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Alliance for Learning: Introduction

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Not too long ago in America, the college graduate walked tall--a living symbol of the nation's bright future and the promise that anyone, given a chance, could succeed.

Colleges and universities were hailed as the well from which national greatness flowed, and a bachelor's degree was seen as an admission ticket to the highest levels of government, commerce, and the arts. A college education meant not only mastery of the fundamentals of a given profession, but also a firm grounding in the ideas and principles considered vital for meaningful participation in society.

Yet, in recent years, the reverence with which many Americans once looked upon institutions of higher learning has faded. It has become painfully clear that some--too many--who emerge from them after four years are not prepared for the increasingly complex challenges their chosen careers--and society as a whole--demand of them.

America's colleges and universities are in trouble.

A diverse and growing number of concerned commentators charge that they've become places where professors get tenured and students get credentialed. Places where far too little attention is paid to the vexing problems that threaten the nation's social and economic well-being.

"The academy is judged to be largely irrelevant to our most pressing economic, social, and civic problems,'' Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has concluded.

But in one area perhaps above all others, it has become apparent, higher education must make a serious effort to look beyond the problems of its own system to the crisis in another: the public schools.

"Colleges and universities need to understand that their business is all of education--learning,'' warns the Wingspread Group on Higher Education, an assemblage of business, industry, and education leaders, in its 1993 report, "An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education.'' "They can no longer afford to concern themselves exclusively with higher education.''

Unlike the politicians and policymakers who were roused by the call to arms in A Nation at Risk, college and university officials, for the most part, have remained at arm's length from the massive, sustained drive over the past decade to improve the nation's schools.

Many in higher education have found little incentive for wading into the messy business of school reform. The short-term benefit appears minimal, the long-term payoffs uncertain, the career-advancing potential dubious, and, most important, the list of bigger problems demanding their attention is long.

Indeed, the calls for higher education to take on societal problems outside its own walls have at times, it seems, been lost amid the din raised by a series of crises that have befallen the academy in recent years. Academic and athletic scandals have drawn national attention. Faculty members and administrators have struggled to avert a disturbing rise of racial intolerance on many campuses. And state lawmakers appear increasingly inclined to both tighten the financial reins on public colleges and universities, and to intervene in such traditionally internal areas as curriculum and faculty priorities.

Yet, the Wingspread report and others maintain, solutions to these problems, as well as a restoration of the quality and true value of a college education, will only be found through the intensive re-evaluation of all aspects of higher education, including its engagement with schools and communities.

Specifically, many claim the lack of postsecondary involvement has deprived school reform of much-needed energy and guidance at a time when it was most needed. A serious commitment by postsecondary educators could both drive reform forward and steer it in the right direction.

The Wingspread group and other leaders both in and out of higher education are challenging institutions of higher learning to make that commitment--to pitch in and do their share as part of "a simultaneous renewal of both higher education and the nation's K-12 schools.''

Many school-reform leaders believe that higher education must redefine its own admissions standards as well as its teaching and testing methods in order for the vital precollegiate standards-and-assessment movement to succeed. Otherwise, they argue, students will have little incentive to reach for the new marks.

"It is no longer tolerable for so many in higher education to complain about the quality of those they admit, but do nothing to set higher standards and work with colleagues in K-12 schools to help students attain those standards,'' the Wingspread report contends.

In five stories on the following pages, Education Week examines the scope of the problem and the vastly different nature of many of the calls for reform. In weeks of reporting and dozens of interviews, Washington Editor Mark Pitsch found genuine concern among K-12 educators and many in higher education about the lack of engagement in school reform. He also found causes--historical, political, institutional--for the slow pace of change and the reluctance of higher education to engage in K-12 reform or a similar comprehensive restructuring of its own educational system.

In the four other stories, Education Week reporters examine:

  • The notion of making a unified "K-16'' system that would remove many of the boundaries between schools and colleges.
  • Efforts by the controversial head of the California Higher Education Policy Center to shake up what he considers to be a moribund and intractable higher-education establishment.
  • An innovative school-college-community compact in El Paso that brings together educators from all levels and business and community leaders to address the city's educational shortcomings.
  • Integrated community-service efforts at some universities that are blazing a trail for other campuses seeking to reach out to address the problems of their surrounding communities.
  • Then, in a special Commentary section, Education Week asked seven scholars and educators from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives to examine the role of higher education in school reform.

This two-part special report was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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