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What Should K-12 Expect From Higher Education?

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As they look around them for partners in the very serious work of standards-based reform, many leaders in K-12 education don't even consider higher education. Why? Because they don't believe that higher education can be counted on as a serious partner.

For those few still hovering on the brink between skepticism and hope for a productive working relationship, the Education Week story last month about the new "partnerships" that several university systems have mounted to cushion themselves from the end of affirmative action undoubtedly sealed the case shut. ("Partnerships Put Emphasis on Preparation," March 25, 1998.) If all universities are as ignorant of the difference between real education reform and SAT preparation classes--if they're interested only in ever-finer sorting just when the rest of us are trying to sort more students in--why would anyone even want to partner with such myopic arrogance?

Fortunately, the universities in the article are vastly outnumbered by a large and growing group of colleges and universities with far more responsible ideas of how they might contribute to K-12 improvement. Leaders in these colleges recognize that their institutions have contributed, both directly and indirectly, to many of the problems in elementary and secondary education--and that those problems are unlikely to be solved without changes in higher education. They are also willing to acknowledge that, despite the stellar international reputations of American graduate programs, our undergraduate programs suffer from many of the exact same problems with student outcomes as do K-12 schools.

Together with their counterparts in K-12, these college and university leaders are forging real working "K-16" partnerships dedicated to making the changes at both levels that are necessary to get all students to high achievement, kindergarten through college. They are also providing some hope to those who have clung fervently to the belief that the one positive outcome that might flow from the end of race-based admissions is renewed pressure--and support--to end the appalling conditions under which many minority youngsters are being educated.

In El Paso, Texas, for example, the president of the University of Texas campus there and the superintendents of the three El Paso school districts joined together in 1992 to create the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. Now, as they work to get their highly impoverished, mostly Latino student population to the very high El Paso standards, teachers and administrators in El Paso can count on focused support from the collaborative in the form of professional development and assistance in identifying high-quality curriculum. At the same time, K-12 leaders have helped the University of Texas at El Paso remake its teacher preparation program so that teachers are prepared to teach to standards.

Through an "El Paso Institute," K-12 teachers and administrators gather regularly with both education and arts and science faculty to work on issues of mutual importance. Recently, the higher education faculty members have begun to work on their own standards for undergraduate learning.

Not surprisingly, these efforts are paying off in broad student-achievement gains. During the five years that the collaborative has been at work, achievement and college-prep course completions have gone up, and the gaps separating Latino and black students from their white counterparts have narrowed.

Our undergraduate programs suffer from many of the same problems with student outcomes as do K-12 schools.

El Paso, though, is hardly alone. In Long Beach, Calif., for example, leaders at California State University-Long Beach, Long Beach City College, and the Long Beach Unified School District have formed a vibrant working partnership aimed at improving student learning at all levels. With support from the Long Beach Community Partnership, faculty and administrators are working hard to put together what they call a "seamless" system. An innovative professional-development plan put together under the leadership of Assistant Superintendent Chris Dominguez will draw extensively on both higher education faculty members and expert teachers to assist Long Beach teachers in their efforts to get their students to the Long Beach standards. And university professors will undoubtedly be looking to K-12 teachers in the future as they seek to get their own students to the new standards for undergraduate education that they are now engaged in developing.

It might be tempting to conclude from these and other examples around the country that school districts simply ought to avoid looking to elite universities, whose self-interests would seem to focus almost inevitably on only the most able students. But other campuses, even those of the very selective University of California, make it clear that this needn't be so.

The University of California, Los Angeles, for example, has adopted under the leadership of Associate Vice Chancellor Ray Paredes a strategy that is considerably more broad-based than those of other system campuses for an evolving partnership with the Venice-Westchester cluster of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The strategy is designed to benefit not only the handful of students who might eventually attend UCLA, but all of the students.

Not all of these K-16 partnerships limit themselves to the difficult and often slow work of standards-based reform. Some include student-focused programs of the sort described in Education Week. But what sets the K-16 leaders apart is their understanding that these programs are, at best, short-term pieces of a much larger strategy to get long-term reform.

In Georgia, for example, the University System of Georgia launched in 1995 an aggressive PREP program that provides young minority students with extra support and enrichment. These supports are intended to assure that, when the university's admissions requirements rise in 2000, minority enrollments won't plummet. But Chancellor Steve Portch and other system leaders are well aware that such programs are, at best, a Band-Aid. So they have nested PREP within a much larger "P-16" initiative that has drawn all of the university's campuses into new working partnerships with the K-12 districts that surround them--partnerships that focus on setting standards and deepening teacher knowledge and skills to get students to those standards.

Together, K-12 and higher education leaders in these and other communities are beginning to be much clearer about the kinds of things that K-12 ought to be able to count on from higher education. Things like:

  • Participating as a full partner in efforts to decide standards, as well as to develop or choose assessments;
  • Reinforcing those standards with aligned changes in admissions and placement requirements;
  • Producing adequate numbers of teachers well prepared to teach to standards, and in the numbers, specialties, and geographic areas in which they are needed;
  • Collaborating with K-12 teachers in the development of high-quality curriculum materials and in the design and implementation of professional development aligned with standards, particularly in the core content areas;
  • Using higher education's research capacities to assist K-12 administrators and teachers in choosing overall reform strategies, in selecting school and classroom practices, and in evaluating the impact of both on different student populations; and
  • Joining with K-12, business, and community leaders in communicating with parents and the general public about the need for education reform, about the importance of the new and much higher standards, and about the big changes in schooling that are necessary to reach those standards, especially for students in historically underachieving schools.

Perhaps even more important, K-12 should be able to count on higher education to acknowledge its own serious problems with student outcomes--including dropout rates worse than those of the poorest urban school districts and large numbers of graduates with pathetically low-level skills--and get busy solving them.

Once they see a serious effort to address these problems, K-12 educators just might be willing to share with their colleagues in higher education the lessons they have learned these last few years.


Kati Haycock is the director of the Education Trust in Washington.

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