WT: Was that the motivation in the beginning, to improve things for poor kids?
KH: We actually started as a unit within the American Association for Higher
Education called the Office of School / College Collaboration. That office was created
in the late 1980s, after the "Nation at Risk" call to action to serve as
a kind of cheerleader, exhorting higher education to collaborate with schools. In
those days the attitude was that any old collaboration would do, thank you very much.
In the early '90s we took a look at what had come out of that, at the many hundreds
or thousands of programs, and asked the question, Does this really add up to anything?
Does it have the effect of improving student achievement or changing teachers' practice?
And the answer was, probably not.
Two things happened that led us to try to change that. One was a growing understanding
from our work with K-12 on standards-based reform, that unless there were some real
changes in higher education, the effort in K-12 was going to fail. Then the Pew Charitable
Trusts provided an opportunity to work with half a dozen communities in trying to
see what it might look like if higher education and schools worked together more
WT: K÷16 collaboration suddenly seems to be a hot topic. It was one
of those things that people talked about at conferences for years and nothing happened,
and then suddenly things began to happen. What caused the change?
KH: Yes, if my schedule and the demands on my staff are any sign, there's
no question that interest has grown exponentially in the last year or two. Thirty-five
to 40 communities are in one stage or another of building a K-16 strategy, and 13
or 14 states are working on statewide plans. There's a lot more visibility and a
lot more seriousness about this now.
There are several reasons for that, some of them on the K-12 side and some on
the higher education side. On the K-12 side, we're really now beyond the early part
of standards-based reform. Most states or communities have adopted higher standards
for kids, they've begun to put into place new assessments, and the results are uniformly
dismal. As states and school districts look at what they need to do to get larger
numbers of kids up to these standards, they're beginning to realize that their teacher
force is not up to it. That causes them to ask why, and the answers lead inevitably
to higher education.
The second problem that they're beginning to see is that, while elementary kids,
and to a certain extent middle grade kids, will try as hard as they can on any test
put before them, that's not true with high school students. The test needs to count
for something in order for them to struggle to do well on it. And at the moment,
these new tests they're putting in place are not used by either higher education
What matters most to kids and parents? Higher education. So, as they think about
how to get students to take this stuff more seriously, they are once again led inevitably
to higher education. So that's why I think there's greater interest on the K-12 side.
On the higher education side, the pressures are different, but in the end they
fit together. Lots of states -- 28 at last count -- are reviewing remediation policies
now. There is a lot of pressure at the state level for higher education institutions
to reduce the numbers of students who require remediation. When you think about how
to do that, you can either define the standard lower, which is generally unacceptable,
or you can try to improve K-12.
And that's precisely what is happening. There is also the pressure that's coming
from the loss of affirmative action in admissions. If you want a decent number of
minority students in higher education, you are once again led to improving the K-12
The relentless political pressure to achieve certain goals is beginning to lead
educators -- not to mention governors and legislators -- to understand how intertwined
K-12 and higher education really are.
WT: What are the most important factors in making K-16 partnerships work?
KH: Perhaps the most important thing is strong leadership. At least one
of the CEOs -- either the president of the university or the chancellor of the system
or the K-12 superintendent -- has to be strongly committed to make this work. One
of the reasons the El Paso Collaborative is successful is that Diana Natalicio (president
of the University of Texas, El Paso) has been driving this forward.
Secondly, you can't do this with part-time staff who are in and out of the project.
Some places have tried to do it that way and it just didn't work. You need to have
full-time staff, people who can think about systems change, who are working at this
all the time.
You have to have strong voices from the community -- people who will support you
when you run into trouble. For these partnerships to make real change, you have to
move faster than is comfortable. This annoys a lot of people and makes a lot of others
nervous. Somebody besides an educator has to be there to tell them that all this
change is okay.
Finally, you can move faster if there are good statewide standards and a tough
accountability system that demands results. One of the reasons the El Paso Collaborative
has been successful is that they have had the Texas statewide assessment to help
them know how they are doing, and pressure from the accountability system to improve
performance for all groups of students.
WT: Improvements in teacher education seem to be crucial to the success of
these K-16 collaborations.
KH: Absolutely. In Nevada, for instance, the legislature recently said
to the University of Nevada, "Are you sure you're producing teachers who can
teach to these new standards we have approved?" When the faculty began to look
seriously at this question, they found, as did their peers in Georgia, that it's
virtually impossible for teachers to learn what they need to know to teach these
new standards without significant change in teacher education. So now Nevada is working
to make the necessary changes.
We've had two decades of exhorting institutions to improve teacher education and
not very much has come of it. But if you start with the question, What do college
and university students need to know to teach to these standards? and you get faculty
into the mix -- not just education faculty, but arts and science faculty as well
-- it's tremendously exciting what can be done about improving teacher education.
WT: Do K-16 partnerships work better in some settings than in others?
KH: The easiest places are those where you have a tight and obvious feedback
loop. El Paso is a good example, where the university gets 90 percent of its students
from a few school districts, and where the school districts draw the bulk of their
teachers from that institution. In communities like that, the interrelationships
are much clearer. The self interest of both systems in coming together is much more
obvious and you can actually get a joint effort underway quite quickly.
Where the feedback loop is less tight -- where there are either multiple higher
education institutions or multiple school districts, where higher education institutions
draw their students from a state or a region instead of from one distinct community
-- it's much tougher to get them to understand these connections. Los Angeles is
trying clusters of schools around a college campus. There's a cluster around Cal
State Dominguez Hills, another at Cal State Northridge, and UCLA is working with
a cluster of schools. But we really don't know if this model will work in that kind
of complex environment. We'll just have to find out.
WT: Is another factor in El Paso's success the fact that Texas is a "right
to work" state, that teachers unions there are relatively weak and that school
districts in the Collaborative are able to transfer or even dismiss teachers and
administrators who won't go along with the program?
KH: There's no question that education reform, almost any education reform,
is easier to bring about in situations where there are fewer protections for adults.
So far, most of the progress in our efforts has been made in places that are not
heavily unionized. I hope that doesn't continue to be so. There certainly are some
examples of successful reforms in places where unions are strong, for example the
exciting progress that Tony Alvarado was able to make in New York City's District
WT: Some argue that you have to get the child before age three to make any
difference in learning ability, so the standards-based reforms you advocate come
KH: It's just maddening to have to listen to stuff like that. It's simply
wrong. Not that the first years aren't important, but clearly you can make great
progress after that. If not, perhaps we should simply fund a national system of preschools
and let it go at that.
WT: Will people in higher education ever change their attitudes and participate
fully in K-16 partnerships?
KH: It's much easier to get higher education people to tackle problems
in K-12 than to look at problems in higher education -- teacher education, for instance,
but the K-12 part is hard, too. Some faculty members think public school education
is not their problem, or it's beneath them to study possible solutions, or they are
too involved in their own research to pay attention. Fortunately there is a group
that is beginning to understand the importance of improving the entire educational
system, not just a little piece here and there. I think that group will grow, especially
as the public begins to pay more attention.
Higher education has sort of floated above these problems for a long time. They've
been on a kind of ice skating party where they just zoomed by and paid no attention
to the public schools. But I think that's about to end, because I don't think the
public will stand for that any longer.
I think the public will insist on higher education playing a much larger role
in creating a K-12 curriculum that incorporates higher standards and in training
people who can teach to those standards.