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The Learning Connection

By Gene I. Maeroff, Patrick M. Callan & Michael D. Usdan — December 13, 2000 8 min read
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Together, schools and colleges can solve mutual problems.

Collaborative projects between schools and colleges have been proliferating for two decades, and yet the two sides still have not come close to realizing the full advantages that such cooperation might mean for their mutual betterment. In light of this spotty history, one hesitates to make rosy predictions, but perhaps some of these partnerships are starting to show what may be possible.

A problem until now, with some notable exceptions, has been the tendency toward a hodgepodge approach without a sense of larger vision. Furthermore, K- 12 education all too often has had no choice but to dance to a tune dictated by higher education. We see, however, the beginnings of greater coherency in the collaborations, as well as the emergence of some imperatives that are making colleges and universities more willing and eager participants.

Try as they may, institutions of higher education cannot ignore trends and developments that are underscoring the ineluctable links between the fortunes of the two sectors. We have in mind the connections between previous schooling and remedial education on campuses, the preparedness of the teacher corps in elementary and secondary schools, the pressure for more diversity in higher education, the conditions of inner-city neighborhoods that surround urban campuses, and questions of why governing structures cannot be more streamlined.

Higher education institutions cannot ignore trends that are underscoring the ineluctable links between them and schools.

It seems to us that collaboration may be accelerated by focusing the efforts of schools and colleges in these five areas: standards, equity, teachers, governance, and community-building.

  • Standards. For years, institutions of higher education blithely went their way in setting requirements, hardly seeming to care about the impact on high schools. When admissions requirements were changed in the 1970s to de-emphasize foreign languages, for instance, the effect on high schools was catastrophic.

In today’s climate, which stresses standards in elementary and secondary education, some states are now leading the way in demonstrating how the sectors can cooperate. Maryland’s attention to standards has resulted in a Partnership for Teaching and Learning, K-16, that—as never before—has produced in-depth conversations among the heads of the state education department, the state university, and the higher education secretary. The Oregon university system’s Proficiency-Based Admissions Standards System, also known as PASS, is being developed in close cooperation with the high schools that will have to help young people meet those standards. Georgia’s prekindergarten-through- postsecondary initiative is linked to 15 regional P-16 councils around the state that bring people from both sides of the education divide to the same table.


Does this mean that these three states have solved the problems of collaboration? Not at all. But it does indicate that they are discussing mutual concerns that in the past received little or no joint attention. The models established in the three states exhibit elements that may be adopted elsewhere as the standards movement advances.

  • Equity. As members of minority groups come to form a majority of the students in more and more public school districts, higher education must take notice and start acting appropriately.

What one sees happening in California, for example, are separate attempts by the University of California system and the California State University system to work with school districts as never before to boost the readiness of minority students for academic work at the campuses of the two giant systems. The process, to date, is messy and flawed, but—like creation itself—from out of these inchoate attempts may finally come something meaningful.

Educational institutions at all levels are on the front lines when it comes to ensuring that the growth of a diverse racial and ethnic population will be a blessing.

Other ways of working together to promote educational equity can be seen in such places as El Paso, Texas, and Memphis, Tenn. The University of Texas campus in El Paso has forged close relationships with several school districts in its area through the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, an effort that shows the kind of improvement that leads to higher test scores. And Middle College High School in Memphis, a collaboration between the local school system and Shelby State Community College, is one of a couple of dozen such ventures across the country attempting to replicate the success of New York City’s Middle College High School. This concept, which strives to bring equity to youngsters who might otherwise be destined to join the ranks of dropouts, had its prototype on the campus of the City University of New York’s LaGuardia Community College.

Such ventures as these are crucial if diversity is to play itself out in positive ways. Educational institutions at all levels are on the front lines when it comes to ensuring that the growth of a diverse racial and ethnic population in the United States will be a blessing for all concerned.

  • Teachers. No longer can higher education ignore its connection to the teacher crisis, whether the issue is producing an adequate number of teachers in various subject areas or ensuring that teachers measure up to high standards. Increasingly, collaborations are taking on this challenge.

An illustration of this trend is on display in Cincinnati, where the public school system, the local teachers’ union, and the University of Cincinnati have joined forces to produce professional-development schools. Teachers are also the focus in Mississippi, where Jackson State University is working with teachers to improve early-childhood instruction, to provide on-the- job improvement for K-12 teachers, and to raise the number of teachers in the state who apply for certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

No longer can higher education evade its reponsibility for the quality of instruction in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.

The effort in Cincinnati has been hampered by uneven commitment as turnover occurs at both the university and in the school system; in Mississippi, faculty members at the university have shown something less than wholesale enthusiasm for working with schoolteachers. But the seeds of such attempts, planted on more fertile ground, are bound to bear fruit eventually. No longer can higher education evade its responsibility for the quality of instruction in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.

  • Governance. Are there ways in which school systems and higher education institutions can combine efforts in behalf of more efficient governance? This is surely one of the most difficult areas of collaboration, and it has gotten scant attention. But the payoffs could take the form of better education at a lower cost, goals that would resonate well with taxpayers.

Boston University’s bold venture with the Chelsea, Mass., public schools, involving itself in virtually every aspect of the system’s operations for an entire decade, demonstrates the possibilities. One has to think that colleges and universities elsewhere could lend their expertise to troubled urban school districts in similar fashion. The experiment in Pueblo, Colo., where the University of Southern Colorado and School District 60 merged some administrative positions and tried to iron out the seams in the K-16 system, represents an instructive story of do’s and don’t’s. Its successes have been modest, but it is a case study from which others can learn.

We hardly expect to see a set of wholesale mergers between school districts and universities. There are, however, locales around the country in which both sectors could benefit by working more closely, and even by climbing into bed together in those parts of the house most friendly to cohabitation.

Institutions of higher education represent a largely untapped resource for helping turn around America’s inner-city neighborhoods.
  • Community-Building. The twin causes of altruism and self-interest can be served by institutions of higher education playing more prominent roles in the betterment of the neighborhoods in which their multimillion-dollar plants are situated. Inner cities and their long-suffering school systems cannot heal themselves; nor can colleges and universities thrive to their fullest when they exist in the midst of deprivation.

Both the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., recognized this fact of life. The viability of both institutions was threatened by the collapse of surrounding community institutions and local schools. Penn and Trinity have struggled in tandem with community groups to combat urban ills. Part of the process has been an attempt to improve schools just blocks away from these institutions of higher education.


Colleges and universities have their own interests to promote, and they hardly can be expected to be the sole entities promoting urban advancement. But, in combination with other groups, institutions of higher education represent a largely untapped resource for helping turn around America’s inner-city neighborhoods. And, in the process, the colleges and universities situated in these locales will be aiding themselves.

This, then, is the new face of school-college collaboration. We readily concede that the work has only begun. We are encouraged, though, that the dynamics of the time have produced a slightly more even basis for partnership. Perhaps this sort of collaboration may soon become more than an object of lip service.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Learning Connection


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