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National CrossTalk
Spring 1999 National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

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An Interview: Kati Haycock

  Kati Haycock
As president of the Washington-based Education Trust, Kati Haycock has been a leader in the movement to increase collaboration between higher education and the public schools. This interview was conducted by William Trombley, senior editor of National CrossTalk.

William Trombley: What is the Education Trust?

Kati Haycock: The Education Trust is a non-profit organization whose mission is to work toward improving achievement in kindergarten through college, with special attention to eliminating the gaps that separate minority and poor children from other children at every level.

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 systematically.

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 or employers.

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 schools.

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 2.

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 too late.

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.

Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star for CrossTalk

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