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What K-12 and Higher Education Can Learn From Each Other

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Secondary schools and universities need to work together

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In 1952, three prep schools—the Lawrenceville School, Phillips Academy, and Phillips Exeter Academy—and three universities—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—came together to participate in a bold experiment which ultimately introduced the radical concept of allowing high school seniors the chance to study college-level material and take achievement exams for college credit. Thus, the Advanced Placement program was born. More than six decades later, the program continues to offer students an opportunity to pursue college-level content with greater individualized instruction than many first-year college courses.

While the AP program has helped to bridge the gap between K-12 and higher education, both institutions remain largely unaware of how the other operates. K-12 school administrators are eager to make their students “college ready,” while college administrators, thirsting for increased enrollment, are courting K-12 students early in their secondary school careers. But the desire to be more integrated masks a troubling reality. In 2016, 70 percent of high school graduates immediately enrolled in higher education. As of the previous year, however, the six-year rate of completion for full-time undergraduate students at four-year institutions was only 59 percent. Researchers have long bemoaned the socioeconomic factors that may influence this gap, but less discussed is how the siloed nature of both sectors prevents the exchange of practices that could help all students achieve success.

"It is important for K-12 educators to realize that higher education is built on research, not teaching."

It is important for K-12 educators to realize that higher education is built on research, not teaching. The strength of a professor’s research is by far the most important criterion in awarding tenure, with teaching a distant second—a far cry from the world of K-12. Moreover, while Ph.D.s often tend to be the instructors of record in college courses, there is actually very little in terms of the academic preparation for a doctorate degree that prepares them for classroom instruction. This, too, is a sharp contrast to K-12, where teachers largely must undergo a teacher-preparation program to become certified. While some doctoral students are awarded a teaching assistantship, allowing them to apprentice under a veteran instructor, these positions are not only scarce, but also considered second fiddle to the more coveted research assistantships.

This lack of preparation may explain higher education’s chronic struggle to effectively measure teaching and learning. Unlike secondary schools, higher education does not have widespread standardized testing to serve as a check against grade inflation. In the absence of such a metric in higher education, and coupled with the lack of a standardized curricula, colleges often trade on their reputation rather than any objective measure of teaching and learning. One 2012 study found that A’s represented 43 percent of all letter grades awarded at four-year colleges and universities, a 28 percentage-point increase since 1960.

Regrettably, the overreliance on grades as the de facto measure of student achievement in the absence of any real objective metric may also lead to problems in instruction. One study suggests universities’ reliance on student course evaluations in personnel decisions promotes lax teaching and assessment practices. Instructors eager for positive evaluations often focus on meeting student expectations that courses should be light on work and heavy on entertainment. Thus, the cycle of inflated grades and concomitantly inflated course evaluations leads these instructors to reason that their teaching is promoting student learning when, in fact, there is evidence that students may not be adequately prepared to handle the rigors of subsequent coursework.

While higher education needs to reinvest in a solid teaching foundation, K-12 educators would benefit from being more familiar with research from the field. K-12 instructors are often in the dark when it comes to the latest education research and pedagogical strategies. Research has shown, for instance, that many teachers’ own subconscious biases influence their perception of student discipline and ability.

While the K-12 school administrators who set professional-development agendas may offer access to research designed to unravel these biases, teachers often find these experiences frivolous—possibly because the very administrators charged with educating teachers have a difficult time understanding the research themselves. For one, a large body of education research is quantitative in nature, but few teacher-preparation or even doctorate of education programs require the level of mastery needed to understand sophisticated statistical models. This can lead many administrators to make sweeping announcements about issues including class size, teacher evaluations, and student assessment without understanding the scope, limitations, effect sizes, and even statistical significance of a given study. To make matters worse, two Canadian researchers have concluded that nearly a third of social science research fails to garner a single citation within a five year period following publication—a sign that much potentially useful research goes largely unnoticed. Consequently, practitioners can run the risk of developing an ideology based on a selective body of research.

In addition to improving instruction, training teachers to consume and integrate research as a central aspect of instructional and professional development could also have implications for teacher professionalism. In higher education, tenure is awarded by other tenured colleagues after a thorough review of the candidate’s research, teaching, and service to the broader community. This process demonstrates that professors are perceived as self-governing professionals who possess highly specialized research knowledge—a level of esteem that is unfortunately rarely afforded to K-12 teachers. But, by creating a tighter link between research and practice, teachers can position themselves to be pedagogical experts. The K-12 tenure process could even be reformed to be more skill-centric rather than a pro forma administrative chore.

Despite stark differences in structure and philosophy, K-12 and higher education cannot avoid the fact that they need one other to serve all students’ educational needs. But to bridge their divide, both K-12 educators and higher education instructors must move outside their comfort zones and immerse themselves in each other’s world. Only then can both sides truly innovate in much the same way they did in 1952 to develop a program that is the hallmark of this partnership today.

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