Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower Into the Classroom

By C. L. Max Nikias & William G. Tierney — April 02, 2012 5 min read
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As we look back on research universities in the 20th century, one regrettable legacy we see is the firewall between too many of them and our public schools.

University administrators and professors missed meaningful opportunities to help K-12 educators manage and overcome the challenges they face daily. There was little sustained interaction between public school teachers and professors. Commonalities across high school and college curricula were largely nonexistent. What students learned in a math class in their senior year in high school, for example, frequently did not prepare them for freshman-level math. And the academic and social gulf between high school and university left too many of our poorest children unprepared for the transition.

This disengagement has much to do with how research universities were born and evolved in the 20th century. Institutions that were small, parochial scholastic backwaters morphed into academic powerhouses whose raison d'être was research. Faculty members doing research earned new respect within and outside the academic world, a development reinforced by the rise of nonacademic funding sources, such as foundations. By the end of the 20th century, research-oriented professors received higher compensation than their peers who only taught in the classroom. Growth and distinction became the new watchwords. Admired throughout the world, these universities helped drive American economic pre-eminence, especially in the second half of the 20th century. But the rise of the American research university had little to do with the creation or sustenance of K-12 education.

Times have changed and so, too, must the research university’s lack of engagement with public schools. No problem is clearer and more compelling where those of us in the research university might add our voice, knowledge, and support.

While not as bleak as commonly perceived, data on K-12 student achievement have remained sobering for over a generation. Many of our urban high schools are “dropout factories,” with up to half of the entering students never graduating. At too many schools, fewer than half the seniors will qualify to enroll in a four-year college or university. At many of our state universities, more than half the entering freshmen require courses in remedial math or English—or both. Several recent studies show that the performance gap between affluent and poor students in terms of test scores, high school completion rates, and, ultimately, wage earnings continues to grow at an alarming rate.

With statistics like these, America cannot remain globally competitive and economically vibrant. Student performance in other industrialized nations regularly outpaces ours, and China and India are spending vast sums of money educating their children to catch up. Too many jobs in science, technology, and engineering go unfilled by American students because they enter college unprepared to succeed in these demanding fields, which are among the fastest-growing in our economy.

Times have changed and so, too, must the research university's lack of engagement with public schools."

We are not suggesting that research universities hold all the answers to our K-12 problems. Some colleges of education have already made significant strides in their involvement in schools. For example, at our own institution, we have a mentoring program that helps low-income youths apply to college and a program that helps college-bound youths improve their writing. But the education of our nation’s K-12 students cannot be left to a select few.

How can research universities become engaged in our public schools? Here are three ways:

Create an educational compact. Our high schools, community colleges, and universities customarily go their own way without any state or regional coordination. One result: Students in our lowest-performing urban schools can graduate at the top of their classes yet must take remedial classes when they arrive at college. That these students need to take remedial classes is an urgent problem that requires K-12 teachers and university educators to join forces to determine how best to work in a coordinated and sustained manner. Money spent on remedial classes should instead be steered toward prevention, including programs to allow first-generation high school students to take occasional courses or seminars on university campuses so they can be familiar with what university work entails. Similarly, faculty members who teach freshmen should work with high school teachers to harmonize instructional methods across precollegiate and higher education institutions.

Our public schools and universities must work together rather than go it alone. If state policies need to legislate these relationships, then such steps should be examined. The goal of college readiness should supersede the emphasis placed on high school graduation requirements.

Think like rocket scientists. The success of the research university owes much to how it approaches projects. Scientists and engineers set achievable goals within a specified time frame, and once the initial goal is reached, they lay out new goals. This sort of constructive thinking should be applied to the problems in our public schools. For example, research universities could take on the task of cutting the dropout rate in half and doubling the college-going rate, and setting a time limit to accomplish that goal. This approach necessitates a greater focus on academic and social skills that should be coordinated through a systematic effort between teachers and professors, including college faculties engaging with high school students in early-college seminars that occur after school, on weekends, and during the summer. While this effort isn’t in the realm of rocket science, it requires the sort of thinking, coordination, and action commonly applied to rocket science to succeed.

Knock down the knowledge silos. Educating children requires that faculty members from several university disciplines—including the sciences, humanities, engineering, social work, and education—work together. For example, devising a program to improve student writing skills should involve professors versed in such diverse areas as technological innovation, the learning sciences, English, assessment, and education. This multidisciplinary approach, however, requires an essential cultural shift on our campuses. Most pointedly, research universities will have to redesign their reward structure to include collaborative work, so that faculty members who tackle K-12 problems can be rewarded.

One of the greatest risks facing the United States is that our children are not receiving the kind of education that equips them to participate in our increasingly knowledge-based economy. An inability to participate jeopardizes their future living standards and engagement in the democratic public sphere. Rather than continue to wring our hands in our ivory towers over sobering student-achievement data, we should instead bring our greatest minds to bear on one of our most vital organizations: the public school.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2012 edition of Education Week as Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower Into the Classroom

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