The monopolies of education
Monopolies are seldom efficient or effective. With three monopolies built into our current K-12 public education system, it's not hard to understand why the system is failing the majority of children.
K-12 Government Schools
The first monopoly is the K-12 public-education system itself, run by our government. Parents usually have no choice but to send their children to the assigned local public school unless they can afford private school tuition or can make homeschooling work. Not only are most students stuck at the local government school, but taxpayers are required to support these schools regardless of their effectiveness.
Like most monopolies, government schools can be deemed failing and still receive full funding for their operation. With limited competition and no performance requirements to obtain funding, there is no accountability within the system and no repercussions if they fail to educate children effectively.
Today, our K-12 public schools are failing 77% of our children. That's the percentage of children who are not academically proficient averaged across core subjects after 13 years of schooling based upon NAEP data.
For most of the country, teachers are represented by unions that control the supply and compensation of teachers. Moreover, union contracts control virtually every aspect of operating a school, including the hours worked, the yearly calendar, and daily working conditions. There is no career ladder -- only a "step and lane" salary schedule based on seniority and educational level. Thus, there is no incentive for strong professional performance. In fact, some of our worst teachers can be some of our highest paid if they've been in the profession for enough years.
Furthermore, union contracts contain no language pertaining to student achievement. Instead, the contracts deal only with adults. As a result, our government schools are adult-focused rather than student-focused. And being the largest employer in the country, our K-12 public education system is more an employment program than an education system. The union monopoly is a major reason why.
Colleges of Education
The third monopoly in our education system is the colleges of education within universities, which were established to ensure that only "qualified" teachers could work in the classroom. The concept might have made sense if it ensured higher quality teachers. But the reality is that "qualified" means only that students spend four years in an education college (or a non-traditional program offered in some states). And, as the certification laws have driven the proliferation of education colleges over time, their performance has declined, as has that of the state's non-traditional programs.
Colleges of education have grown to where we now have nearly 2,000 teacher preparation providers within higher education institutions that grant teaching certificates -- institutions with no accountability for turning out competent teachers. The quality of these colleges varies, but the vast majority of these programs do not effectively screen poor teaching candidates. Consequently, graduates of these programs are officially certified regardless of their ability to teach.
The certification process is fundamentally flawed. In essence, 18-year-olds are given four years of training concerning how to teach content rather than taking content experts and equipping them with skills needed to teach. It's all backwards.
Today, we get excellent teaching by accident, not by design. This cannot continue if we want to improve the academic achievement of our students. The same is true for leadership, as most states require principals and superintendents to be certified, which can usually only occur through a college of education. In short, the monopoly of education colleges has diminished the supply of competent teachers and leaders in our schools.
Monopolies rarely perform well, and our K-12 public schools are no exception. If we are serious about the effective education of our children, we need to break down these monopolies plaguing our K-12 public education system.
First, parents must be empowered to decide how, when, and where they want their children educated. If we employ free-market principles to give parents the ability to choose the best school for their children, schools will be forced to dramatically improve or lose their market share.
Second, we need to break the teacher union stronghold by electing champions of education freedom with the political will to stand up to unions.
Third, we should expand the pipeline for teachers, principals, and superintendents through accountable, high-quality alternatives to education colleges. Arizona and Tennessee are two states leading the way in this change.
By shifting the power from the state, the union, and the colleges of education to the parents, the winners will be America's children.
Don Nielsen is Chairman of the Center for Transforming Education, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, former President of the Seattle School Board, and author of Every School.
Image: Public Domain