Not long ago, my older son came to me complaining about school. He’s 12 years old and in the sixth grade, the first year of a three-year stretch at a middle school, that universally derided penal institution that serves no clear pedagogical function and has, in my experience, zero defenders among students, parents, and educators alike. My son is lucky in that he attends a well-regarded school in one of the highest-ranked districts in the country. What’s more, he lives in the most educated city in America, where more adults have advanced degrees than anywhere else in these United States. So he’s getting about the best public school experience that socioeconomic status can buy.
My son’s list of complaints was noteworthy not for its originality but for its perennial nature. His classes are uninteresting, he said. The rules and assignments and grades are arbitrary and poorly explained. My response to him was equally clichéd. I sympathized with him, but really, what did he expect? It’s a given that school is a drag and a chore, as unpleasant as a wedding night must have been for a Victorian virgin. (I spared him that comparison.) There’s a reason, I said, why virtually every depiction of school in popular culture is negative, or ambivalent at best. From Catcher in the Rye to Rock ’n’ Roll High School to the 2004 cult hit Napoleon Dynamite, school is typically figured as a crucible of conformity, a prison-like institution that alienates and annoys as much as it educates.
We should ask why our expectations of elementary and secondary education are so low. Americans spend more than $463 billion a year on public and private K–12 education. In any other industry that big, we would demand massive innovation, experimentation, and personalization when it comes to delivering goods and services. Yet with few exceptions, education everywhere, whether public or private, is still basically standardized, partly by law and partly by tradition. The customer service revolution that has affected virtually every other aspect of life during the last 20 or so years has barely touched education. There are many reasons for this, perhaps none more important than the simple fact that K–12 schooling is effectively a state-run monopoly, with 90 percent of students enrolled in public schools. Such institutions are largely protected from the competitive forces that make other businesses satisfy their customers or close up shop.
This month’s cover story, “The Agony of American Education” (see page 22), explores one way out of mediocre schools. Reason Foundation education analyst Lisa Snell reports on how San Francisco is revolutionizing its schools by forcing them to compete for individual students (and the funding that follows them). The result is something like a market in education that rewards schools that differentiate themselves through course offerings and student achievement. The system isn’t perfect, but it represents a noble experiment that may not just boost student scores but raise all of our expectations for K–12 education.