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K-12-Style Restructuring Is Urged for Higher Ed.

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Having failed to keep pace with the needs of a rapidly changing world, America's colleges and universities must set higher standards and begin a process of restructuring much like the K-12 education-reform movement of the past decade, says a report slated to be released this week by a foundation-backed panel.

The nation's higher-education institutions "appear to live by an unconscious educational rule of thumb that their function is to weed out, not to cultivate, students,'' asserts the report, "An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education.''

The critique is the product of the Wingspread Group on Higher Education, a six-month effort to examine the state of higher education. The project was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Johnson Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

'Hemorrhaging' Students

The "hemorrhaging'' of students occurs throughout the education system, despite the prevalence of low standards and a wide range of postsecondary-education opportunities, the report says.

"It is almost as though educators take failure for granted,'' it charges. "The harsh truth is that a significant minority of [college graduates] enter or re-enter the world with little more than the knowledge, competence, and skill we would have expected in a high school graduate scarcely a generation ago.''

The report sets forth three central objectives for colleges and universities. It urges them to:

  • Stress the importance of values by upholding a set of civic virtues, including respect for the individual and commitment to equal opportunity, support for the Bill of Rights, and "the belief that our common interests exceed our individual differences.''
  • Place a high emphasis on the quality of undergraduate education by developing a clearly defined mission, high academic standards, student-centered curricula and support services, and rigorous assessments.
  • Participate in a "simultaneous renewal'' of higher and precollegiate education by working with K-12 schools to develop performance standards at all levels of education, establish clear entry and exit standards for higher education, and examine the implications of the national education goals for current college-admissions practices.

"Every single school in America can be doing a better job,'' maintained former U.S. Sen. William E. Brock, the chairman of the Wingspread Group.

"Some are better than others, clearly,'' he said. "But all can be better in terms of the general objectives: putting students at the center of active teaching, inculcating and exemplifying values, and creating a lifelong learning process.''

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the Wingspread panel, said he was pleased that the report addresses the issue of entry standards.

"It sends a signal to elementary and secondary schools,'' he said, "that the current situation--where basically all students who graduate high school, no matter what their level of achievement, have admission to college and universities--won't go on forever.''

Self-Help Checklist

The Wingspread Group was named after the Johnson Foundation's conference center in Racine, Wis. The 16-member panel comprised college and university presidents, business and labor leaders, and a recent college graduate.

The report includes a series of 32 essays by educators, association presidents, and foundation leaders on the topic of what society wants and needs from higher education.

Also included in the Wingspread report is a 33-point, pull-out "self-assessment checklist'' designed to help colleges and universities gauge the degree to which they are meeting the goals proposed in the report.

"There's a lot of people out there trying to do well, and they need some support,'' Mr. Brock said. "We're trying to give them the tools with which to evaluate their own institutions.''

Sponsors of the report plan an extensive effort to disseminate its findings. Copies will be distributed to 3,400 college and university presidents, and a briefing will be held for members of Congress next month.

The report will also be sent to 500 state lawmakers by the Education Commission of the States and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"We believe that this report is very timely, because it comes at a time ... when people have for a while now been struggling with the issues of access, cost, and quality,'' said Kay McClenney, the vice president of the E.C.S.

Blame Somebody Else?

The report brought a positive reponse from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who said it would stimulate "the kind of debate we now need about higher education.''

"As states across the country raise standards for their K-12 students, the higher-education community must be in a position to respond with their own higher standards,'' Mr. Riley said. "These two systems must collaborate to solve a problem that neither can address by itself.''

But others reacted to the report with apparent ambivalence.

Judith Ramaley, the president of Portland State University in Oregon, said she had been critical of an earlier draft of the report, in part because of its negative tone.

"It's another one of those 'Let's blame somebody else' reports,'' she said. "After a decade of these documents, starting with A Nation at Risk and building forward, what we need is constructive criticism that points the way to better ways to design, support, and evaluate systems of education.''

Still, Ms. Ramaley praised the report's assessment checklist for institutions, noting that she had asked a faculty committee charged with redesigning her university's curriculum to "keep that checklist on the desk beside them.''

The list is "the really interesting part of the report,'' agreed Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of its Institute for Research on Higher Education, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. "The rest of it I can take or leave.''

Copies of the report are available for $14.95 each from the Johnson Foundation, P.O. Box 2029, Racine, Wis. 53404; (414) 554-2434.

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