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Alliance for Learning: 'We Have to Get Off Our High Horses'

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For more than two decades, we in higher education have been told to help fix the nation's primary and secondary schools. Because we have been so fundamentally a part of the problem, we were told, successful school reform could only proceed if we recast our own educational missions.

We have been urged to toughen our own standards, to pay greater attention to educational outcomes, to redesign our curricula to help the United States again become a nation of learners. We have been reminded that our own privileged position can become untenable if we persist in seeing school reform as someone else's problem; we have been shown just how easy it is to shift public funds away from higher education in favor of more generous budgets for equally strapped public schools.

Yet, still, we have not gotten the message.

As the heartfelt scolding of "An American Imperative'' makes clear, things have gone from bad to worse. We seem to be as stubborn, as thick-headed, and as mean-spirited as ever. The fact that most colleges and universities, along with their faculties and administrators, are choosing to ignore "An American Imperative''--suggesting, only when pressed, that both the message and the messenger are wrong--is being taken as further proof of our intractability.

Perhaps, however, there are equally plausible--and certainly more benign--explanations for why higher education has been so reluctant to become enmeshed in the school-reform agenda. The most basic explanation may be that, in school reform, as in most other endeavors, there is no substitute for success. To win more recruits from the ranks of higher education, the school-reform movement must prove its staying power.

It would also help if those who advocate the recasting of American public education could supply a clearer sense of what reform means, how its successes are to be measured, and how the achievements of pilot projects can be extended to the system as a whole. There needs to be less political passion and more practical success--less cant and more change.

Taking a wait-and-see attitude toward school reform may not be good citizenship, but it is certainly practical politics. With our own vulnerabilities increasingly showing, it should be no surprise that we have thought twice before signing up for someone else's reformation.

More problematic is the question of what is expected of higher education. Certainly, we have to get off our "high horses''; we need to know more about schools than what our own children tell us. We also need to understand that
today's learners are different from earlier generations of college students; they have had different experiences, and they come to us with different expectations, achievements, and shortcomings.

Beyond becoming better teachers ourselves, what can we do? Our very isolation from the problems of K-12 education makes us ill-prepared experts on its reform. We can volunteer as tutors and mentors, but we will need considerable training ourselves before we can become effective in delivering someone else's curricula. We do need to prepare better teachers, but I take that to be a part of our own agenda for change rather than part of K-12 school reform.

The kind of practical change that lies at the heart of school reform requires a focus on both organization and funding. If there is a real role for higher education to play, it will come about through the development of new forms of organization and new funding mechanisms.

The Pew Charitable Trusts provides one example through a project facilitated by the American Association for Higher Education that directly links schools and universities through a series of community compacts. In Pueblo, Colo.,
one experiment has resulted in the local school superintendent assuming an additional role as a vice president of the University of Southern Colorado. The near merger of the two education systems has led to important cost savings and consolidations as well as a genuine sense of shared responsibility.

In another example, the University of Texas at El Paso has formed a remarkably effective collaborative with three neighboring school districts to improve teaching and learning in the primary and secondary schools as well as in the university itself. Here, all of the institutions are full partners, providing direct assistance to one another through school-based planning processes, through the delivery of more effective mathematics education, and through the development of teacher training programs that prepare K-12 instructors who truly understand the world of schools.

The kinds of practical organizational arrangements that underlie these successful collaborations are precisely what will be required not only to bridge but to eradicate the gulf that too often separates K-12 and higher education.

It could be even easier to make a financial link between the two education systems. Imagine that a state wanted public higher education to play a more direct role in reforming public K-12 education.

One means to that end would be to convert a portion--perhaps a substantial portion--of the state's appropriation for higher education into vouchers awarded to the state's school districts to buy the services of public institutions of higher education. Such a scheme would create a market in which schools would be the customers and publicly funded colleges and universities the suppliers. The institutions would have to compete for the funds, demonstrating in the process that they had real contributions to make to the improvement of K-12 education.

School reform is serious business. Those who advocate it will have to define better what they want from higher education. Those of us within the academy will have to understand better the contributions we can make. State governments will have to be more clever as well as more tough-minded in designing the funding incentives and implementing the organizational changes that can facilitate the reforms we seek.

Alas, what we are more likely to get is further lamentation.

Robert Zemsky is a professor and the director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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