Why is K-16 Collaboration Essential to Educational Equity?
By Kati Haycock
The Education Trust
At every level of American education--elementary, secondary and postsecondary--minority and low-income youngsters are performing below their more advantaged counterparts. These students enter school somewhat behind other students and the gaps that separate them grow as they progress through the grades. By the end of high school, African-American, Latino and poor white youngsters have skills about the same as those of other youngsters at the end of middle school. Not surprisingly, fewer of these students enter college, more require expensive and time-consuming remediation, and disproportionately few graduate from college. Indeed, college completion rates among African-American and Latino young people are less than half of those among white young people, and young people of all races from high-income homes are nearly seven times as likely to graduate from college as young people from low-income homes.1
Regardless of one's vantage point--from higher education looking downward, from K-12 education looking upward, or from policymakers looking at both--it is almost immediately obvious that the problems in one sector cannot be solved without the cooperation of the other sector. Colleges and universities may want to increase the number of minorities entering the freshman year or to decrease the number of such students requiring remediation, for example, but meeting that goal is largely beyond their control. If the K-12 system doesn't produce more well-prepared minority graduates, the most that higher education can do is re-label the problem or move it around (push remedial courses from four-year to two-year colleges, for example). Likewise, the success of K-12's efforts to improve achievement and close gaps between groups is hugely dependent upon the quality and quantity of teachers produced by higher education.
Who Would Benefit from Greater Cross-Level Collaboration?
The absence of coordinated planning and action across K-12 and higher education has serious negative consequences for adults inside and outside of the education system. Rather than preparing their students to meet a single set of standards, for example, teachers now have to try to decipher the many and conflicting sets of standards put forth by state education agencies, postsecondary institutions, and business. Administrators--especially high school principals--also suffer in this world of myriad, unconnected standards, particularly when their schools' gains on state assessments are called into question because of apparent increases in their graduates' need for remediation. Moreover, both colleges and employers often have to scramble for enough well-qualified applicants, especially applicants from minority groups.
But no one suffers more than students themselves, especially those who are minorities or from low-income families, for they are the ones who have to bear the lifetime burden of trying to support their families with a set of skills more appropriate to the industrial age than to the information age.
But What Will It Take to Bring About Such Collaboration?
A quick look around the country makes it clear that there is no shortage of cooperative programming between higher education and K-12, especially in the area of minority achievement or college enrollment. Indeed, there probably isn't a college or a school district in the country that can't list not just one but many partnerships with a neighboring institution. Indeed, schools with concentrations of minority students may be home to as many as 50 or more such programs.
While cooperative university-school programs often feel wonderfully good for the participants, however, research seldom shows much long-term impact. For minority students, in particular, these after-school, weekend, or summer extras are seldom enough to compensate for the effects of watered down instruction the rest of the school day and year. Surely they would profit more if higher education devoted its energy not to outreach programs but to producing quality teachers in sufficient numbers to teach these youngsters well day in and day out.
So the question becomes how to encourage not just any old cooperative program, but rather, how to encourage the kinds of cooperative work that result in across-the-board improvements in teaching and learning.
There are two basic ways to come at this. The first, and probably the most popular, is to put dollars on the table for joint K-16 work. Those dollars can be made conditional on the creation of a K-16 governance structure and/or on the willingness to undertake particular actions (for example, aligning high school exit and college entrance examinations). This approach has the advantage of getting lots of activity underway quickly. But it has several disadvantages as well, not the least of which is that these activities tend to remain at the fringes of institutional life and institutional priorities. And when the dollars dry up . . . the activity goes away.
The alternative is to approach this issue through the lens of accountability. The core idea is simple: policymakers should design their accountability systems for both K-12 and higher education to include outcomes that each system cannot possibly deliver alone. K-12, for example, might be held accountable not only for improving student achievement and closing gaps between groups, but also for assuring that all of its secondary teachers have deep and substantial knowledge in the subject areas they are teaching. Similarly, higher education can be held accountable for decreasing the number of minority freshmen requiring remediation. This approach has the advantage of getting the close attention of institutional leaders and forcing collaborative activity closer to the top of institutional priorities, because no leader wants to fail to improve the core measures on which he or she is being held publicly accountable. But this way has a disadvantage as well, for new dollars can really speed the implementation of a K-16 effort.
In the end, then, an approach that combines changes in accountability systems with some new resources to get work underway probably has the most power both in garnering the attention of institutional leaders and in setting changes into motion.
All of this, though, begs the question of what needs to happen to get policymakers to move on these needs in the first place. Our experience suggests that the answer is education (that's education with a small "e"). Just like the populace more generally, both policymakers and educators tend to view higher education and K-12 as wholly separate systems. Indeed, policymakers tend even to handle the affairs of K-12 and postsecondary education in different committees; lawmakers specialize in one or the other, rarely in both. Educators, too, walk across system lines only rarely. And these days they are so pummeled for progress on one matter or another that they often don't have time to recognize how an objective might be advanced with a little cooperation from the other sector.
