Around the time I entered high school, when I began to hear teachers increasingly discussing failing public education, I started to question how the modern structuring of K-12 education came about. At the time, I often credited the problems to whatever I was being told: teachers have no incentive to give quality instruction ("we need to be paid more!"), schools are not getting nearly enough government funding, students are too distracted or not given enough individual attention, the curriculum is not 'right', quality teachers are not being hired after college, or other similar reasons I'm sure you have all been exposed to. However, it was not until recent years I began to think about how these problems/solutions seemed to be far too specific to be valid.
I watched a video a few days ago that attempts to explain how modern schooling structure came about:
According to this video, there is a reason that the education system is so standardized: in short, government (I have no idea if their historical account regarding the Prussians is accurate, but it is interesting nonetheless). Many of the principles of Austrian economics clearly apply to these kinds of problems. According to the Austrians, ideas, systems, rules, and our general 'way of life' is emergent. Rules that work for the benefit of all will remain, while ideas that do not will disappear, or never emerge at all, simply by the nature of social interaction. While this is true in cases where liberty is present, it is not true in the case of coercion. As students of economics, I'm sure you have all heard the arguments for privatized education and market correction. However, these discussions often start and end with families having the right to choose where their children are educated (this was also discussed in Mises' Liberal Foreign Policy). What is often left out of the discussion is how children are educated. Even private and home-schooling are subject to government regulation, but I would also suggest that this type of system has become ingrained in society simply because it has existed for so long via government.
Each generation must start school at a specific age and progress through roughly 12 years of primary education before a notable economic choice is even presented. Students who excel often carry the burden of their classmates, while the students who fall behind may often be working in an education system that does not suit them as individuals. Students attend school nine months out of the year, study a predetermined, state-mandated curriculum, and have relatively little choice in their teachers/classes. The fact of the matter is that education is as much an economic choice as any other type of exchange. Some students may want to study or excel in different subjects, certain schooling structures/schedules may fit individuals differently or not at all, and some people may be more 'fit' for education at different ages. State-run education has all the characteristics of any other interventionist market, and it likely leads to all of the problems people often associate with our public education system. The larger source of the problems is mostly ignored, and people tend to focus on the specific symptoms when attempting to 'fix' education. Individuals should not only have the choice of where they want to become educated, but how (if at all). Perhaps this is the 'best' type of education structure, and it has emerged and remained because it works properly (if this were the case, the Austrians would have no problem with it). However, after giving it some thought, and watching this video, I find it hard to believe the state did not have a great amount of influence on how schooling operates today.