In a recent EdWeek article, Douglas Harris asked, “Should K-12 Schools be Governed Like Colleges?” While frustratingly he did not come to any definitive conclusion on the matter, leaving the audience waiting for his next blog, I can already answer this in a pretty straightforward manner: NO. The underlying questions at hand are as follows:
- Can markets, competition, and deregulation improve K-12 performance?
- If higher education mimics a voucher system (money follows the student), what can K-12 learn from this structure?
There is a lot that K-12 can learn from higher education institutions, but it is primarily from many negative practice.
For example, proponents of charter schools (such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options) and vouchers argue that schools will improve their services in order to compete for students. The example of higher education is instructive in this instance. Over the last 30 years, there has been a massive shift from seeing higher education as a private as opposed to a public good (Gildersleeve et al., 2010). Along with decreasing state funding, the rise of for-profit higher education, and the counter-productive logic of US News and World Report rankings, we have seen the following results.
First, there has been a massive shift from need-based financial aid to merit (Gerald & Haycock, 2006). So, yes, institutions of higher education are competing for students, just not all students. To the extent that our limited measures of merit (e.g., SAT scores) are more a reflection of race and SES (Guinier, 2015), this means institutions of higher education are competing for White, affluent students with college educated parents at the expense of low-income, first generation, minorities. Thus, it is not surprising that despite college access increasing for low-income and minority students (Bastedo & Jaquette, 2011; Posselt et al., 2014), that gaps in access have either remained the same or grown larger – or what Bastedo and Jaquette (2011) refer to as “running in place.”
Second, as state revenues to institutions of higher education decline, public universities frequently make up the lost income by aggressively recruiting out-of-state students. The unintended consequence of this behavior is that these largely affluent and White out-of-state students push out low-income and minority students in the process (Jaquette, Curs, & Posselt, in press). Again, this market-driven logic means that institutions of higher education are competing for students, just not all students equally.
Third, has this competition done anything to improve higher education results? According to Arum and Roksa (2010), the answer is a resounding “No!” This fits well into the market-driven logic of contemporary higher education, which Slaughter and Rhoades (2004) refer to as academic capitalism. To aggressively recruit affluent students, colleges and universities are not improving educational offerings. Instead they are investing in amenities such as state-of-the-art gymnasiums and renovated student unions. There is a joke among campus tour guides, “Of course the library is on the tour. We pass it on our way to the union!”
It is easy to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of institutions of higher education. This is only one component of the puzzle. Colleges and universities have increasingly fed into this market-driven logic the more that we, the public, disinvest from them. The more we consider higher education an individual asset as opposed to a societal good, the more these counter-productive patterns will persist.
Ultimately, K-12 education can learn a lot from the example of higher education. This 30 year social experiment has done very little to improve access, exacerbated inequality, and led to foolish investments of time and money to attract students who were already going to college in the first place. The call, therefore, is to put the public back into public education.
Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2010). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Bastedo, M. N., & Jaquette, O. (2011). Running in place: Low-income students and the dynamics of higher education stratification. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 318-339.
Gerald, D. & Haycock, K. (2006). Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities. Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust.
Gildersleeve, R. E., Kuntz, A. M., Pasque, P. A., & Carducci, R. (2010). The role of critical inquiry in (re)constructing the public agenda for higher education: Confronting the conservative modernization of the academy. The Review of Higher Education, 34(1), 85–121.
Guinier, L. (2015). The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America.
Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Jaquette, O., Curs, B. R., & Posselt, J. R. (in press). Tuition rich, mission poor: Nonresident
enrollment growth and the socioeconomic and racial composition of public research universities. Journal of Higher Education.
Posselt, J. R., Jaquette, O., Bielby, R., & Bastedo, M. (2012). Access without equity:
Longitudinal analyses of institutional stratification by race and ethnicity, 1972-2004. American Educational Research Journal, 49(6), 1074-1111.
Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state,
and higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.