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An Essential Partnership
The need for cooperation between K-12 and higher education systems

By Kati Haycock

Kati Haycock  
As pressure mounts to demonstrate significant across-the-board gains in student achievement, leaders in elementary and secondary education are growing increasingly nervous. They are especially worried by recent polling data suggesting that, absent clear evidence of better results, a majority of the public soon will support the diversion of public dollars to private education.

But one thing makes K-12 leaders even more nervous than the pressure of delivering significant improvements quickly: the growing understanding that their success might very well be dependent not merely on what they do, but also on whether higher education will step up to its responsibilities.

Now, I realize that the last thing folks in higher education want to be told is that the very future of public K -12 education may depend on their willingness to act - and fast. Yet I'm afraid that this conclusion is inescapable when one analyzes the reform effort to date and the principal barriers that impede progress.

K - 12 Standards-based Reform
Since the late 1980s, leaders in elementary and secondary education have adopted an approach to educational improvement known as standards-based reform. The core idea is simple: Education policymakers should agree on clear goals or "standards" for what students should know and be able to do at key grade levels, and those standards should drive virtually everything within the education system.

In the old system, of course, detailed prescriptions of educational inputs have dictated what educators should do. To guide the transition to a new, performance-based system, reform leaders had to concentrate, first, on building the framework for such a system. So they appointed committees of educators and citizen representatives to fashion detailed standards statements.

They invested substantial dollars in building assessments that would yield information on how students performed in relation to those standards. And they designed new accountability systems to hold schools accountable for progress in getting ever greater numbers of their students to the standards.

But as these new systems have begun to be put into place, reformers have run into two serious obstacles that many did not anticipate. First is the fact that many teachers are not well enough educated to help their students meet the new standards. Second is a problem of incentives at the secondary level: It turns out that, no matter how many incentives you have for teachers to get students to higher levels of achievement, success will be limited unless there also are incentives for students to work harder. These two needs are driving K-12 leaders to higher education's door.

Teacher Quality
Those who are assisting teachers to implement the new standards in their classrooms report that many teachers lack the content knowledge and the writing and oral communication skills necessary to teach children to the new standards. Indeed, in our own work with urban teachers, it is not unusual for teachers to turn to our staff and ask, often with tears in their eyes, "How am I supposed to get students to standards that even I don't meet?"

Clearly, there are some things that can be done, quickly, to help current teachers to deepen their knowledge and improve their skills. And many colleges are providing some of the necessary assistance (although usually on too small a scale). At the same time, though, higher education is magnifying the problem by continuing to produce a stream of teachers with exactly the same limitations: inadequate content knowledge and language skills.

For most of the last several decades, we've been content to ignore this situation. Indeed, fueled by anxiety about teacher supply, many states have set passing scores on teacher licensure exams at appallingly low levels. Other states haven't bothered testing new teachers at all.

Recent research shows how damaging this strategy has been. As is evident in the example from Boston in the chart below, it turns out that teachers make a much bigger difference than we thought. Students pay a very serious price for undereducated teachers. But those who pay the biggest price are the African American, Latino and low-income children who receive most of their instruction from poorly prepared teachers.

Recent large-scale research makes it very clear that, if we simply assured that these youngsters had their fair share of well educated teachers, the achievement gap would be cut in half.

Obviously, there are a number of things that K-12 has to do differently if we are going to solve either the general quality problem or the inequitable distribution of teacher talent. But we cannot solve the core problem without serious attention by higher education. And that means not just schools of education, but the arts and science departments that do the content preparation. They, too, must be accountable for the quality of teacher preparation.

Some institutions of higher education are stepping up to this challenge. Among the more notable efforts are those at the University of Texas at El Paso, where both education and arts and science faculty have been working for several years to assure that the teachers they produce are prepared to teach to the El Paso standards.

More recently, the University System of Georgia has embarked on a serious transformation of the way it prepares teachers, also with active involvement of education, arts and science faculty.

Though the number of colleges heading down this same path is still small, state policymakers will soon have an opportunity to increase it. The new Higher Education Act requires that states develop accountability systems to hold colleges and universities responsible for the quality of the teachers they produce.


Incentives for Students
While young children are likely to respond eagerly to their teachers' efforts to get them to higher levels of achievement, the situation is not nearly as easy in the high schools. Here, as at the collegiate level, the question for students often is, "Does this count?"

To make the higher learning embodied in the new standards count, teachers need to include standards-based assignments in their grade averages, and school districts need to include assessment results among requirements for graduation. But to make this shift (the shift from today's subjective, widely varying individual teacher-generated standards to evaluation against state-adopted standards), these new standards have to count for somebody else: higher education. Because what matters to students and their parents is whether these new requirements count for purposes of admission and placement in college.

There are many important reasons why higher education should embrace - as well as work hard to influence - the movement toward standards. None is more compelling than the problem of remediation highlighted so well in the summer issue of National CrossTalk.

As the number of college students requiring remediation grows, the debate about who should offer it - and who should pay - is likely to intensify. And make no mistake about it: Unless higher education and K-12 work on a solution together, the numbers will continue to grow.

Today's young people have an incredible appetite for higher education. Over the past two decades, the fraction of high school graduates entering postsecondary education has grown dramatically. Indeed, in the most recent years for which data are available, more than 72 percent of high school graduates went directly into higher education. And survey data suggest that that rate will increase in the next few years.

The basic problem, of course, is that while 72 percent of high school graduates may enter higher education, nowhere near 72 percent are prepared for higher education. Indeed, a large number of these college entrants have only the most rudimentary skills - a fact hardly surprising when you look at the data: Nearly half of the students who test in the bottom quartile of high school graduates will enter college within two years of graduation from high school.

The reform effort in K-12 offers a real opportunity to change this pattern - with clearer signals about what is important for students to learn, and concrete incentives for them to learn it. But the opportunity will be squandered if higher education doesn't involve itself in the standard-setting and assessment development process in a much different way than it has to date.

In place of the individual faculty members who sit on K-12 standards-writing committees as "experts" in their disciplines, faculty participants must represent larger higher education interests - and their positions must be framed by institution-wide expectations of the knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in college without remediation.

In Maryland, the K-12 system and the two- and four-year colleges have collaborated almost from the beginning of the high school assessment development process. Content area faculty who sit on the various Maryland standards committees do so only after having clarified the University of Maryland System's expectations for entering freshmen.

Knowing that the final standards they develop - and the assessment built around them - will inform graduation, admission and placement, they have been able to participate in the K-12 process in a wholly different manner than faculty who have participated on standards committees in other states.

This process should lead to fewer mixed signals and a much higher quality assessment because it truly will be owned by both K-12 and higher education. It should also have two other important benefits: 1) It will save money, because students will not have to be reassessed only a few months after leaving high school; and 2) it will provide real, concrete incentives for students to work hard to meet the new standards.

Next Steps
Neither of the steps advocated here is easy. But both are terribly important - to the effort to improve learning among all American students, but especially to the effort to close the achievement gap once and for all.

There also is concrete help available to those who want to walk this path. The individual campuses that are working to solve these problems in consort with a local school district or two have organized themselves into a network that meets several times a year to share information on progress and to think through next steps.

So, too, have the state university system and state K-12 system leaders who are working on these issues at the statewide level. Information on both policy options and action strategies is available from the National Association of System Heads and the Education Trust.

Kati Haycock is president of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to promote high academic achievement for students at all levels from kindergarten through college.

Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk

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