School and University: Bad Dreams, Good Dreams

By Roland S. Barth

Schools and universities are lively and peculiar places. Where the two cultures intersect is even more lively and even more peculiar. I have spent most of my adult life working in schools, as an elementary teacher and principal, and in universities, as a teacher and administrator. During much of this time, a foot rested in each world. For instance, while principal I worked closely with a university which placed a dozen student teachers with us each year. And when I began the Principals' Center at Harvard I found myself, at once, a resident of both school and university.

A close partnership between school and university is a powerful dream offering exciting possibilities for educators and enriched learning experiences for youngsters Across the fence lie invigoration, new ideas, different ways of thinking about learning, knowledge, and teaching... and the unknown. But, despite notable exceptions, this is a dream as yet unfulfilled.

Many impediments transform the dream into a nightmare. Few school teachers and administrators in their careers have escaped being disappointed, demeaned, infantalized, or embarrassed by universities. Expectations have been held out and violated at the pre­ service and in­service levels and in courses, workshops, consultations, and evaluations. And I know of few university faculty members who have worked closely with schools who haven't been badly scratched up by the briar patch of the schoolhouse. Schools are unforgiving places for academics, places that reject foreign bodies as a human body rejects organ transplants. The respect, capacity for reflection, success, and recognition that professors may enjoy within the ivory tower seldom accompany them into the schools.

Thus, both school and university people bring to new partnerships antibodies each has built up toward off the other. It seems to many in the university that school people want to improve things without changing them very much; from the point of view of school people, university folks offer to change things but without improving them very much. These are hardly promising conditions for close cooperation.

There is common agreement these days that most of what educators do in K­12 schools is desperately in need of "restructuring." I would say the same about universities. The problem of all educational institutions isn't that they are no longer what they once were. The problem is that they are precisely what they once were, while the world around them is changing in revolutionary ways. It should come as no surprise then that the relationship between school and university is equally in need of reform, renewal, rethinking...and restructuring.

A major barrier between school and university is that neither rewards very much those crossing the border between them. Few professors work in public schools and few school people work in higher education. If one is not rewarded by the host culture for entering its boundaries, neither is one rewarded by one's own culture. Academics are not promoted for talking to PTA's, for consulting with classroom teachers, or for themselves teaching in the schools. First­class citizenship comes from reading, writing, scholarly research, and distinguished teaching. And not enough teachers and school administrators are rewarded by their systems with release time, pay increments, tenure, or public recognition for entering universities where they might read, write, reflect, and work. First­ class citizenship in schools comes not from evidence of adult learning, but from promoting learning on the part of students and fostering satisfaction on the part of parents and supervisors. This is pretty much the way things have been. But things are changing.

Many noteworthy practices "out there" offer, I think, promising directions for strengthening the relationship between school and university and for moving towards the elusive dream of partnership.


Traditionally, research has been the province of academia. To be sure, the stereotype of the remote academic, posing the questions, generating the ideas, diagnosing the problem, formulating a research design, conducting the research, and then offering prescriptions to schools to which teachers and principals respond­or don't­still holds some credence. One school administrator, for instance, recently observed that "Researchers start from a different place and serve a different public than do practitioners. The ideas and questions that inform their work are often irrelevant if not downright bewildering­ to those who work in schools or send their children there." (Ann Cook, as quoted in Education Week, September 28, 1994.)

Happily, we are observing promising changes. More and more university researchers are coming into schools and classrooms as ethnographers to see what's going on there. Some even create a dual citizenship whereby they live in and are compensated by the university part­time, while they live in and are compensated by the school system the other part. Conversely, some school people are taking part­time responsibility in the university (developing curriculum or engaging in teacher training, for instance) while remaining in the schools the other part. There is probably no more powerful symbol and more promising way of integrating the two cultures than dual citizenship.

Additionally more and more school people are actively collaborating as "co­researchers" with academics. These partnerships can bring the best of each culture to an examination of important questions of teaching and learning. The firsthand experience and craft knowledge of school people work alongside the research methodology and academic rigor of the academic.

And more school people, especially teachers, are conducting their own form of research...posing questions, carrying out investigations, reflecting on new learnings, and changing their practice accordingly. These "practitioner­researchers" enjoy, need, and increasingly find support, encouragement, technical assistance, and recognition from the university. And recognition is the commodity in least supply to school people these days.

The issue, then, is not whether school people know or can find out much of value to themselves and to others, but rather under what conditions they will reveal their rich craft knowledge so that it may become part of the discussion to improve schools. The voices of school people who have long occupied the place of what the academic calls the "dependent variable" are now coming to be heard as "independent variables"­and better still, as "interdependent variables."

Running Things

A major obstacle to the close association between universities and schools has to do with the locus of theory and the locus of practice. The common rhetoric says, "Theory resides in universities and practice resides in schools." I find this conception both disturbing and inaccurate.

