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Alliance for Learning: 'Partnerships Never So Crucial for Reform'

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As a trusted colleague, higher education must support K-12 in its very important reform work. We may finally have both the will and the skill by which to help educate all our young people. No sector, let alone one so complex and large as higher education, can afford to sit on the sidelines or to take only a passive role. In the College Board's 94-year history of school-college collaboration, partnerships have never seemed so crucial to the success of educational reform.

The trick is to determine exactly how school-college partnerships should function. Given the fragile and still inchoate nature of much reform, the real challenge will be to find the framework within which to sustain the most valuable of the current K-16 reform efforts.

We have perhaps all seen situations that have not worked well between schools and institutions of higher education. Teachers at times view university faculty members as delivering a message from the mount, and they sense just a whiff of tweed-bound noblesse oblige.

Professors wonder how the results of a particular project with a school or school district will get published or fit into their tenure review. Staff on both ends wonder whether a foundation or sponsor will renew funding in a year. Some teachers dismiss such collaboration as just another conference-inspired fad some administrator brought back to justify the expense, saddling them with more work. Students remain clueless as to why more adults seem to be hanging around their classrooms, and parents too often are out of the loop entirely. No comprehensive framework exists to pull everyone together, and another project soon enters the vast Archives of Passing Education Fads, its degree of success forever unclear.

Given the history of failed projects and the danger of increasing the cynicism of overburdened and underfunded educators at all levels, many in higher education will ask, and K-12 must answer: "Why bother? What is it about these current efforts that warrants the attention, let alone an active partnership, with higher education?''

There are at least three extremely promising elements in current school-reform efforts that provide elements of direct interest to higher education:

  • Many educators are finally acting upon a long-stated and rarely implemented claim that "all students can learn and at higher levels.''
  • Psychological and psychometric research is providing the hope for curricula and assessments constructed on a much richer and more contemporary understanding of human learning.
  • Successful reforms are increasingly tapping
    the power of collaborative processes--in classroom pedagogy, in site governance, in curriculum development, and in community relations.

These critical elements arise from the context of school reform occurring in many states at least since the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk; they are not likely to disappear. In what some have termed several waves of reform since then, reform rhetoric, if not always practiced, has at least shifted from an emphasis on tougher requirements and teacher testing to a curricular and professional-development focus and, finally, to a push for standards-driven systemic reform.

I would suggest, however, that we now need to focus on how we can sustain and develop the core elements identified above. In this next stage, higher education's participation may be critical, as will a nongovernmental framework in which that relationship can grow. A partnership with government should follow.

Changes over the past decade have strained the traditional school-college transition, and an active forum in which educators at all levels can build common ground has become ever more essential.

The College Board's New Associational Structure, for example, reflects this need by encouraging educational institutions to build a more effective collaborative infrastructure through which to develop broad voluntary consensus around reform goals. Academics, policy analysts, counselors, admissions officers, and financial-aid professionals work across the school-college divide in "town hall'' assemblies and advisory councils in an effort to, as Doris Helms, a professor at Clemson University, puts it, "make sure that [all] the transitions ... are truly transitions in learning.''

The complexity of school-college partnerships demands such a sophisticated framework in which to develop linkages between the two sectors that respect the integrity and values of each. The professional independence of teachers is one such value.

Partnerships with K-12 will reflect, as current examples already do, the tremendous diversity subsumed under that monolithic-sounding term "higher education.'' Fundamental to higher education's ability to flourish has been a central tradition of institutional autonomy and academic freedom; its success depends on full control over its own academic standards. U.S. higher education proudly reflects the diverse ways a pluralistic society voluntarily organizes itself for the creation and extension of knowledge. Each of the 3,600 two-year community colleges, private liberal-arts institutions, state colleges, and public and private flagship research universities combines in a unique way its mission of teaching, research, and public service.

As part of their teaching mission, college professors should increase direct collaboration with high school teachers, insuring high academic standards and reinvigorating pedagogy. We know from the College Board's Advanced Placement program, for example, how enriching such work can be. In one of the most dramatic moments of their collaboration, some 3,000 college professors and A.P. teachers work intensely together for six days every June, refining holistic and analytic scoring methods of student-essay performances. Some 18,000 A.P. teachers benefit from this collaborative professional development each year, affecting classrooms across the United States and abroad.

University faculty members can also support K-12 reform by making sure that those high school graduates able to think critically and work collaboratively are not suddenly frustrated at the university level by a deadly didacticism.

In our new Pacesetter courses for high school students, for example, school-college task forces are integrating exciting new curriculum standards, professional development, and assessments. In the Pacesetter mathematics course, every student learns precalculus through challenging group work and the extensive use of graphing calculators. Yet, few college professors use collaborative learning techniques, and, reportedly, only 10 percent use such technology in their courses!

Indeed, though the Pacesetter courses are still in their pilot phase, concerns have already been expressed that they exceed many college standards. Higher education cannot escape a re-evaluation of its content and pedagogy in light of K-12 advances, though, happily, a new emphasis on creative undergraduate teaching is beginning to flourish on many campuses.

Higher education's participation in local reform projects helps build local support and consensus. In Milwaukee, one of 14 partner school districts participating in EQUITY 2000, a comprehensive urban-district reform project of the College Board, several joint initiatives with faculty members at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University are under way. The universities, by serving as hosts for summer teacher and counselor institutes and for "Saturday academies'' for students, send a clear message about the importance of these K-12 efforts, as well as increase student aspirations to pursue a college degree.

At the University of Maryland, math professors at the College Park campus are developing summer institutes for area teachers, while admissions officers work directly with district guidance counselors. These are part of an innovative K-16 reform approach established between Prince George's County schools and the university.

In its research mission, higher education provides a core service to K-12 reform. Certainly, school reform would look very different had it not been for the research of cognitive psychologists, measurement experts, subject-area specialists, and public-policy analysts. Professors Sizer, Comer, Slavin, Resnick, Levin, Darling-Hammond, Lieberman, Goodlad, Lanier, and Gardner, among many others in higher education, play important roles at the frontiers of K-12 reform.

Ongoing university research informs the cutting-edge work we are doing in computer-adaptive testing and performance assessments, as well as the substantial revisions made to the new S.A.T. Partnerships between schools and colleges insure that this research does not get sealed within specialized journals, and that the findings are refined by the demands of real-world practice. Several subject-matter groups are building on recent university-based educational research in designing their latest standards and, in the process, demonstrating the potential such linkages have for provoking widespread reconsideration of practice.

In its mission of service, higher education demonstrates the shared ground upon which all educators stand. When university professors and high school teachers come together to develop common curricular standards, as they do regularly for 16 academic fields in the A.P. program, they begin to close the chasm that often forms between K-12 and higher education.

When college faculty and graduate students serve as mentors to EQUITY 2000 students, providing small-group classwork and hands-on projects in Saturday academies, and when they serve on local advisory boards for each site, they do more than provide academic enrichment and advice. They send a powerful message about what the larger community values and about what local adults want for their children.

One superintendent declared at a recent conference that the parents in his community wanted all the latest reforms in education, as long as the school looked the same as it did when they were students. All educators face a disquieting intolerance for school reform. Too many interests are served by the status quo.

Higher education, in its teaching, research, and service functions, must stand steadfastly with those who seek the means and build the will for effectively educating all our children.

As trusted colleagues, K-12 and higher education are partners in the preparation of this republic's future. We must assure those partnerships enduring frameworks within which to grow.

Donald M. Stewart is the president of the College Board.

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