Can We Make a Match of Schools and Universities?

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As I prepare for my 25th college reunion, it occurs to me that I have spent 13 years of the past quarter-century as a public-school teacher and principal and 12 years in universities as an administrator and faculty member. Many of those years have been spent at the intersection of school and university, rooted in one while making occasional forays into the other. They are two peculiar cultures, and where they meet is even more peculiar--a rather messy and often quite lively place.

In the current climate of renewed interest in improving schools, many in higher education are again asking, "In what ways can we use our limited resources to address the unlimited needs of public education?" I think universities can be helpful when they engage with schools in some direct way. But attempts by university people to work closely with schools seem to run headlong into a number of recurring, painful impediments. Unless these issues are acknowledged and addressed, the noble intentions of school reformers may never find their way onto the agenda.

I don't think further research is needed to identify many of the difficulties universities encounter when interacting with schools. Drawing on my experiences over these past four years as I have helped create and administer the Principals' Center, a resource center for Boston-area principals at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I have been able to identify and clarify some of these impediments and the questions they pose.

As much as we might like, we cannot mount a new activity as if the slate is clean of old activities. It is not. In their careers, few elementary and secondary educators have escaped being disappointed, demeaned, infantalized, or embarrassed by universities. Expectations have been held out and violated at the pre-service and inservice levels and in repeated contacts in courses, workshops, consultations, and evaluations. I'll not soon forget the anxiety in the air when we invited 28 Boston-area principals to serve on the committee planning the Principals' Center. One said, "Harvard makes me feel like a scorned lover." And another: "You people from Harvard have come before. You just ask a lot of questions, then leave, and write a lot of criticism. You don't help, you just take our time." Eventually, all 28 accepted our invitation and did indeed plan the center--but not before we all wrestled painfully with the baggage of the past.

And I know of few university faculty members who have worked closely with schools who haven't at one time been badly scratched up by what Dean Patricia Albjerg Graham calls "the briar patch." Schools are unforgiving places for academics, places that reject foreign bodies as a human body rejects organ transplants. The respect, capacity for reflection, success, and recognition that professors may enjoy within the ivory tower seldom accompany them into the schools.

What this means is that both school and university people come to new conversations harboring antibodies that each has built up to ward off the other. It seems to many in the university that school people want to improve things without changing them very much; from the point of view of school people, university folks offer to change things but without improving them very much. These are hardly promising conditions for a marriage.

The implication is clear: Before launching any new crusade, we must deal with wounds of previous crusades. How, then, do we start afresh when burdened with so much bad baggage?

A second roadblock to university-school engagement is the little dance we seem to perform around the question, "Who initiates and who responds?" There was a time, I suppose, when it was accepted that universities took the lead by posing the questions, generating the ideas, diagnosing the problems, formulating the research, and offering the prescription. People in the schools responded--or didn't. Nowadays, each is more cautious, preferring to have the other's cards on the table first. The university says, "Tell us what you need and we'll see if we can or want to provide it." Teachers, principals, and superintendents say, "Tell us what you've got and we'll see if we want any." At the Principals' Center, the step for this dance has come to be: "Does the center offer what principals say they want or what others think they need?"

For the academic, there are risks of tilting toward being prescriptive. Bare mention of words like "training" and "should," or talk of service activities, consulting, and responding cause school people to bristle. Neither academics nor school people long withstand the former playing the role of teacher aide to the latter. And there are risks in trying to fudge the distinction between being prescriptive and helping. The mixed messages lead to the experience many of us have encountered: We conduct an elaborate needs-assessment and design activities to address those needs--and then nobody shows up for the activities.

At the Principals' Center, the dance around "who initiates" led to a treaty whereby the dean's office exercises major responsibility for the personnel and budget of the center, and a program-advisory board made up predominantly of principals determines the activities. Happily, this rather formal arrangement has blurred over time as trust and cooperation have developed, but initially it was essential.

A third roadblock in arranging a marriage between school and university is found in the muted voices of schoolteachers and administrators. Professional journals and research agendas are dominated by university voices and all too often conversations between university and school people (especially when held in the university) are also university-dominated. It's astonishing to me that teachers, principals, counselors, and parents have yet to join the debates swirling around the current reports on American education. It's unthinkable that any other profession undergoing close scrutiny by so many would find description and analysis of practice, and prescription for improving practice, coming only from outsiders looking in. Where are the voices of insiders looking in?

