Alliance for Learning: In Pursuit of ‘All One System’

By Meg Sommerfeld — April 13, 1994 7 min read
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Developing a system where interchanges between K-12 and higher-education faculty become commonplace may seem a challenging task, Callan says, but it may also be inevitable.

Today, the Los Angeles-based energy corporation gives 80 percent of the $2.8 million it gives away each year in education grants to school-reform efforts.

ARCO shifted philanthropic gears when it became convinced that the best way to respond to poor student achievement and high dropout rates was to target its funds on problems earlier in the educational process, the foundation’s president, Eugene R. Wilson, says.

Wilson says he changed his thinking about how to divvy up ARCO’s philanthropic dollars on the strength of the work of the demographer Harold L. Hodgkinson and Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

In 1985, Hodgkinson observed in his influential report “All One System’’ that at every level of schooling--from nursery schools to postgraduate institutions--educators “have virtually no connection’’ to educators outside their own level. Moreover, he said, educators have “little awareness of education activity provided by the total’’ system.

“It is our conviction,’' concluded Hodgkinson, the co-director of the Center for Demographic Policy at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, “that we need to begin seeing the education system from the perspective of the people who move through it.’'

Boyer, meanwhile, in his 1987 book College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, concluded: “All educational levels are related, and there is, we believe, an urgent need to bring colleges and universities more directly into the national debate about the purposes and goals of American education. If the push for educational excellence is to yield results, the nation’s colleges and universities must ask hard questions about the quality of their own work.’'

The ‘Edifice Complex’

In the years since, the idea of developing an interconnected “K-16'’ education system that would transcend the barriers between schools and colleges has gained increasing currency. Buzzwords like “a seamless web’’ and “lifelong learning’’ have become staples in the parlance of education-policy gurus.

Last summer, at the RJR Nabisco Foundation “Chinabreakers’’ conference for innovative educators, participants talked of the need to “attack the edifice complex.’' The nation must stop thinking about schools as buildings, the conference’s summary report explains, and, instead, conceive of them as a “dynamic, fluid process that provides seamless opportunities for continuous individual renewal.’'

“An American Imperative,’' the report released by the Wingspread Group on Higher Education last fall, reached a similar conclusion.

“I love the word ‘seamless,’'' declared former U.S. Secretary of Labor William E. Brock, the chairman of the Wingspread Group.

“We’re trying to eliminate those barriers, those disconnected points where so many people fall between the cracks,’' Brock said in an interview.

Erosion of Faculty Involvement

In fact, in the late 19th century, many university professors helped inspect high schools, according to Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. If schools met established requirements, their students could enter college without taking entrance exams.

“That kind of faculty involvement in the schools has completely eroded, which is unfortunate,’' Lagemann laments.

However, she continues, colleges and universities are now becoming more aware of--and interested in--K-12 education.

“Whether or not that’s going to lead to really productive relationships,’' she cautions, “remains to be seen.’'

One group currently seeking to bring K-12 and postsecondary education closer together is the Education Trust at the American Association for Higher Education.

The A.A.H.E. trust is helping education leaders in approximately 20 cities establish “K-16 councils.’' Modeled after the A.A.H.E.'s Community Compacts initiative, the councils are intended to serve as superstructures that coordinate all education-reform efforts systematically, bringing together university presidents, school superintendents, and business and community leaders. (See related story, page S12.)

One of the driving forces behind higher education’s reawakened interest in schools is the standards-setting movement for K-12 students, says Robert Schwartz, the education-program director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based foundation.

Making the Connection

“People in higher education are beginning to understand that it has implications for them,’' Schwartz says. At the same time, he notes, pressure is mounting for the development of new standards and assessments at the postsecondary level.

“If it’s important to know what a high school graduate knows and is able to do, then what about a college graduate?’' Schwartz muses. “That question is starting to be asked by state legislatures.’'

While a K-16 system sounds “theoretically nice’’ to Christopher Cross, the director of education programs at the Business Roundtable, he has thus far not seen any indication that it is “anything real.’'

“I think it means in the states where reform is occurring,’' he continues, “you would have key leaders in the postsecondary community sitting down to talk about what their role is, what they could contribute, and what their responsibilities are. Frankly, I have not seen that in any states of which I’m aware.’'

Nevertheless, institutional collaboration is something that is “long overdue,’' Cross adds. “If we don’t get a clear connection between the two [systems],’' he warns, “the potential for making the K-12 reforms stick and work is significantly diminished.’'

An ideal K-16 system would focus on students and student learning, not on governance systems, says Patrick M. Callan, the executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center.

In the eyes of the general public, Callan argues, the two systems are already intertwined. “We pretend they’re not, but for the people we serve, they are interconnected.’'

However, colleges and universities often organize their work as if they are completely oblivious to this, as “if students are delivered to them at age 18 by a stork,’' asserts Callan, quoting Hodgkinson, the demographer.

One of the major barriers to greater collaboration across sectors has been how slowly postsecondary institutions move.

Colleges and universities have often been the last to “get under the tent,’' Callan charges. And collaborative efforts, he adds, “can only move as fast as the most reticent partner.’'

Potential Roadblocks

Even advocates of the “seamless web’’ approach acknowledge that it is not without its inherent difficulties.

The more players in the game, Cross observes, the harder it will be to assign responsibility and accountability.

And Wilson, the president of the ARCO Foundation, suggests that professors may be resistant to moving away from a theoretical framework and toward the practical and the applied.

But, he adds, if the general public is “less inclined to support higher education today than [it] has been in the past, maybe one of the reasons is that higher education has become disconnected from a greater and greater share of the problems in society.’'

Lagemann of Teachers College suggests that all sectors of universities need to explore expanded definitions of scholarship, conceptions that would include clinical professors as well as more theoretically focused, didactic professors.

In the 1990 Carnegie Foundation report “Scholarship Reconsidered,’' Boyer envisioned a new blueprint for scholarship composed of four essential and related areas: discovering, integrating, and applying knowledge, as well as teaching. This fall, the foundation plans to release a follow-up report, “Scholarship Assessed,’' which will examine how to evaluate academics’ performance under such a new arrangement.

Developing common language about how to modify faculty evaluation, Boyer noted in a recent interview, “will help make it safe for a campus to move in this direction, instead of saying it’s sentimentally our commitment, but not have criteria to recognize those who do it.’'

“I think higher education’s interest in school-college connections has increased,’' Boyer added. “Now, all we need to do is make sure we have a reward system that will recognize this as legitimate professional activity. Then, I think we’re going to see major progress in the days ahead.’'

Meanwhile, such rethinking is already taking place at several higher-education institutions. Ira Harkavy, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s program for public service, is overseeing an effort to apply faculty research to benefit the West Philadelphia area, for example. One anthropologist’s research on adolescents’ diet and growth has already led to the creation of a nutrition textbook for West Philadelphia middle school students.

Developing a system where interchanges between K-12 and higher-education faculty become commonplace may seem a challenging task, Callan says, but it may also be inevitable.

“By and large, it’s realistic, because it’s necessary,’' he says. “It’s sort of like fixing the freeways in Los Angeles [after the earthquake] in nine or 10 months. If you want people to be able to move down there, you’re going to have to do it.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 1994 edition of Education Week as Alliance for Learning: In Pursuit of ‘All One System’


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