Saturday, April 23, 2011

Microsoft and Markets in Education

I tried to highlight Bill Gates and Microsoft as an example of why we should be careful with what we think data snapshots show. Microsoft is also a cautionary tale regarding our assumptions that 'market forces' are necessarily a good thing, and will produce better outcomes in school.

This also serves as 'word study' number two. Earlier, I wondered which kind of democracy we mean when we talk of it in a school reform context. Thinking more deeply about markets would also be helpful.

While I took a little shot at Microsoft, one thing that may indeed be worth remembering about Microsoft is that they are a market winner. Those data snapshots I provided...they aren't all that Microsoft is about. And, of course, what is the most impressive about Microsoft is the volume of money they make.

But you don't have to think them a monopolist, to know that the 'playing field' in the computer business is not level. Microsoft's dominance has had numerous effects on the computer world, but investors may be little interested in that.

If I were an investor in Microsoft, I'd want returns. Whether Microsoft achieved great returns by constantly turning out new, effective, cool, hip (whatever) products, or by their market dominance with old, uncool, stodgy products, wouldn't necessarily matter.

Even a casual observer of Microsoft could argue that they've spent a lot of energy advancing their brand and market status...maybe as much energy as developing new and useful computer applications. All to great benefit for shareholders. Probably less benefit to the computing public.

So, markets and competition look different over time. Some players win and advance. More innovation keeps them strong and vibrant in the market, but so does rent-seeking. And they do some of both.

Why would schools operating in a climate of 'market forces' be any different?

I want some market discipline injected into school reform process...the issue is how much, where, in what ways?

Just a taste of my concern...we want schools to be subject to competition. Markets impose a discipline on consumers, too, though. In markets, all consumers are not equally free to choose whatever they want. We're all constrained by prices and our own buying power. Is that aspect worth translating into the school environment?

More later.

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