Almost 700,000 students come from foreign countries to study in American universities each year. According to one survey, 20 of the world’s top 50 universities are located in the United States. Yet, America's international reputation for K-12 education is abysmal, and the ignorant products of that national failure are routinely mocked in “man on the street” TV segments, like those produced by comedian Jay Leno. How can a society get education so right in one measure, yet so wrong in another? To improve K-12 education, policy makers should take a lesson from what makes higher education so successful in this country.
International observers are not the only ones critical of American K-12 schooling: the chasm in student satisfaction between high school and college speaks for itself. This should surprise no one — moving on to college from a public high school is like jumping over the wall from East Berlin into a new world of possibility and hope. What is incredible is that there are still people in the United States who stand behind a Soviet-style system of primary and secondary education that remains a constant disappointment while costing taxpayers a fortune.
Imagine if every public university in the United States operated like a typical public high school. College-bound students would be assigned to a university on the basis of their home address. The state would dictate to each university the number and type of academic departments, their course offerings, the structure of the academic year, and so forth. Professors would be given curriculum guidelines specifying which topics are important to teach; compensation would be entirely unrelated to performance.
If public universities had those kinds of rigid, one-size-fits-all restrictions imposed on their operations, it is certain that public universities would be unable to compete with their private or international competition, as so many do today. And yet defenders of the status quo in K-12 education fight against reforms that introduce consumer choice, administrative flexibility, pedagogical autonomy and performance-based pay — the very things that allow American universities (and indeed, private K-12 schools as well) to thrive.
American higher education serves as a model to the world, while American K-12 education serves as a cautionary tale. The centralized system of K-12 schools fits no one's needs—parents have next to no control over the direction of their children's education, students are trapped in failing schools that administrators are powerless to fix, and teachers are kept on tight leashes that attract unmotivated and untalented people to the profession. Only when the K-12 education system benefits from the world of choices already available in higher education will American schools no longer be the laughing-stock of the developed world.
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