The American education system has an unfortunate dichotomy: while our universities are among the finest in the world, our public K-12 system has consitently gotten low marks.
The question is, of course, why there is such a dichotomy.
People often point to an obvious fact: teachers’ salaries in public schools tend to be too low to reliably attract the best people. That is, of course, a plausible reason. There is also the fact that the actual education process tends to be underfunded-especially in schools in less affluent neighborhoods.
Another factor that people point to is the teachers’ unions. A standard claim is that these unions serve to protect poor teachers from being fired and that they obstruct attempts to assess and evaluate teachers based on their performance. If this is the case, then these unions would serve to preserve and protect a system that would tend to work poorly. After all, people tend to be less motivated to do their best if they are not being held accountable for doing poorly or rewarded for doing well.
Universities also have unions and these are typically affiliated with national educational organizations. For example, being part of the United Faculty of Florida also makes me a member of the NEA. While some unions have considerable power and can even dicate terms to administrators, they generally tend to lack the clout of public school unions. Perhaps this helps explain the disparity between the university system and the public K-12 system.
Another factor might be the tenure process. Most universities have fairly rigorous requirements for tenure and promotion. While the system can be corrupted and misused, the process is generally applied properly at most school. I know of several people who did not receive tenure-and in most cases this was fair and just. Under this system, a new faculty member is effectively on probation for about 6 years and has to achieve various professional goals and demonstrate competence. Because of this, faculty tend to work fairly hard to get tenure and this tends to keep the quality of education in decent shape.
Of course, it might be worried that once a faculty member gets tenure, s/he will start coasting. That is a legitimate concern and I have seen it happen. However, our pay raises depend a great deal on getting promotions. To get a promotion, a faculty member has to be appropriately productive. They are not just handed out based on time served. As such, people are still motivated to remain quite active and doing their job well.
Even after getting that final promotion, faculty are still evaluated. I’m a full professor and I have to go through the process each year. My chair, who does an excellent job, has no qualms about pointing out any shortcomings or praising success.
Also, there is the matter of pride and status. Faculty tend to be rather competitive. Part of this is ego but part of it is that we have to compete for things like grants. As such, there are always incentives to stay at the top of one’s game.
While this just scratches at the surface, it seems well worthwhile to look at what works in the university system and see if that can be applied to the K-12 system. Perhaps none of it will be useful, but perhaps there are some useful things that could be applied.