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Alliance for Learning: 'Today's Teenagers Are Tomorrow's College Students'

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Before retiring last year as the president of the University of Chicago, Hanna Gray challenged every college in this land to quite literally reinvent higher education by embracing a public school. Colleges and universities largely avoided the challenge, however, and, indeed, remained on the periphery of the many reports criticizing our nation's schooling.

Currently, there has been a shift in this policy of benign neglect as higher education responds to the tide of negative reports calling for change and improvement in the way colleges function. In reinforcing this direction, the recent "An American Imperative'' report calls for "higher expectations for higher education,'' and insists that colleges collaborate more intensively--not only with elementary and secondary educational institutions but also with community agencies and corporations. Foundations all over the country are energizing the trend in their recent efforts to engage a continuum of K-16 schools in major urban reform.

The new emphasis in school-college collaboration seems not only necessary but also desirable. For 20 years, educators like Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, have been promoting "the seamless web'' linking all levels in the educational continuum. During much of that time, the response was one of blaming and finger-pointing. Now, though, educators have passed that point.

As societal conditions worsen, we recognize the intermingling of our professional and personal lives, as well as the desirability of collaborating across academic cultures. The imperative to work collaboratively to provide a better environment for our children at all educational levels assumes major importance.

Today's teenagers are tomorrow's college students. If we expect to teach them on our campuses, we need to attract them with viable programs and equip them to succeed. The rising tide of criticism from corporations emphasizes that the work world will need people with knowledge and skills beyond what colleges offer now. This new generation of students will have to be self-directed, lifelong learners capable of asking questions, researching options, and solving problems in an increasingly complex technological and global environment. And colleges must assist public schools in creating a context for developing these capacities.

Essentially, the recommended involvement has two goals: improving elementary and secondary education and raising the expectations at the college level. This compelling agenda for change will require cooperation and collaboration.

There are many designs that enable higher education and the school system to work collaboratively. Useful models include the Advanced Placement program and early-college-admission programs.

Another is the concept of "middle colleges,'' or full-fledged high schools that function on a college campus in an integrated, sharing relationship. As an example, LaGuardia Community College has within its campus two middle colleges. These are fully accredited high schools designed to help at-risk students by exposing them to, and allowing them to share, the full range of college resources.

Middle colleges have a 20-year history, with models in 10 states. Recently, 14 of these institutions formed a network that will share curriculum development and faculty training in a national collaborative effort. The model is easily transportable, it functions very effectively at the community college level, and involvement and support from the college president guarantees success.

Another attempt at collaboration, the "academic alliances'' coordinated by the American Association for Higher Education, brings together K-12 educators and higher-education faculty members from a given discipline to discuss shared interests. Informal and often unstructured, these groups promote the sense of shared mission. While individually rewarding, the groups have had no major impact on reform but are useful in helping to forge school-college connections. The A.A.H.E., which has helped create more than 700 alliances, hopes they'll become an integral part of the professional life of both K-12 and college faculty.

In spite of many examples that work, educational institutions need a new effort organized around three ideas: learning from each other, working together toward systematic reform, and changing the way we work together. Too often, there is a mismatch between what colleges offer and what teachers want.

Colleges need to make a serious effort to understand the different cultures of school and college. Of all of these needs, teacher education becomes the most significant.

Recently, we gathered presidents of 25 private and public colleges to discuss the role of the college in improving schools, and the consensus, after three hours of debate, was that changing teacher education practices had the most promise. Although faculty development is the most fruitful area for reform, it is also the most recalcitrant--and furthest removed from the day-to-day reality of school life.

This is an area where higher education must play a vital role. College faculty members across the nation have the resources to conduct the research on key topics: collaborative learning, teaching students from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and creating--and adapting to--new curricula. They can help teachers understand what works. Professors have the capacity to encourage and stimulate teachers to be more creative by team-teaching and by supporting teachers to experiment and even to fail. Teachers want to advance their knowledge of diversity; why not hold seminars in the schools? They also want to know how to work with parents; why not help them understand group dynamics?

The other major problem in school-college collaboration is the sequencing of education. Some institutions are talking about three-year undergraduate programs; others have six-year professional programs; and now, the Clinton Administration is talking about a national service year.

Clearly, the adolescent moratorium is too long. Young people need to get into the world of work earlier--not later--and community service should be integrated into the high school curriculum, not tacked on as an extra. In spite of all the rhetoric, we have made no accommodation to individual differences or to differing career goals.

Our middle-college experience has shown that we can deliver the required state curriculum for high school graduation in 2 years. At that point, 70 percent of the population is academically ready for college and 30 percent needs further skills training. Why not institute a transition year--after the 11th grade--jointly administered by schools, colleges, the community, and business to have college-ready students take college courses and perform community service or apprenticeships? The remaining 30 percent could have intensified skills training and some community service with career-awareness training to prepare them either for college or for work.

The plan is easily implemented, it saves money, and captures valuable time.

A similar joint venture would be to develop a pre-professional, academic career track showing 10th-grade students what a course projection would be in different careers or pre-professional training. Today's high school student doesn't understand the credit-accumulation pattern necessary for progress.

Some smart college professor could develop a computer-software model titled, "So You Want To Be a

  • ?'' Forcing colleges to confront the absolute necessity of certain courses for progress might well spotlight the innumerable electives that reduce academic productivity.

Finally, there has to be a carrot on the table. Service to the school system should be equated with research in consideration for tenure and promotion. Then and only then will we change the motivation of college professors and attract them to school service.

Hanna Gray was both practical and prophetic in her insistence that every college in the land should embrace a school. If we follow her advice, we will not only mute the criticism, but we will also strengthen student preparation for college and expand our standing in the global marketplace.

Janet E. Lieberman is the special assistant to the president for education collaboratives at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, N.Y.

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