance of success.

  4. Bob Calder

    It would probably be a good idea to check in with Dan Ariely over the long term effects of incentives. He explained his work in relation to education in an interview published at Edutopia a couple of years ago and it certainly applies to students as much as teaching staff.

    Let me make the observation that marketing philosophy has an almost overwhelming attraction to people because it is based on a sort of superficial empiricism. It is the ultimate “What Works” philosophy. It works. Until one day, it doesn’t.

    Teaching “that works” or “what good teachers look like” are phrases that stand at the beginning of many calls to action. In this month’s _American Teacher_ Randi Weingarten appeals for a non-confrontational collaboration of union teachers (with some unfocused others) for solutions, falling into the “things that work” trap herself. Solution-driven unionism is her phrase.

    Given the rate of change in our environment, any philosophy based on what works today will surely fail to work tomorrow because it fails to consider complexity.

    • larrycuban

      Again, Bob, I thank you for introducing me to Dan Ariely. His work in behavioral economics I did not know. He also seems to have worked with Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow”). I looked up his work on incentives ( and, as you said, it is helpful.

  5. In 2004, the UK’s Blair government introduced the EMA, or education maintenance allowance, which was paid directly into the bank accounts of 16 to 19-year-olds who may otherwise have left school, in order to persuade them to stay on. It cost the taxpayer £545 million pounds a year until the current administration scrapped it. It exemplifies how much damage politics masquerading as education can cause. The political motive was to do anything to stem burgeoning numbers of NEETS (teenagers not in education, employment or training.) There was no identifiable educational reasoning behind the policy other than incentivising kids with little interest in doing so, to stay on at school.

    In 2009 the minister responsible for the policy said, “EMA is a highly successful and popular programme that has seen more young people from lower income households stay on in learning after 16. We are determined to continue to support young people post-16; that is why we have guaranteed all young people who want one a place in education or training this September – with an investment of over £6.8bn over the next two years.”

    Money which, needless to say, the nation he served did not have.

    • larrycuban

      As always, Joe the examples you offer of UK policy help me (and I suspect my readers, see that these policies straddle the Atlantic. Thanks.

  6. kay merseth

    Sorry Larry but I think you are off-base to suggest that markets are value free. I wish you’d say explicitly what exactly is wrong with markets involved in education? You seem to never directly address this question.

    • larrycuban

      Here is what I said in post:”Markets are supposed to be value-free.” Then I quote Sandel: “If someone is willing to pay for sex or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is, ‘How much?’” (p. 14).” I agree with Sandel and Debra Satz (“Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale,” Oxford Press, 2010) that market reasoning and market operations are hardly value-free. It is neoclassical economists (e.g., Gary Becker) who argue that markets are value-free, not Larry Cuban.

  7. I’m intrigued by Kay’s question, “…what exactly is wrong with markets involved in education?” and again, would offer a UK perspective on this that might be of interest.

    The UK has a world renowned and much sought after private sector in education. Wealthy parents from all over the world send their children to many UK boarding schools because they value the educational experience their children will receive there. The schools “market” themselves quite subtly, if at all, but there is undoubtedly a market in that the parents are paying customers of a service the schools provide and they are often in competition with geographical neighbours or similar types of schools.

    Yet in my experience of these schools (and that is lengthy and broad) they never compromise their educational goals or principles for profit or even what a business would call “customer satisfaction.” Whatever tiny profit they might make is reinvested in either facilities or people, and they rely for major capital projects on running fund raising appeals through their alumni and others. They prove that an educational market can function without degrading the values and ideals many state sector teachers would adhere to.

    Yet instead of being admired (and imitated) they are more often attacked as bastions of privilege and elitism. A bit like Toyota demanding Rolls Royce make inferior cars… instead of getting on with the business of manufacturing reliable, mass market models, everyone can trust.

    • larrycuban

      Joe, if Kay reads the replies that you and I have made to her comment, she may respond to your point. If not, thanks for point of the private school market in UK.

    • Bob Calder

      Joe – They have probably achieved full penetration of their market. I expect the population of families that can afford high quality private education and whose children can pass the entrance exams is fairly small.

      • Bob – their fortunes certainly fluctuate and in my time, their teachers have never been immune from the downsizing anxiety or reality that many business employees face.

        I can give you a rather striking anecdote from my own experience which I think makes my point about values and ideals perfectly. The parents of a boy who had gone through the state system locally, without ever one criticism being made by his teachers, came to my school out of near desperation when the secondary school he was in, at the time he was opting to choose which “O” level subjects he would take, were told he was not good enough to enter for any and would instead be taking only GCSEs, the lesser exam at 16.

        They were baffled because not once in his entire school career to date had a teacher complained about his effort or ability. The school I worked for interviewed him, looked at his work and found the financial support to help the parents. Both were working full time in poorly paid jobs. The boy was in my boarding house for two years. He took 8 “O” levels and passed 5, including English and Maths and on leaving school joined the Royal Marines, one of the most selective military units anyone can apply for in the UK.

    • Ro

      On this subject, many of us have issues with sending our kids away to boarding schools. They may have a better educational outcome but I am not so sure it’s a great family dynamic. These 15 years with my daughter have been fast and fleeting and I wouldn’t send her away to miss a moment of i, I don’t care how good the education is. That is for college. We have amazing teachers and pedagogy here…teachers are just not allowed to have autonomy anymore given the totalitarian bent of the reformers…a national curriculum with scripted teacher editions to go along with highly controlled subject matter.Public education, like health care, should never be for profit. Someone is losing and it’s usually the patient/student.

      • Ro, I absolutely agree. In fact it’s a good indicator of how these schools function within a market. Because in recent decades not only have very many changed from predominantly single sex schools, to co-ed, they have also completely reshaped their timetables to accept more day pupils and allow children more time at home with their families at weekends.

  8. To your many examples I would suggest that you add the practice of funding public schools (K-12 and postsecondary) with lottery proceeds, which is the most common rationalization in the U.S. for government-supported lotteries. It similarly leads to “schools scrounging funds to replace lost tax dollars”, among other effects (

  9. Pingback: this week’s reading list « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice

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