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Market Education: The Unknown History

Author(s):Coulson, Andrew J.
Reviewer(s):West, Martin

Published by EH.NET (July 1, 2000)

Andrew J. Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History, New Brunswick,

NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999, x + 471 pp. $24.95 (paperback),

1-7658-0496-4, $24.95, $54.95 (cloth), 1-56000-408-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Martin West, Worcester College, Oxford University.

Each year more evidence is published indicating the persistence of vast

inequalities within the American public education system and the poor overall

performance of its schools relative to those in other countries. Mounting

frustration with the lack of progress towards solving these problems has

produced a broad consensus regarding the urgency of reforming the

administration and governance of public education, while recent economic

expansion has increased the amount of resources available for this task.

Unfortunately, there remains little agreement among scholars and policy-makers

about the direction reform should take.

One of a large number of recent works attempting to provide guidance on this

issue, the book under review is distinguished both by its unique approach and

its challenging conclusions. Andrew Coulson, a former software engineer with

Microsoft Corporation, is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Social

Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University. In an attempt

to identify the key characteristics of successful school systems, Coulson has

turned to the history of education, with the hope that the lessons of the past

will provide new insight into the best way forward. The conclusions he draws

will not be encouraging to those who remain convinced that the American public

education system is essentially on the right path, requiring only minor

adjustments. Distinguishing between the ideals of public education and its

practice, Coulson argues that free markets in education have consistently been

more successful in terms of both efficiency and equity than systems funded and

operated exclusively by the government; any hope of substantive improvement

therefore lies in the wholesale abandonment of government and non-profit

schools in favor of private, for-profit alternatives.

Coulson’s use of international historical evidence to analyze contemporary

debates typically driven by ideology is refreshing, and represents a major

contribution to the field of educational policy. The obvious benefit this

strategy offers is the opportunity to compare the performance of a wider

variety of methods of educational provision and governance than is possible

using data from the twentieth century, in which state-provided mass education

has emerged as a universal feature of developed countries. The societies

Coulson has chosen to present as case studies, which range from Ancient Greece

and Rome to contemporary Japan, allow the consideration of a diverse range of

alternatives. As he is ultimately concerned with identifying the common

elements of successful educational systems across different cultures and time

periods, the large amount of variation in the social and economic conditions in

the contexts he has selected is a clear asset. And crucially, given the nature

of his eventual conclusions, Coulson has not avoided addressing those periods,

such as nineteenth-century England and United States, cited in the standard

literature as prominent examples of the success of state education.

The first cases Coulson considers, Athens and Sparta, conveniently offer the

chance to compare two contemporary societies with diametrically opposed models

of school governance. Their educational systems serve throughout the remainder

of the book as extreme examples to which subsequent systems can be compared.

The complete lack of government regulation of education in Athens meant that

anyone could establish a school, setting whatever curriculum he considered

appropriate. The need to attract enough students to remain profitable, however,

forced potential instructors to tailor their offerings to reflect parental

demands and also required that they keep their fees competitive. The success of

Athenian education, as reflected in its impressive literacy rates, economic

prosperity, and immense contribution to the Western cultural tradition, can

thus be attributed to the prudential behavior of its citizens in an open market

for knowledge.

Education in Sparta, in contrast, was entirely the prerogative of the state.

Boys were removed from their families at the age of seven and placed in

state-run boarding facilities in which they received an education designed

exclusively to prepare them for military service. In Coulson’s view, Sparta’s

low levels of literacy, negligible contributions to science, literature, and

art, and eventual economic decline are all directly related to the

ineffectiveness of the state’s totalitarian approach to the socialization of

its young.

Moving forward chronologically, Coulson uses the experience of education in

democratic nations in the nineteenth century to test two prominent claims made

by conventional historians and defenders of state-run schooling: “that

government education helped unite people of diverse backgrounds and thus forged

stronger communities and nations; and that it brought literacy and learning to

a wider segment of the population than would otherwise have been possible” (p.

73). Unsurprisingly, he finds both claims wanting. A brief examination of the

origins of public schools in the United States and France reveals the manner in

which they have been used repeatedly to exclude various religious, ethnic, and

racial minorities. Rather than encouraging social harmony, he claims, state-run

education is a consistent source of social conflict, as parents are forced

either to accept that their children will be taught objectionable ideas or to

force their own views on other people’s children. Meanwhile, the English case

is used to demonstrate that widespread popular literacy was commonly achieved

prior to significant government intervention in education.

