Taking Action on K-12, University Cooperation

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The links between our universities and our K-12 schools are nowhere near as strong as they should be.

A wise old coach at one of our universities used to admonish lackluster team members by saying, "If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you always got." In other words, try harder, put something else into the equation, or go that extra mile to get better results than you did before.

I find those words to be inspirational not only for athletic endeavors, but also for setting goals in any number of arenas. In fact, those words have become something of a mantra for me as I consider the state of K-12-university relations.

Our universities are inextricably connected to our country's K-12 schools. And yet the links between the two systems are nowhere near as strong as they should be. Instead of cooperation and resource-sharing, we often have poor or nonexistent communications, duplication of efforts, gaps in preparation, and missed opportunities for shared resources. If we continue on this road, I fear we'll keep "getting what we always got."

As chancellor of the 23-campus California State University, I have surprised some people by saying that one of CSU's top priorities right now should be to help improve the public schools. Yet I believe that it is a necessary step in order for us to meet our own challenges and enact our own reforms.

At the California State University, not only do we train 60 percent of our state's teachers, but we also take nearly 85 percent of our first-time freshmen from California's public schools. So we see ourselves as a part of an ongoing cycle: The more high-quality teachers we train, the better prepared our students are when they come to our campuses. And the less time we spend on remedial work at the university, the more time we can spend giving our students a high-quality, college-level education.

Many other K-16 advocates have shaped this argument quite eloquently before me. But now it's time for more than just talk--it's time for the players on both sides to do more than we've done before.

With this need for greater cooperation in mind, I have asked our universities to work on five main ways to help improve our public schools. Since this effort will by nature be a collaborative one, I also want to offer three proposals for how the public schools can work with us. These thoughts from California may be useful for others nationwide.

Our universities need to do the following:

1. Train better teachers. Recent research from Kati Haycock and the Washington-based Education Trust shows us that a high-performance teacher is perhaps the most significant factor in student achievement. This gives us a mandate to improve the quality of teacher education. We are redesigning our teacher education programs, starting with changes such as offering earlier field experiences so that prospective teachers better understand the realities of classroom life.

2. Train more teachers. In California and elsewhere around the country, schools face a massive teacher shortage. One of the first steps we can take to train more teachers is to improve access to our teaching programs--by offering classes year-round, at night, on weekends, in short-term intensive segments, and through a variety of new technologies. The California State system also offers and is continuing to develop distance education programs for working teachers who have not yet received their credentials.

3. Enter into more partnerships with schools. We need to get into the schools and work closely with them. The more we know about what is going on in the schools, and what students need, the better we can help them prepare for college, and the better we can train our teachers. In particular, we need to be sure that all the teachers we train are well-prepared in teaching reading and math.

4. Offer greater support for teachers. New teachers often get the toughest assignments and need the most help. We should send out our graduates with a warranty: If they need our help in the first two years, our faculty will be there for them, either through an 800 number or an e-mail help line. We should also continue to support experienced teachers through professional-development opportunities. No matter what, we should attempt to reduce the number of teachers dropping out of the profession in frustration. Our students need the experience--and the stability--that a well-trained, professional teacher can offer.

5. Offer early diagnostic testing. We need to further develop a new pilot program in operation on California State campuses that allows students to take diagnostic tests early in high school to determine their levels of preparation for college. Prospective students should understand what colleges will expect of them. And the sooner they know how well they are prepared, the sooner they can begin whatever additional preparation they might need.

Meanwhile, our public schools need to do their part, too. They need to:

  • Teach reading and writing all the way through 12th grade. Reading and writing are all-important skills. But too many schools stop teaching these critical topics after the elementary or middle school grades. That does our students a great disservice. Schools should commit to giving reading and writing assignments in every class all the way through high school.
  • Teach algebra and geometry as early as 7th or 8th grade. Too many students come to us having taken classes in "almost math" or "nearly math" or "some day it'll be math." Enough. Students should have exposure to real mathematics--not some watered-down substitute--early and often.
  • Take active roles in school-university and business partnerships. Schools need to look for and embrace opportunities to work with their local universities as well as local businesses. When there is good communication between all of these entities, our educational system works the way it should.

My university system will need to do plenty of work on its own campuses to keep up with the demands of the 21st century. But we also realize the critical importance of developing good K-12-university relationships. With strong communication between educators, we can improve all of our educational systems--and by doing so, we can better prepare students for life and work in the new century.

All K-12 and postsecondary educators should look forward to working together more closely in the years ahead. Our victory will occur in the classroom, and we will all be a part of it.

Charles B. Reed is the chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 72

Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Taking Action on K-12, University Cooperation
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