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Alliance for Learning: 'There Is Only Education for All Citizens'

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All of us in the enterprise of education are by now well acclimated, if indeed not hardened, to being the subjects of countless reports analyzing our work, grading us, and, of course, advising what we should do--and how we should do it. Until now, most of these reports, beginning with the famous A Nation at Risk report, targeted elementary and secondary education.

Increasingly, though, and for understandable reasons, the education provided by America's 3,600 colleges and universities has become a topic of commentary. The commentary comes from critics with rather self-serving political agendas, but, at times, also from friendly but concerned citizens who genuinely want to see the enterprise improved.

It is in this category that I place the recent "An American Imperative'' report. It is based on the premise of the absolute value of postsecondary education to the American society, our need to be better prepared for the highly competitive world in which we live, and the need to improve in those areas where we are deficient. Despite reservations about the tone of the report (a bit too negative, perhaps, to get attention and much too casual about the unsurpassed value of the research enterprise produced by America's leading universities), I count myself a friend of the Wingspread report. It is constructive criticism from friends.

One of its important sections urges America's colleges and universities to engage far more intensively with elementary and secondary education to address the needs of our society. In promoting reform, the Wingspread group urges that colleges and universities must make all education, not just something labeled "higher'' education, their province and engage themselves in sustained and collaborative efforts with their colleagues in the vital enterprise of elementary and secondary education.

The report argues that the intensely competitive world of today requires the kind of change that should have American education "transform itself into a seamless system that can produce and support a nation of learners, providing access to educational services for learners as they need them, when they need them, and wherever they need them.''

I agree, and there is some positive news in this arena. Countless universities, most particularly those in the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and its sister association, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, are engaged in the arena of precollegiate education in ways that go beyond the traditional sector of the preparation of teachers.

Before outlining a few of these activities, it is important to recognize why there has been an unfortunate historic separation between precollegiate and postsecondary education.

The topic is complex, but it goes back, in part, to the fact that, early in this century, the engagement of colleges and universities with precollegiate education was taken over exclusively by colleges of education. Their mission to prepare teachers was a function that was then divorced from the arts-and-sciences divisions of our colleges and universities because those sectors of higher education chose not to involve themselves with educating teachers.

Today, there is no value in getting into a "blame game'' as to why teacher education became specialized, but the fact is that it did. It also needs to be stated that many of our colleges of education do excellent work and are staffed by highly committed professionals who care deeply about producing good teachers.

But it is an unfortunate fact that colleges of education, especially in our most prestigious universities, do not enjoy the status and support that accrue to other professional schools and doctoral-degree-granting programs. And it is equally true that, in too many cases, arts-and-sciences faculties have not concerned themselves with the education of teachers, much less to a concern with how students--whether in colleges or precollegiate--can best learn. These factors contribute to the general separation between K-l2 and higher education--ultimately to the detriment of all sectors.

Obviously, it is in the interest of all of us committed to improving American education to foster the closest possible links between its various sectors. Put in selfish terms, students in our elementary and secondary schools need the best possible teachers and educational programs. Similarly, our colleges and universities have a vested interest in admitting high school graduates who are thoroughly prepared and able to function as effective learners.

The encouraging news is that, increasingly, many of our universities and their presidents appreciate the absolute necessity for close ties with their counterparts in elementary and secondary schools. For instance, a segment of leading presidents brought together by AASCU has put forward a thoughtful and comprehensive plan of engagement between colleges and universities, including colleges of education, for the better preparation of K-12 teachers. This imaginative plan is called "Teach America.''

In addition, many of our largest universities are pursuing new collaborative ventures not only in teacher education but also in working directly with elementary and secondary schools as part of their obligation to educate effectively all young Americans. These diverse efforts include such universities as Florida State University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and the University of New Hampshire, to name just a few.

The other day, for instance, the president of the University of New Hampshire enthusiastically told me that he had taken my telephone call after leaving a meeting of state school superintendents that he had helped convene. Its purpose was to explore how the university he leads and New Hampshire's public schools could work together on their common agendas.

I clearly sense an attitudinal change among the leaders of America's colleges and universities. They know it is in everyone's interest for colleges and universities to be involved, as partners, in the enterprise of elementary and secondary education.

There is no one prescription for this process, but one common attitude must prevail. All sectors must recognize that each has much to contribute. All sectors must move away from defensiveness and finger-pointing about past neglects and oversights. And all sectors must work together, not for their own special interest, but for the national interest.

My sense is that, for all of the right reasons, many leaders in our universities are ready to join hands with their colleagues in the elementary and secondary sector so that we can improve all aspects of education. This shift in thinking, moreover, is naturally linked to efforts under way at many colleges and universities to improve undergraduate education and learning.

I have always wondered why we use the term "higher'' education. This bit of semantics implies to me that there is something called "lower'' education, a sector that presumably is not as important.

In truth, of course, there is only education, at all levels, for all citizens and all prospective learners in our society. It is to meet this challenge of education that all of our sectors--elementary, secondary, and collegiate--must join both in word, and especially in deed, to address as mutual partners our society's most important interest--a well-educated citizenry.

C. Peter Magrath is the president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

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