I'm always struck, for example, by the extent to which leaders in higher education view the use of race in admissions as an issue that plays out entirely within their own bailiwick. Their conversations on the subject are laced with talk about the need to use some kind of compensatory weighting to ameliorate the effects of "past" discrimination--as if the achievement gap that they are trying to overcome were primarily a product of some bygone day, rather than largely a product of current inequities (such as the allocation of quality teachers or quality curricula) that are, at least in part, of higher education's own making!
In matters like these it helps to provide both the space and the support to enable leaders both inside and outside of education to think through the connections and plan a more thoughtful, coordinated K-16 approach.
What Forms Might Leadership Take?
While there are almost endless variations on the possible steps that education and policy leaders might take, here are at least a few of the recurring themes:
Dollars and Other Spurs
- creating cross-system structures--at either the local or state level--to bring together leaders from K-12, higher education, business, and the broader community around a coordinated K-16 approach to improving overall achievement and closing gaps between groups (examples at the state level include non-statutory bodies like the Maryland K-16 partnership for teaching and learning, and statutory bodies like Florida's new joint governing council);
- developing cross-sector data systems to track students across systems and serve as a basis for evaluation of interventions;
- reducing unnecessary walls between systems that block student (or teacher) movement, including, for example, financing dual enrollment programs that allow advanced high school students to progress into college-level studies, freeing up precious high school resources--especially teachers--to concentrate on building the core skills of underachieving students;
- convening cross-sector teams of faculty and/or others to take on key tasks like the alignment of K-12 and higher education standards and curricula, or the development of standards for what teachers should know and be able to do;
- reinforcing changes underway in the other system: "We value the new standards and assessments in K-12, so we'll use them to inform our admissions or placement process." Or, "We like the beefed up requirements for teachers at university X . . . so we're not going to hire any new teachers that don't meet those new requirements"; and
- aggressively using the bully pulpit to teach the public about the vast economic changes that make improved education outcomes essential for individuals, groups, and society more broadly.
Dollars certainly help to get things rolling. The trick, however, is to avoid the long-term, programmatic funding that keeps these activities on the peripheries of the institutions. One way of doing this might be to use the "push" of a reconstructed accountability system together with the "pull" of recaptured funding for institutional or departmental priorities. At the moment, for example, there are no strong incentives for either whole campuses or mathematics departments to reduce the number of entering students requiring remediation in mathematics. Even if such a change would theoretically "save" many millions of dollars, there are no obvious ways for either to recoup those dollars for the purposes they hold dear. Indeed, if mathematics departments all of a sudden taught only the mathematics not also taught in high schools, a full 80% of the credit hours (and almost that same fraction of the budgets and full-time-equivalent students) of the math department would disappear overnight. So, why should the math faculty bend over backwards to work with local teachers or redesign the placement test to comport with K-12 curricula, when they are the losers if their efforts succeed? What if, instead, they could recoup at least some of the saved funding for other purposes?
There are other ways to generate motivation through accountability systems. Let's pick on mathematics and science again. At the moment, colleges and universities in the United States fill their math and science graduate programs with students who are foreign nationals. Indeed, in the most recent year for which data are available on Mathematics degrees, more than one-quarter of the master's degrees and nearly half of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States were awarded to citizens of foreign nations. While there are surely some benefits that flow from this practice, one of the costs is that the faculty in these departments need feel no particular sense of urgency about improving the preparation of the young people in nearby schools to head down this same path. This is why firms in Silicon Valley have to press Congress to expand the number of H1B visas so they can import more technical workers, while Latino and African-American youth in the nearby San Jose Unified School District (among others) end up cleaning their offices. Once again, a reconfigured accountability system--with some financial incentives for results--might stand a better chance of turning this situation around.
Raising Public Consciousness
The public actually understands more of this than the policymakers suspect. In poll after poll, upwards of 90% of all parents--including minority and low-income parents--are unequivocal about their hopes that their children will attend college. And their children are voting with their feet: nearly 80% of all high school graduates--including even 50% of the lowest quartile graduates--are going on to postsecondary education. Indeed, parents and students are far more knowledgeable about the escalation of workplace educational requirements than are most educators.
Where the public needs a little help, though, is in:
Misunderstandings in the latter area--especially the widespread view that student success is largely dependent on student rather than institutional effort--are getting in the way of the kinds of accountability systems for higher education that might actually jar higher education out of its slumber and promote truly effective cross-system activity.
- understanding that going to college and being prepared for college are two different things; and
- understanding that student success in college is at least in part a function of what the college does.
KATI HAYCOCK is director of the Education Trust in Washington, D.C. The Trust works with
policymakers and local educators on strategies to improve student achievement, kindergarten through
college. Before coming to the Trust, she served as executive vice president of the Children's Defense Fund.
1 Education Trust, "Youth at the Crossroads," prepared for the National Commission on the
High School Senior Year, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 2001. Available at