The discussion of Victorian England, however, provides a telling example of

Coulson’s disappointing tendency to present oversimplified and partially

misleading accounts of complex chapters in the history of education in order to

support his overall argument concerning the relative efficacy of educational

markets. While correct in his assertion that the exaggerated claims made by

conventional histories of state education are no longer tenable, Coulson fails

to acknowledge that the state may nevertheless have had an important role to

play in the expansion of mass education. He asserts that even the poorest and

least-educated English parents in the pre-compulsory era reliably discharged

their responsibility for their children’s education, a fact used later in the

book to support his contention that modern parents would prove equally

competent if that responsibility were returned to them.

While it is certainly true that “virtually all children were receiving some

schooling” (p. 94), there remained a small but substantial minority in many

regions who had no contact with school at all, a consequence of the lack of a

clear economic return for the acquisition of literacy as well as what the

Newcastle Commission described as the “indifference, thriftlessness, and

recklessness of their parents” (pt. II, p. 57). Furthermore, although the vast

majority of working-class parents were willing to make considerable sacrifices

to provide a basic education for their children, a combination of myopia,

self-interest, and financial necessity meant that the schooling most children

received was irregular and brief, a pattern obviously detrimental to

educational progress (Smelser, p. 257).

As Coulson is eager to point out, reliance on for-profit schooling serves to

tune the supply of education precisely to parental demand. This implies,

however, that if demand for education is sub-optimal, this fact will be

reflected in the quality of the schools that emerge to meet that demand. In the

case of Victorian England, the deficiencies of parental demand were directly

reflected in the nature of the working-class private schools that emerged in

large numbers throughout the nineteenth century, a fact Coulson categorically

denies. Although he acknowledges that conditions in Victorian private schools

were frequently far from ideal, Coulson contends that “what little evidence is

available on the comparative effectiveness of subsidized versus entirely

private schools tends to favor the private schools” (p. 95). This unique claim

is apparently based on evidence compiled by David Mitch in his comprehensive

1992 study of the growth of popular literacy in nineteenth-century England.

Strangely, however, Mitch’s interpretation of his own data is precisely the

opposite, leading him to conclude that the subsidized schools were in fact

modestly more effective in teaching students to read and write. While Mitch’s

reservations about the quality of the data force him to acknowledge that “it

would be rash to dismiss the ability of Mid-Victorian private schools to

transmit literacy”(Mitch, p. 149), it is difficult to understand how they can

be made to support Coulson’s interpretation.

The history of education indeed holds important lessons for contemporary

policy-makers, but I would contend that these lessons are more complex than

Coulson has acknowledged. Educational markets, while offering certain benefits,

are also deeply flawed. And yet there is no guarantee that the political

control of the provision of education will in practice produce superior

results. The ideal balance between political and market control of schooling in

a democratic society is an empirical, rather than ideological issue with a

unique resolution for each particular time period, nation, and level of

education. Restoring the virtues of market competition in education while

minimizing the associated vices is the task currently confronting education

policy-makers around the world. The development of a balanced historical

understanding of the role the state has played relative to the market in

education during various periods has the potential to contribute greatly to

this task.

The strength of Coulson’s sweeping historical survey in this respect is its

acute awareness of the problems associated with the dominance of education by

the state and their implications for the quality of education. He offers

concrete examples of the ways in which these problems, which include

bureaucratic inefficiency, the excessive influence of special interest groups,

and the potential for social conflict have combined to hamper educational

progress. The unfortunate result is the pattern of stagnant or declining

academic performance with which modern societies are so familiar.

Coulson proceeds in the final segment of the book to examine several recent

proposals for reforming American education on the basis of the extent to which

they succeed in restoring what he identifies as the five beneficial

characteristics of educational markets: choice and financial responsibility for

parents, and freedom, competition, and the profit motive for schools. It is in

addressing these contemporary policies that Coulson is at his best. With the

same clear, engaging style that characterizes the entire book, he provides a

thorough analysis of each of the most prominent market-based reforms. His

criteria allow him to account for the modest positive results they have

achieved thus far, but also suggest they are essentially half-measures which

will ultimately fail to achieve the level of success proponents promise. As

Coulson points out, history provides countless examples of states increasing

their control over the provision of education, yet none of the reverse. In

their attempts to restore market dynamics to education, therefore, contemporary

policy-makers are essentially on their own.

Martin West is a graduate student in Economic and Social History at Worcester

College, Oxford. His paper “State Intervention in English Education, 1833-1891:

A Public Goods and Agency Approach” will be published in August as an Oxford

University Discussion Paper in Economic and Social History (available in print

from Nuffield College, Oxford and online at


“Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular

Education in England.” Parliamentary Papers, 1861. Vol. 21, pts. I-VI. [2794].

Mitch, David, The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian England: The

Influence of Private Choice and Public Policy (Philadelphia, 1992).

Smelser, Neil J., Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class

Education in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, 1991).

Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative