Stanford, Schools Cooperate in Mutually Beneficial Study
Stanford, Calif.--Like other highly selective private institutions of higher education, Stanford University has been largely buffered from the much-discussed decline in the academic ability of public high-school students. "The very best students," notes Stanford's president, Donald Kennedy, "are no worse than the very best students were 10 years ago."
Yet 100 faculty members here, representing fields ranging from moral philosophy to computer science, have joined in a three-year study aimed at improving nearby public schools.
"Stanford and the Schools," led by Mr. Kennedy and by J. Myron Atkin, dean of the university's school of education, is the largest interdisciplinary research effort undertaken by the university. Also participating are six school districts in the San Francisco Bay area, diverse in size and pupil characteristics.
By focusing on technology, teacher preparation, curriculum, ancillary topics such as health, and the value of the comprehensive high school, the project's leaders hope to spark institutional change--both in the districts and in the university's own school of education, which produces relatively few teachers for elementary and secondary schools but is a major research center.
Now nearing the end of its first year, the study is still in the data-collection phase and has not yet yielded any firm conclusions, Mr. Atkin said.
But, he said, he is gratified by the participating districts' cooperation and the seriousness with which they are approaching the study. "The superintendents are an extraordinarily thoughtful and able group of people," he said. "They're looking at long-range issues: 'How do we keep able teachers?' 'Are we using testing time well?' They want to talk professional issues, not tomorrow's problems."
Participating districts are already seeing advantages, superintendents say. "One benefit is the opportunity our teachers have to work directly with professors who are doing research," said Paul S. Sakomoto, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, which enrolls about 3,300 students. "These people are the top researchers in the country, and now they are spending time with our classroom teachers. And the exchange is mutual. Despite the fact that they've been down the street for years, the only time we used to see them was when a doctoral student was doing a dissertation and needed some data."
Furthermore, Mr. Sakamoto said, access to Stanford academicians has strengthened his small district's research and development capacity. "One of the things we're particularly interested in is the design of a long-range plan that might better help us establish goals for the district and give us a better idea of whether our resources are being used in the right places. And how do we get the latest kinds of research coming out of, say, physical science into the secondary classroom?
"It was like a shot in the arm when our district was selected as one of the participating school districts. It's an honor to be part of it," he said.
The exposure to the schools, Mr. Atkin observed, has "changed the intellectual styles" of some Stanford participants as well. "It's collaborative--boy, is it collaborative--and some people here were not ac-customed to working that way. Originally, we pretty much let people go their own ways, and now we're focusing on specific things. There have been people knocking on the door to come in, but it's harder to accommodate new interests now. The real question is how to focus scholarship on the very practical problems.
"At a more general level, we're looking at the place of schools of education at research universities. Some major universities are getting out of it altogether. What we're trying to do is show that there's a professionally oriented role."
So far, scholars from the natural sciences, computer science, and the social and behavioral sciences have been most heavily involved, Mr. Atkin said. As work on the curriculum proceeds, he expects specialists from other areas to participate more fully.
"By and large, subject-matter specialists at the university level focus on those who are bound for college," the dean noted. "But society is putting lots of noncollege burdens on the schools. So the integrity of the subject field, as seen by college professors, is just one of many concerns faced by high-school principals.
"As lately as 1940, there was much more collegiality. The high schools were selective. It was not uncommon as late as the 30's to teach high-school biology, then go on to teach in college. The criticism from higher education was grounded in firsthand experience."
The project, which is expected to cost more than $1 million, grew largely out of the concerns of Mr. Kennedy, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "It bothers me that so few of our very able people are thinking of going into teaching," he said. "Young people are kind of turned off public service in general. We're courting disaster if that continues.
"As president, I started thinking about the problems of public education and why the faculty of this university and other distinguished universities were relegated to saying things like, 'They can't write as well as they used to.' You could get a roomful of people who said their main academic interest was health policy and who were not in the school of medicine, but you couldn't get people from outside education whose main interest was education policy. We wanted to find critical issues that we could work on and that could attract people from outside education.
"I want to use this as a basis for having something to say myself, as forcefully and publicly as possible, about the importance of education. ... And I hope this study will further inform our views concerning the relationship between colleges and precollegiate institutions."
Private universities such as Stanford may be in a better position than public institutions to serve as advocates for elementary and secondary schools, he believes. "In many states, there's a tension--and not always a creative one--between higher education and the rest. Private universities also have something special to say about the quality of the product of the public-education system. We do continue to get the best students, but shifts in the accomplishment of that leading edge may be indicative of what's going on in general. ... I am also conscious of the feeling that, because they haven't been pushed harder, there may be some kids who might have been in that top group but somewhere around 7th or 8th grade lost interest."
Mr. Kennedy believes that the decline in students' test scores was largely a product of the baby boom ("large families, more than crowded schools"), but is wary about reading too much into last year's slight upturn in scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. "I approach those with the same caution with which I approach a 70-degree day in March. I hope--a lot." The situation, he added, will not automatically right itself as families become smaller.
"There's a very dangerous hallucination that we're all going to live on smokeless information," he said. "It's also mythic to believe that the new skills are all going to lead to wonderfully stimulating jobs. We need people who can think better. And that doesn't just mean computer literacy, it means going back to some of the classical ideas."
Of particular concern to Mr. Kennedy is the gap between "the curriculum as we understand it in theory and what is actually being taught in the classroom." In addition to classroom observation, the Stanford team is analyzing the transcripts of high-school students to determine whether there is any cohesion to their courses of study, and graduate students are "shadowing" high-school students to see how they actually use their time.
"I'm interested in knowing what is learned from a lab experiment that involves staining an onion root tip and looking at it under a microscope," Mr. Kennedy said. "It's one thing to say I've seen a metaphase and another to say I understand something about the cycle of replication."
Spread of Practical Ideas
The president hopes that some of the practical ideas that come out of the study will spread beyond the participating districts by catching the attention of foundations and school officials.
But Mr. Atkin cautions that the study is not intended to be as global as, for instance, the several major studies of high schools or the document released this week by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. And although he "heartily endorses" measures that would enhance collaboration between universities and public schools, he does not believe the Stanford study can or should be replicated in other areas.
"Because of the president, and because it's Stanford, there may be some national ripples," the dean said. "But we're very specific. We're talking about six districts and us. It has a very local flavor, even parochial."
Among the project's broader contributions, he hopes, will be some methodological advances such as the transcript analyses and a proposal to pool all data in a computer so that different project groups can tailor it to their own purposes, rather than make separate requests to the schools.
Some findings may be available by next summer, Mr. Atkin said. The study is likely to be formally released in the form of a book or a series of monographs, but most of the findings will be aired first in forums with educators, parents, and government officials "so we can benefit from the discussion."
"Our hope," Mr. Atkin said, "is that when we make our recommendations no one will be surprised."