Why has K-12 undergone waves of reform while higher education remains unscathed?
When the Common Core debate crescendoed back around 2010, the education sector, the reformers, the public, and the policymakers regularly waged pitched battles over student outcomes, teachers’ job security, and the overall quality of public school education. Major national media offered in-depth investigations and passionate op-eds for and against, pushing the issue into the national spotlight and turning the contest into a political flash point.
How have colleges and universities escaped public scrutiny and the policymaking zeal so characteristic of primary and secondary school?
Common Core struck a nerve in the national discourse—as did President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act; as does the ongoing debate over the merits of charter schools. Today, primary and secondary education is a highly scrutinized industry, beset by ever-shifting public opinion and interventionist policymakers.
This reformist impulse in the K-12 space is not new to the United States: it has been the focus of the last half-century of education policy. But while policymakers and primary and secondary school stakeholders take each other to the mat over how to best allocate resources, measure success, and help students achieve more, most higher education institutions operate in their own largely autonomous ecosystem, without much awareness of or engagement in state and federal policy.
How is it that colleges and universities have escaped the public scrutiny and policymaking zeal that has characterized primary and secondary schooling?
Michael Kirst, co-editor of Remaking College, and William Doyle, contributor to the selfsame volume, argue that policy reform in K-12 is more stringent because of a remarkable difference of opinion about educational quality and who is responsible for educational achievement in a college or university setting, versus who is responsible in a primary or secondary school setting.
On the former point, Kirst contends that top-tier higher education institutions, the likes of the Ivy League, capture an outsized portion of the American imagination when they think of postsecondary schooling. The prestige of this segment of schools gets extrapolated across the entire postsecondary system, despite widely ranging student outcomes from one college or university degree program to the next.
Kirst and Doyle also maintain that what parties are responsible for educational attainment shift from the primary and secondary school context to the college and university setting. Citing a study by John Immerwahr, Kirst and Doyle note that 75% of Americans believe that almost all K-12 students can learn and succeed in school given enough help and attention. Compare that figure to this one: 91% of Americans believe that the benefit of a college education depends on how much effort the student puts into it. The perception of most Americans is that, while it is incumbent upon K-12 schools to offer the best possible resources and the highest possible quality of instruction, the onus for academic success shifts to the student in a postsecondary setting.
This insight may help explain why the public is generally slower to call into question the quality of the higher education system. Though recent Pew research polls reveal the public’s growing skepticism about the value of an education relative to ever-inflating costs, these concerns generally do not include a low evaluation of the education itself, just anxiety over the price tag.
Yet as postsecondary degrees become an increasingly necessary prerequisite for career success and as college and university education becomes steadily more expensive, perhaps an era of greater transparency on the postsecondary stage has come. Perhaps it is time to turn the same rigorous attention we apply to local K-12 public schools to our higher education system as well.
Join the conversation: Michael Kirst and Mitchell Stevens will discuss their new book and its themes at the University of California, Berkeley on Wednesday, March 18th 4pm-5pm.See full event details here.