On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998

Sustaining Partnerships: Some New Challenges and Opportunities

By J. Myron Atkin

The world of university-school collaboration seems gradually to be entering a new phase, with both new opportunities and some unfamiliar challenges. A major stimulus for change stems from the rapid and sustained rise of the standards movement in American education. There is broad agreement that the priority for school improvement is to decide on what should be taught and the levels of student competency that should be expected. Consensus is strong enough to enlist the cooperation of major figures in both political parties, as well as leaders of several influential groups of teachers, most prominently the American Federation of Teachers. While there is far from uniform agreement about an appropriate national role in standards development, there seems to be little dissent from the view that it is essential for school improvement to delineate what students should know and be expected to do.

What goes on in schools is often superficial; fundamental content is poorly understood. The pressure to cover a dizzying variety of topics in virtually every subject militates against deep understanding of any of them. Tests often reflect such a curriculum, frequently requiring no more than straightforward memorization and recall. Students are seldom expected to solve a unique problem, justify a line of argument, or express and defend an original idea. In much of high school biology, for example, students sometimes are taught the meaning of more new words in a year than are taught in a comparable period of foreign language instruction—but the new vocabulary is not always put in the service of comprehending major biological principles. Biology texts are not the only ones that are encyclopedic rather than conceptual. Social studies, too. Even mathematics.

What more natural source of assistance than college professors, who are presumed to know their respective disciplines well enough to be able to identify what is important? When universities like Yale and a few others first launched programs that brought teachers into sustained association with university professors, they were mindful of the post-World War II developments in which professors played the role of paring down the curriculum to disciplinary essentials. It seemed a good model, and still seems so. So therein lies an opportunity. Professors can bring their expertise to bear on a task that virtually everyone agrees is important for the schools. What concepts in history, physics, mathematics and all the other subject of the school curriculum are most worth teaching?

But there are two differences between the climate for curriculum reform today and the one epitomized in the productive flurry of academic involvement in secondary and elementary education of the 50s and 60s. First, teachers are claiming prerogatives in the 1990s not only in deciding how to teach, which is expertise they have always enjoyed, but what to teach as well. They are saying that they now must serve a more inclusive group of students than was the case two or three decades ago. Students today have different attitudes toward school and different needs. A smaller percentage of the cohort complete high school, and a somewhat smaller percentage still intend to go to college. Partly as a consequence, here and abroad, curricula are being developed that relate school work to the "real" world. What causes environmental deterioration? How might it be mitigated? How are scientific principles applied to the resolution of community problems? What factors must be considered in addition to understanding the relevant science?

Confounding the matter, a second and related point, the programs being devised are often inter-disciplinary. Since they encompass personal and community action as well as understanding, one cannot easily confine the content to a single discipline. Chemistry is essential to understand a particular fish kill. But so is biology. Furthermore, if the environmental disaster is to be mitigated, there are additional considerations. What would it cost? Whose interests are affected? Who should pay?

The gradual shift toward more practical work in school—and the trend is unmistakable—challenges the almost exclusive reliance on professors from the separate disciplines as identifiers of essential content. Such experts will always be the arbiters of accuracy within their fields; but the range of topics one might teach is virtually limitless, teachers often seek connections to personal and social issues to demonstrate that school work matters (requiring more inter-disciplinary approaches), and it is less clear that professors are the only ones with expertise in coping with real-world dilemmas.

Take chemistry again. A new text in American high schools is titled ChemCom. It stands for Chemistry in the Community, and as the title suggests, it focuses on the chemical aspects of issues that matter to the broad population. The chemistry content, in fact, is introduced on a need-to-know basis, as the students realize the relevance of certain chemical principles in addressing social problems. It is probably not irrelevant that ChemCom was developed under the auspices of the American Chemical Society, an organization whose membership is overwhelmingly from industry and government rather than from academia.

One more example. A group of mathematics teachers at a residential public high school in North Carolina for students specially interested in science and mathematics developed a new pre-calculus course a few years ago. They decided that the course would center on applications, and that no content would be included that could not be applied readily in real settings. One consequence? Conic sections, formerly a mainstay of pre-calculus courses, was dropped.

This state of affairs seems to call for a different sort of collaboration between university-based scholars and classroom teachers, one in which content selection itself, not solely helping teachers comprehend the content, is one of the subjects for serious deliberation. It is happening in some places. In a new German integrated science course now used in almost all German states, scientists from the University of Kiel worked intensively with teams of teachers in developing all aspects of the new course. The new American National Science Education Standards, developed by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, makes heavy use of teacher contributions and includes, prominently, an emphasis on the relationship of science to social issues. Content standards include "science in personal and social perspective," which includes "science and technology in society."

Thus the movement toward development of subject-matter standards in the United States is simultaneously accenting the importance of university involvement in the development of new curricula and also requiring that the responsibility for determining the precise content to be taught be shared with teachers. Some professors may find it difficult to alter the role they have played so effectively in recent decades, but the need for their continuing collaboration is in no way reduced. Fortunately, there are models: at the University of Kiel and at the National Academy of Sciences, for example. The need to collaborate on the full range of curriculum and teaching issues is beginning to be noted as well in many of the ongoing school-university partnerships that have existed for more than a decade. We shall probably see much more of this focus in partnership arrangements in the years immediately ahead. Without such collaborations with universities, the teachers—and their students—will be the poorer.

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© 1998 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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