Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Schools and Universities: A New Social Contract

By Russell Olwell — June 16, 2004 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Universities need to get into the business of addressing K-16 education concerns.

Of all the frayed relationships public higher education institutions have, none is more critical than that with the K-12 sector. Not only does the K-12 system hire many of our graduates, but it also provides virtually all of our future customers. Yet report after report has bemoaned the lack of coordination between K-12 schools and universities, and the failure of either to consult and communicate with the other regularly and effectively. At a time when both sides face greater federal and state scrutiny and more public pressure for accountability, working together would seem to be more than simply advisable: It just might ensure that we both have a future.

There are substantial barriers to better collaboration between higher education and schools, most notably the bad habits built up over the years. A nonexhaustive list from the university side would include:

  • Telemarketing. University administrators and faculty members are notorious for calling on school systems only when a grant or program depends on it—and then often at the very last minute, with little time to build a relationship.
  • Promises, promises. Universities are also apt to promise districts the world, if only a federal, state, or foundation grant will come through, even when it is clear that the grant money may pay for only part of what is needed. When the grant does not come through, or does come through without the results promised, trust is lost and the school district disillusioned.
  • Short-term relationships. Many university programs for K-12 districts and teachers look more like serial monogamy than a marriage. As funding becomes available or disappears, the university moves on to fresh partners, leaving previous districts in the lurch.
  • Not in my back yard. Public universities should be judged on whether or not they are working effectively with the districts adjacent to them. If they are not doing substantial, important work in those districts, it indicates a lack of credibility and commitment to K-12 education and to the community.
  • Short-term thinking. If most educators would agree that long-term programs and partnerships are needed to improve education, why are most programs fewer than five years in duration?
  • No problems here. Universities need to get out of the business of solving the problems of public schools and into the business of addressing education concerns K-16. Many school districts are light-years ahead of universities, for example, in addressing racial and gender gaps in education. Why are universities so loath to tap that expertise? What is learned in school systems can be applied to the university classroom, and vice versa.

But school districts have not always lived up to their side of the bargain, either. In my years working with schools, I have watched as bureaucratic jealousy and meanness led to cancellation of grant programs. I have witnessed districts’ playing universities off against one another to get the best deal, dropping those that had been partners in the past in favor of more glamorous competitors. Many districts have simply become cynical about university partnerships, after years of broken promises and a lack of real progress toward shared goals.

It is just too tempting for universities or schools to fall into bad habits.

There needs to be a new social contract between public universities and public schools to address these problems. It needs to be negotiated by professors, teachers, administrators, provosts, presidents, superintendents, and students, and it needs to be honored by all those groups. I would argue that this new social contract would include:

  • Long-term (10 years-plus) commitment of universities to high-need school districts. These agreements would be an institutional commitment on the part of both groups to improve the performance of both organizations. This commitment would be designed to outlive any particular superintendent or college president, and would continue whether or not outside funding was available.
  • Collaborative planning. Districts and universities need to spend time getting to know one another and learning how they can help one another. Schools need to be involved in all aspects of program planning, such as which grants to apply for, what opportunities to pursue, and how to better prepare graduates who go into teaching.
  • Commitment to the local community. Both universities and schools need to demonstrate to the local, state, and national communities that they are committed to the public good. This means that public universities need to take a visible and positive role in the schools their students have attended, the schools in their geographic areas, and the schools where their graduates will teach.
  • Stop doing the wrong things. It is just too tempting for universities or schools to fall into the bad habits enumerated above. Just this last grant. Just this one phone call. Next time we’ll do it right. No. Universities and schools must make a conscious decision to stop operating in the self-defeating patterns of the past.

Public universities and K-12 schools face difficult times for funding. Both are dependent on state revenues and allocations that have been cut deeply in many regions of the country. If either group intends to change this situation, greater and more meaningful K-16 partnership is essential. If public universities and public schools can demonstrate that they are working together for the betterment of the state’s economy, its civic life, and unmet educational needs, both can make a more convincing case to legislatures and governors that they are worthy of continued investment.

Russell Olwell is an assistant professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Schools and Universities: A New Social Contract

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says New Data Paint Bleak Picture of Students' Post High School Outcomes
Students are taking much longer to complete credentials after high school than programs plan.
2 min read
Student hanging on a tearing graduate cap tassel
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness This East Coast District Brought a Hollywood-Quality Experience to Its Students
A unique collaboration between a Virginia school district and two television actors allows students to gain real-life filmmaking experience.
6 min read
Bethel High School films a production of Fear the Fog at Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023.
Students from Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., film "Fear the Fog"<i> </i>at Virginia's Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023. Students wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film through a partnership between their district, Hampton City Schools, and two television actors that's designed to give them applied, entertainment industry experience.
Courtesy of Hampton City Schools
College & Workforce Readiness A FAFSA Calculation Error Could Delay College Aid Applications—Again
It's the latest blunder to upend the "Better FAFSA," as it was branded by the Education Department.
2 min read
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, poses for a portrait in the Folsom Library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. A later-than-expected rollout of a revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid, is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions. Noyola said he hasn’t been able to submit his FAFSA because of an error in the parent portion of the application. “It’s disappointing and so stressful since all these issues are taking forever to be resolved,” said Noyola, who receives grants and work-study to fund his education.
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, stands in the university's library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. He's one of thousands of existing and incoming college students affected by a problem-plagued rollout of the revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid. A series of delays and errors is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions.
Hans Pennink/AP
College & Workforce Readiness How Well Are Schools Preparing Students? Advanced Academics and World Languages, in 4 Charts
New federal data show big gaps in students' access to the challenging coursework and foreign languages they need for college.
2 min read
Conceptual illustration of people and voice bubbles.
Getty