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Alliance for Learning: 'Higher Education's Help Badly Needed'

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In the course of education reform during the past dozen years, higher education has been, for the most part, a minor player and a missing voice. To be sure, the school-reform movement has engaged the energies and absorbed the commentaries of numerous academic commentators. It has, nevertheless, proceeded without clear guidance or persistent intellectual or political support from the leadership of higher education--at the institutional, system, or national level.

In fact, to the contrary, there have often been acute tensions between the two education sectors, particularly in the competition for scarce resources.

There have been occasional efforts by individual--or small groups of--college presidents to provide guidance and support; but they have been minor, largely inconsequential, episodes in the progress of precollegiate school reform. There certainly has been nothing resembling the business community's continual and concerted response to the problem of the schools.

The pity is that higher education's help has been badly needed: to give clear expressions of its standards and expectations, to contribute its knowledge systematically to the development of precollegiate programs, and to provide consistent encouragement and support to the efforts of those trying to improve our schools.

In the public education community, there are two schools of thought about the way to respond to these discouraging patterns of higher-education involvement and support. The first is--forget about them. In this view, colleges and universities will be, at best, erratic and condescending in their support of elementary and secondary education improvement. They will distract and disappoint those who rely on them, and they will drain energy, focus, and effectiveness from the central task of reform.

The second point of view believes that higher education has a potentially great contribution to make to the advancement and improvement of precollegiate education, in the form of both knowledge and political support. This school of thought also suggests that higher education will greatly enhance its own standing with the public by contributing to the schools, as this would provide a much-needed contemporary demonstration of the academy's commitment to serving the commonweal in the best Jeffersonian tradition.

Reviewing the record of the past decade reveals several reasons why higher education has not been more widely involved in school reform. And, by squinting very hard, one may see signs of hope upon which to build a more effective participation in the future.

First, the obstacles to progress:

  • There is a great, and as-yet-unbridged, cultural gap between K-12 and higher education. The gulf can be thought of as intellectual and linguistic, between advanced disciplinary inquiry and a more practical, populist pedagogy. Or it can be seen as the distance between a predominantly upper-middle-class, historically male profession and a predominantly upper-working/lower-middle-class, mostly female profession; or between high- and low-prestige occupations. However one describes this gap, the ongoing discourse across it is slight, and few institutions (the College Board, in certain areas of its interest, being almost the sole historical exception) foster the dialogue.
  • Higher education itself has been in a time of great crisis during the past decade, dealing with a litany of problems. They include financial stringency, an increasingly competitive market, skeptical politicians, new questions about the productivity and efficiency of the enterprise, and difficult adaptations to new clienteles and technologies. Add to those a growing disillusionment among students and parents springing from inexorably rising tuitions, a remote professoriate, slow progress in responding effectively to the needs of minority students or demands for multicultural programs, and governance problems caused by restive trustees or state-system administrators.

Given such conditions, higher education has been utterly distracted by its own problems, with no energy to spare for the schools' problems.

Thus beset, the typical college or university president may be, and probably is, well meaning in his or her concern about the schools, but few have made support for the public schools a top priority. At the same time, no one among those selecting, assessing, or rewarding the college president is likely to provide incentives or sanctions for performance in this arena.

  • Higher education is reluctant to help public schools because so many of the schools' problems are not really educational, and colleges and universities do not see themselves as being in a position to help with them. This line of thought suggests that the problems of the schools stem predominantly from social, economic, and political phenomena--conditions of society that must be addressed directly before higher education, or anyone else for that matter, can realistically hope to help the schools.
  • For some issues, higher education is, in fact, a major part of the problem. Putting too great an emphasis over the years on Carnegie units and standardized admissions tests, higher education has contributed to distortions in high school curricula, in the development of academic tracking, and unconcern for the noncollege-bound. Thus, in the emerging discussions on the integration of academic and work-related curricula, only community colleges have anything to say on behalf of higher education.

Higher education's credibility also suffers from its limited success in fulfilling its own equal-education-opportunity mission in ways that provide motivation to minority students in the schools. Too many siblings and friends return to the "hood'' with stories of hostility and failure.

  • The realities of governance will hinder, if not prevent, effective action. Higher education is itself so fragmented and competitive that no across-the-board sectoral response can be generated for this or any other issue. The precollegiate system is at least equally fragmented, though along different dimensions; and the two systems have grown and are governed quite separately, even competitively.

But there are signs of hope:

  • The instances of effective assistance are slowly increasing. Academic alliances between public school teachers and higher-education faculty members have grown and persisted for over a decade. Faculties of arts and sciences and education have launched cooperative efforts on many campuses. The College Board's EQUITY 2000 project and the K-16 collaborations of the American Association for Higher Education have created promising community-based partnerships in many cities.
  • Higher education has been home to the individuals who have provided many of the most important commentaries on school reforms and models for school improvement: Ron Edmunds, Ernest Boyer, John Goodlad, Ted Sizer, Gerald Grant, Sara Lightfoot, James Coleman, Linda Darling-Hammond, Lauren Resnick, Chester Finn, the authors of The Shopping Mall High School, Patricia Graham, Lawrence
    Cremin, Henry Levin, Robert Slavin, James Comer, Uri Triesman, Leon Lederberg, and Diane Ravitch, among many, many others.
  • Schools of education are becoming stronger and more effective, though they have a long way
    to go before they are as effective as they should be. But we must understand how far they have come in the past 10 years.

In the early 1980's, these schools were in an extraordinarily weakened state, having been through drastic enrollment and staffing reductions brought about by the collapse of the teaching labor market during the 1970's. They were historically lacking in luster and prestige on their own campuses, and, along with such other schools as nursing and social work, they had little appeal for students who were then being lured most compellingly by the siren calls of business and law.

Each of these phenomena remains true to some extent today, though less so than a decade ago.

During much of the past decade, faculty members from schools of education have given the school-reform movement much of its knowledge base: in cognitive psychology and constructivist pedagogies, in the application of organizational analysis to schools, in careful lineation of the attributes of effective teaching, in new assessments, and in the new developmental models that integrate these insights. They have also improved their own programs for the preparation of education professionals, and they are participating much more closely with the schools in the new models of professional development and school restructuring that lie at the heart of our contemporary hopes for school improvement.

If, within these instances of progress lie the hopes for greater impact in the future, how should we proceed? Here are four suggestions:

  • Raise the issue explicitly both in the higher-education community and in the school-reform arena. There must be a reaffirmation of these connections as part of the mission of higher education. Such affirmations must come from presidents, not from directors of community affairs or even deans of education. They must be long-term and accompanied by resources.

We must also strive continually to make school systems more open to, and adept and enthusiastic in, seeking appropriate assistance from their colleagues in higher education.

  • Continue to build up schools of education, not as the exclusive instrument of higher education in the schools, but simply as an essential element in the success of school reform and an appropriate indication that higher education will not ignore or downplay that most central ingredient in the future of society: the basic education of the next generation of students and citizens.
  • Link the governance of the two sectors of education in ways that will lead to future collaboration. Here, the experience of community colleges deserves special attention.
  • Create and strengthen nongovernmental institutions that bring the two communities together around specific collaborative agenda. The now-statutory national goals and standards programs would be an excellent starting place.

The path to progress will not be smooth. On this issue, there is still much apathy on campuses, and cynicism and anger in the school and policy communities. We will succeed only when members of our two estranged education communities behave, by conviction and by incentive, as if they must hang together, or ...

P. Michael Timpane is the president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

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