This situation is particularly disturbing in light of our work with more than 500 Boston-area school leaders, which confirms what we already know: The adults who work in schools carry around with them extraordinary insights about curriculum, staff development, community relations, integration, leadership--about most anything. For us, the issue then is not whether school people know much of value, but under what conditions they will reveal this rich knowledge of their craft so that it may become part of the discussion. To be helpful, universities must engage in conversation with the people who live under the roof of the schoolhouse about the work that goes on there. Until dialogue replaces monologue, conversations between university and school people will have all of the resonance of one hand clapping.

A fourth roadblock to rich interaction between the worlds of school and university is that neither rewards very much those crossing the border between them. Few professors ever work in public schools and few school people ever work in higher education. Curiously, the education profession has made membership in its two major wings all but mutually exclusive. A citizen in one is suspect in the other; I even occasionally find that one who tries to be a citizen in both can be suspect in both.

If one is not rewarded by the host culture for entering its boundaries, neither is one rewarded by one's own culture. Academics are not promoted for talking to PTA's or consulting with classroom teachers. First-class citizenship and its institutional rewards come from reading, writing, scholarly research, and distinguished teaching. And not enough teachers and school administrators are rewarded by their systems with release time, pay increments, tenure, or public recognition for entering universities where they might read, write, and reflect. Indeed, in many school cultures, to reveal oneself as an adult learner is an admission of deficiency. First-class citizenship in schools comes not from evidence of adult learning, but from learning on the part of students and satisfaction on the part of parents and supervisors.

How can school people find recognition within their systems for engaging in university activities? And how can university people gain greater recognition from their institutions for direct work with schools? Until the institutional reward systems begin to recognize participation in the world of the other, relationships between university and school will be limited by a kind of tourist-visa mentality. And as we know, there is only so much one can see and do as a tourist.

A final obstacle to close engagement between universities and schools has to do with the locus of theory and the locus of practice. The common rhetoric says, "Theory resides in universities and practice resides in schools." I find this conception inaccurate, simplistic, and disturbing--one that interferes with relations between school and university.

I know of no schoolteacher or principal who does not work from some organizing principle or framework--or, in university language, from a theory. Theories about teaching, parent involvement, curriculum improvement, and motivation abound in schools. Indeed, they are the source of most of the tension among teachers, principals, and parents. Some of these school-based theories are good, some fragmentary, and a few elegant. Be that as it may, school "practitioners" are theory-makers as well as theory-consumers. Conversely, few of my Harvard colleagues are not practitioners. Most run and do things as well as think things. Academics run schools of education, departments, committees, and research projects. Most also practice as classroom teachers. A professor is no less a practitioner than a teacher. Some university people are good practitioners, some bad, some modest, many immodest, and a few elegant.

To suggest that theory is the province of the university as practice is of the schools sets up a caste system that, by anointing some of us, demeans all of us. It's as if we are attributing to the other side fluency in a language we find foreign, when in fact we all speak a great deal of a common language. The question is how to remove school people and academics from the type-casting that so severely limits our work together.

These are some of the impediments we have encountered in establishing a principals' center. We continue to bloody our noses on them, as all too few new ideas or projects address these conditions. But the Principals' Center has devised a "visiting practitioner" program to bring four or five school leaders to Harvard each year. Visiting practitioners are given an academic appointment, and, like postdoctoral fellows, access to the resources of the university. Once in residence, they reflect, read, write, and lick their wounds. In addition, they engage in the discussions of the center, often returning to their home regions to set up a principals' center there.

Conversely, the center involves several Harvard faculty members each year on the program-planning board, as presenters at workshops, and in center administration. The Principals' Center, then, serves as a kind of "intercultural halfway house" permitting and encouraging school people to become first-class citizens in the university world. At the same time, it makes it easy for faculty members to enter the world of school administrators.

As successful as these efforts have been, the need for more substantial exchanges remains. More principals need not only to inhabit the university but to be actively engaged there as teachers and researchers; and academics need not only to associate frequently with school people but to assume for a period the job of teacher or administrator in the trenches. The experience of the few who have risked citizenship in the schools--such as Courtney Cazden, a Harvard professor who recently spent a year teaching 4th grade in San Diego--suggests that not only do both worlds derive lasting benefits but that it is possible for school and university to become part of the same world.

I'm still uncertain even after these last four years whether the center is a pearl in the Harvard oyster or a grain of sand. Nor am I sure whether a polish or an irritant is the better metaphor for interaction between school and university. But I am sure that it is vital to the life of both school and university to confront the many sources of distance and dissonance between us if, together, we are to strengthen the schools. And I am confident it can be done.

Vol. 04, Issue 13, Page 24, 16

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