How The Free Market Can Save American Education

Justin Haskins Heartland Institute
Published November 14, 2014

Only one week after Election Day, Washington, DC’s focus has shifted from furious campaigning to National Education Week and the Thought Leader Summit (held from Nov. 10–13), “a gathering of the leaders from education, business, and government who define and shape trends in public and private education.”

Among the many topics that will be addressed are school choice, innovations in educational technology, and for-profit education. Although it remains a minority held view in American education today, liberty-focused educators around the country have begun to start thinking about how free-market principles can be used in the classroom to revolutionize the way kids learn.

Conservatives often proudly, and rightly, assert that a central tenant of successful education reform is the transformation of how educational institutions are funded and organized. Long gone are the days where serious reformers believe that centralized education offered by government bureaucrats is a more effective strategy than empowering private schools, charter schools, and other programs that give parents, especially those who live in poor neighborhoods with decrepit schools and failing teachers, the ability to send their children wherever they see fit.

But the importance of using free-market principles in the classrooms themselves is often overlooked by liberty-supporting education reformers. When free-market strategies are employed in schools, children can grow to appreciate the value of freedom and capitalism instead of becoming indoctrinated with the socialistic, everyone-deserves-a-trophy mentality that now dominates U.S. school systems.

In “Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well,” a new book by Heartland Institute Chairman Herbert J. Walberg and President Joseph Bast, research is presented that proves strategies such as paying students for performance; offering stickers (for younger students), parties, and prizes for reaching established goals; and showing high school students the monetary advantages of education all help to develop successful learning habits that have statistically led to better performances on standardized tests and increased graduation rates, in addition to an increased likelihood of college attendance.

For those who believe in and support capitalism, this won’t come as much of a surprise. Using incentives to improve performance and efficiency is a part of the foundation that America, the most successful and prosperous nation the world has ever seen, has been built on.

What seems obvious to so many, however, has been obscured by so-called education gurus in teachers colleges across the nation. As Walberg and Bast explain in “Rewards,” influential academics like Alfie Kohn have rejected the concept of rewarding students for performance. Kohn once even said it was “irrefutable” that “[i]ncentives simply do not work,” and “any approach that offers a reward will fail.”

Is it really a surprise then that so many millennials, having been brainwashed with this sort of thinking for more than a decade, march off to voting booths each election season convinced that the answers to all of the world’s problems are to tax more, spend more, and eliminate accountability?

The secret to transforming America back into the economic powerhouse it once was is to teach children – using proven and trusted strategies – that terms like “incentives,” “rewards,” and “profits” are not the dirty words the public education system has been insisting they are since the 1960s. The easiest way to do this, of course, is to reward the children themselves for performance rather than acting as though being successful isn’t all that important.

Justin Haskins ([email protected]) is an author, blogger, and an editor of publications at The Heartland Institute, a leading free-market think tank based out of Chicago, IL. You can follow him @TheNewRevere or visit his personal site online at

“Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well” by Herbert J. Walberg and Heartland President Joseph Bast is available on and at The Heartland Institute’s online store.


[Originally published at the Daily Caller]