The Coming K-12 Revolution

Stuart Butler is the director of the Center for Policy Innovation at the Heritage Foundation, and his latest article, posted at, is titled “The Coming Higher-Ed Revolution.”

I’d argue that many of Butler’s observations are relevant to K-12 education as well. Here are some excerpts and comments.

The higher-education industry is on the verge of such a transformative re-alignment. Many Americans agree that a four-year degree is vastly overpriced — keeping many people out of the market — and are increasingly questioning the value of what many colleges teach.

K-12 is also vastly over-priced and of questionable value. Most children would benefit greatly from being freed from the child warehouses called schools where the priority isn’t the kids, but the continuation of an ill-advised curricula and especially in metropolitan areas, overly generous pay and pensions for what amounts to a part time job for teachers and administrators.

In as little as a decade, most colleges and universities could look very different from their present forms — with the cost of a college credential plummeting even as the quality of instruction rises.

If this transformation does come to pass, it could have profound and beneficial implications. It could significantly increase the international competitiveness of American workers in a world in which we need higher skills and productivity to compete. It could sharply improve the employability of those on the bottom rungs of America’s income ladder, giving them the tools they need to move up. And it could do much to restore the American Dream for those who have begun to believe that opportunity in this country is disappearing. In other words, such a change could hardly come too soon.

If such a transformation would occur in K-12, taxpayer funded education would finally begin to serve the children – and stop primarily being the cash cow for government employees.

The chief catalyst for this transformation will be money. The financing vision of traditional higher education, which assumes steadily rising tuition and heavily indebted graduates, is increasingly at odds with the financial capacities of typical households. Just when the need for a college education is becoming more obvious, the cost obstacle is growing dramatically. Something has to give.

In the Illinois K-12 system you have unfunded pension liabilities that show the public school system to basically be a criminal enterprise. Pay rates continue to climb for both teachers and administrators. And despite falling property values, property taxes and the burden on the state’s general fund continue to rise.

Even so, as often happens when an industry edges toward a pricing tipping point, university leaders seem oblivious. They appear to believe that their own cost increases can be addressed by hiking tuition rather than by restructuring to drive those costs down. The problem, however, is that such tuition increases raise the prospect of a more daunting student-debt burden — the other side of the financing conundrum.

Obliviousness defines the modern K-12 system even more than higher ed.

Adding to the pressure is the third, and likely most decisive, threat to the current structure of higher education — namely, that its traditional business model is coming under attack from new kinds of institutions. The timing is right: In U.S. News & World Report’s 2010 college rankings, editor Brian Kelly wrote that the existing structure invites aggressive new forms of competition. “If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for hostile takeovers, complete with serious cost-cutting and painful reorganizations,” Kelly observed. ”


The most obvious technological threat to the comfortable world of higher education is online education. Online learning changes the entire relationship between student and teacher; it enables information to be transferred, and student performance to be monitored, at a fraction of conventional costs. Often called “distance learning,” online education has the potential to completely upend today’s established universities.

Eventually modernity will have to catch up with the backwards, bloated, and ineffective K-12 system.

Oh, and I love this:

The concept of distance learning actually has a long history. The business model was pioneered in 1858 by Britain’s London University, which established an “External System” through which students around the world could obtain degrees through correspondence courses. London boasts five Nobel laureates among its external graduates, and in 2008 its updated system had 41,000 students around the world. In 1969, the British government ushered in another distance-learning innovation when it chartered a television-based university — the Open University — aimed primarily at employed people who had never acquired a degree.

Butler has a lot more to say as well. Click HERE to read the entire article.