It's a deceptively easy business to pull policymakers together to think about how to encourage greater collaboration between public schools and public and private institutions of higher education. But as Gene Budig, chairman of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and former chancellor of the University of Kansas, noted, that goal has to overcome "generations of suspicion between schools and colleges." That's why the conference was launched by a panel that sketched out the broad parameters of the challenge. Moderated by Michael D. Usdan of the Institute for Educational Leadership, the panel was composed of Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania, Kati Haycock from the Education Trust, Michael Kirst of Stanford University, Wendy Puriefoy of the Public Education Network, and Arturo Pacheco of the University of Texas at El Paso.
Why is this issue on the radar screen? What's the rush? And what stands in its way? It's easy to pay lip service to the need for greater collaboration and a more seamless system. So why is creating such collaboration so difficult? An introduction by Usdan raised these kinds of questions and defined the panel's task.
The United States is at a unique moment in its educational history. Having completed much of the hard work of defining standards, aligning curriculum, and putting assessment systems in place at the K-12 level, states find that the "human aspect" of reform needs attention, said Haycock. Teachers need to be better prepared. It turns out that although everyone thinks of these two systems as separate, they are interdependent. It is impossible to create major changes on one side of the gap (the K-12 system) without significant changes on the other (higher education).
More than 70% of high school graduates now go on to postsecondary education immediately, according to Kirst. But high school students are often poorly motivated and many require remediation once on campus. Higher education must pay more attention to these developments, moving beyond, as Pacheco put it, the traditional professorial attitude that says, "I didn't become a professor in order to prepare school teachers."
Americans consider education to be a seamless system already, reported Puriefoy. The perception may be faulty, but the public's expectation is on target. In the face of today's reality that individual economic well-being depends, to a great extent, on how well one is educated, the public is not likely to tolerate two separate and poorly articulated systems. The panel and the audience were also strongly in agreement with Harkavy's eloquent assertion that American democracy is increasingly thought to be in trouble, in part because schools and higher education have lost sight of education's responsibility to advance the public good. What he referred to as "astounding and morally troubling savage inequalities" in educational opportunity should not be "tolerated or maintained in a democratic society."
But if the need is clear and urgent, the obstacles are many. On the policy level, decades of disconnection have led to the expectation that the two systems should stand apart. The two systems have different governance systems and different structures, and they report to different legislative committees. Within each of the sectors, collaboration with the other is not high on anyone's agenda.
Although they said it in different ways, each of the panelists agreed that the biggest obstacle, by far, is higher education's reluctance to engage in the discussion. Most academics believe that higher education does not need fixing, the panelists reported. To add to the challenge, even if the head is willing, the body often fails to cooperate. Presidents and chancellors call in vain for cooperation if deans and faculty ignore them.
To complicate matters further, cultures differ radically within individual campuses: the faculty of a school of education or social science, for instance, often feels it has little in common with the faculty of a college of engineering or a physics department. By using SAT and ACT examinations as crucial components of admissions criteria, universities have been able to insulate themselves from the standards movement in K-12. In fact, they have side-stepped the standards issue,
according to the panel, because they consider it to be highly political and accompanied by draconian accountability schemes to be avoided at all costs.
Responses that seek to revise state structures that govern K-12 and higher education are appealing, but they're not always the answer, warned the panelists. Pennsylvania and Virginia--each with a secretary of education that oversees both the K-12 and higher education communities--are not noticeably ahead of other states on this issue. But some structure is required, the panel agreed, suggesting that individual states need to work out their own arrangements. No single rule of thumb defines how every state should proceed.
What states need to do is be clear about standards and accountability and then make sure that advisory and oversight K-16 councils, and the like, are not dominated by educators. Outsiders add a badly needed dose of reality to the remarkable world of educational jargon. In that regard, suggested Pacheco, a coherent plan of collaboration helps develop a sense of history and a shared agenda. This agenda, he said, should be used to "socialize" new school superintendents and deans and presidents, helping preempt the tendency of new leaders to make a mark by tossing out everything that's old.
Above all, the reward system in higher education must change. There are now few incentives to encourage collaboration. They need to be created for every discipline.
The Time is Coming
In the end, the most positive sign is that so many states are already moving forward. Nearly half of all states are thinking about improving connections between the two systems. More than a dozen already have K-16 or P-16 councils of one kind or another. Of the 17 states that are members of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), for example, 12 are moving ahead. Some states are following Maryland's lead, with a voluntary statewide council. Other states think Georgia has it right with gubernatorial and legislative support for a mandated council. A handful of states, with Oregon the most notable, are in the midst of ambitious efforts to require public institutions to accept end-of-course high school examinations in place of standardized assessment tests. All of these efforts are significant.
Perhaps the most positive sign of all was identified by Gene Budig. "There's a new spirit of renewal, reform and restructuring in the air," he noted. "The nature of the problem is that both sides are busy protecting their own turf. But change is coming. We've done a lot to improve elementary and secondary education. The time is coming when public colleges and universities must be brought into this. In the end, our society cannot afford to have two unrelated systems of public education--one in elementary and secondary education and the other in higher education."