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Alliance for Learning: 'Our K-12 System Is Falling Apart'

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At the very time America is becoming more dependent on science and technology, its educational system is failing to produce high school graduates with the skills necessary to succeed in technology-based workplaces or in quantitatively oriented fields in college.

While both business and higher education face spiraling costs--brought on in part by the need to offer extensive remedial assistance--colleges and universities are not at the forefront of K-12 reform efforts. The business community, private foundations, professional associations, nonprofit organizations, a few professors at geographically dispersed institutions, and government officials at the national and state levels are all attempting to fill the resulting leadership void.

As America's college-age population shrinks in size and shifts in racial and ethnic mix, higher education is not playing a visible role in the dismantling of an outmoded pre-college system that has historically neglected and structurally discouraged the very groups to whom the country must now turn for its workforce. Hence, our colleges and universities must assume a good portion of the responsibility for the poor instruction and inadequate preparation received by most children from low-income families.

Given the country's significant investment in higher education and the increasing differences in opportunities to learn and in educational outcomes along racial and socioeconomic lines at the pre-college level, it is not unreasonable to expect colleges and universities to provide greater leadership in the effort to address these disparities.

In addition, while complaints abound that higher education is a dissatisfied K-12 "customer,'' it has failed to articulate clearly what it expects entering undergraduates to know and be able to do. Instead, it seems, colleges and universities prefer to "weed out the weak'' and cultivate the few. By focusing on the survivors, it perpetuates the notion that only an elite is needed, indeed welcomed, in higher education.

In the meantime, science and technology have transformed the workplace into one that requires higher-level skills throughout, not simply at the top. However, the reality is that our high school graduates, and increasingly our college graduates, do not possess the necessary technical, communications, and interpersonal skills.

Higher education must also shoulder much of the responsibility for the poor condition of pre-college education given its role as the sole "producer'' of K-12 teachers as well as the major "enhancer'' of teachers already in the workforce.

A closer look most often reveals a second-class status for the single department and the relatively few faculty members who must shoulder responsibility for the preparation and professional development of teachers.

It isn't as if higher education is selfishly keeping quality instruction for its own students. Faculty members on many campuses that receive significant research support from federal
agencies are seldom rewarded for pursuing excellence in teaching.

As long as this imbalance between teaching and research remains unchallenged, it is unlikely that the faculty and institutional leadership needed in reform at both the undergraduate and pre-college levels will occur. The badly needed collaboration across academic departments and the integration of research findings into teacher education programs will not happen unless priorities and incentives shift within the faculty reward system.

Failure to invest in its own education faculty members and departments, to value and reward teaching and outreach activities on its campuses, and to encourage talented students to enter the teaching profession are preventing higher education from providing the leadership needed to revitalize our educational system. Without an outcry from the public for higher education to do its fair share in addressing the myriad problems besieging K-12 education, the prevailing campus ethos will remain.

While we wait for higher education to put on its leadership mantle, our K-12 public education system is falling apart, having been abandoned long ago by upper-income families and increasingly so by middle-income families. Instead of informed leadership from our colleges and universities, we have school-voucher advocates, entrepreneurs, and fearmongers promising quick fixes to desperate parents and administrators seeking relief.

What can higher education do?

Colleges and universities can begin by providing more visible leadership to a sustained, coordinated, and collaborative effort with local teachers and administrators to bring about school reform. Also, it can:

  • Incorporate greater recognition of community service and outreach efforts by faculty members into the reward system.
  • Sponsor Saturday science academies for local students.
  • Form partnerships with local school districts and low-income communities (for example, neighboring low-income public housing) to involve professors and students in tutoring and counseling local students.
  • Revamp teacher education programs to better reflect research findings on teaching and learning, incorporate the use of advanced technologies as instructional tools, and enable prospective teachers to better understand and teach youngsters of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Mount initiatives to insure that the "information superhighway'' does not bypass low-income communities. Examples might include training for local teachers and students so they'll be able to access and use telecommunications networks, or efforts to forge electronic links between the college's resources--faculty members, students, and libraries--and community centers.

Most important, higher education should work with local school districts and communities to insure that all education-reform efforts have, as the benchmark against which success is judged, the achievement of those students most underserved by the schools.

Shirley M. McBay is the president of the Quality Education for Minorities Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities for minorities.

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