I know of no school teacher or principal who does not work from some organizing principles or, in university language, from a theory. Theories about teaching, parent involvement, curriculum development, and motivation abound in schools. Some of these school­based theories are good, some fragmentary, and a few elegant. Be that as it may, school "practitioners" are theory­makers as well as theory­consumers.

Conversely, most of my former Harvard colleagues are practitioners who run and do things as well as think and write things. Academics run schools of education, departments, committees, and research projects. Most also practice as classroom teachers. A professor is no less a practitioner than a teacher. Some university people are good practitioners, some bad, some modest, many immodest, and a few elegant. School people and academics must jettison this typecasting around theory and practice if they are to work helpfully together.

A major forum for fruitful school and university cooperation then is "the running of things." Here, too, we are witnessing hopeful realignments and possibilities.

Universities have long run certification programs for aspiring teachers and principals. It is not uncommon these days for teachers to be involved in, and even responsible for, training and inducting their colleagues into the craft. Principals in some states have become authorized to run seminars, institutes, and internships which prepare and certify their new colleagues.

And universities, which, with the exception of some laboratory schools, have seldom gotten their hands into administering schools, have joined the fray. Boston University's takeover of the Chelsea, Massachusetts Public Schools is a notable example. And the movement towards "charter schools" is involving more and more higher educators in actually designing and operating schools. In most of these efforts each culture enlists the assistance of the other. Committees with responsibility for program, budget, and personnel include not only school and university people, but parents and community members.

In short, school practitioners and university practitioners are beginning to cross the boundaries which separate them. They are being rewarded for doing so, finding satisfaction in it, and making valuable contributions to the other culture.

A New Dream

Although these evolutionary changes can be seen as "restructuring," they hardly constitute what we call these days "a paradigm shift." They are, in my view, rather the application of fresh, strong patches onto defective, leaky tires. I wonder, just what would constitute a paradigm shift in our thinking about the integration of higher and lower education? Let me conclude with a vision: What if "schools and universities" were not two places, occasionally intersecting, but rather one place where all the time, teaching, learning, and research were occurring? What if human beings from pre­school to post­ graduate occupied the same geographic location and constituted an inter­generational community of inquiry? What if we refused to accept the given that there must be two distinct cultures and, instead, created, anew, one culture, a "community of learners?" What if every citizen of this "school" were committed to the same goals: to be a life­long learner; to discover new knowledge; to help design and construct the learning organization; to share in the decision making; and to live and work as colleagues? What if?

How much more likely it would be that young people would become life­long learners if they could each day observe, experience, and work with adults who were lifelong learners. How much more would teachers and youngsters learn if they were part of a culture replete with role models of reflective practitioner, scholar, and researcher? And how much more would the older scholars learn from the persistent presence of the younger scholars? And how much more relevant would the scholarship be? Research would be everyone's work. The ten­year­old researching the inhabitants of pond water and the doctoral student researching the inhabitants of pond water could become colleagues in researching pond water. "Teachers" and "students" would never again be seen in the same way. Nor would the pond water.

Strangely, collegiality is seldom mentioned in the school reform literature of the past decade. It is recognized neither as part of the problem nor as part of the solution. Relationships in schools­all schools­take several forms. One of them is described by the wonderful term from nursery­school teachers' parlance, "parallel play." Two three­year­olds are busily engaged in opposite corners of a sandbox. One has a shovel and bucket; one has a rake and hoe. At no time do they share each other's tools. Although in proximity and having much to offer one another, each works and plays pretty much in isolation. This description serves remarkably well as a characterization of human relationships in school and university alike.

My experience in schools and universities suggests that the nature of relationships between adults and adults, between youngsters and youngsters, and between adults and youngsters has much more to do with a school's quality and character, and with the accomplishments of student and teacher alike, than does anything else. Why accept primitive relationships? Why not deliberately reconstruct these relationships and transform them from parallel play to collegiality?

What would happen if, in addition to becoming a community of learners, the new "school" were to become a community of "leaders?" In a law firm partners are vitally involved in running the larger organization as well as their particular practices. In schools and universities, administrators tend to look after the larger organization and the teachers and faculty look after their individual classrooms or research. I believe it far better for everyone to look after the whole organization...for the sake of the organization and for the sake of everyone.

How much more a learning environment could teach the values and spirit of a democratic system, to which we profess to be committed, if it resembled more a New England Town Meeting than a benevolent South American dictatorship. And how much richer the experience of all the inhabitants of the learning community would be if each were expected to, allowed to, and helped to make decisions leading to the ongoing development of a community of learners and leaders. Leadership is making happen what you believe in. A school can accomplish no higher goal than to empower everyone­students, teachers, administrators, parents­with the confidence and ability to make happen what they believe in.

A dream? Perhaps. But also a vision toward which we might move as we consider the future of the school­university relationship. And a dream which might help select, integrate, and reinforce the best of the school culture with the best of the research university, while purging the current pathologies of each. There is much common ground­and much high ground­here. What if?

Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

© 2014 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
Terms of Use Contact YNHTI