On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998


On the Path to Democracy: The Role of Partnership in American Education

By Manuel N. Gómez

Educational collaborations have emerged from the broad spectrum of reform initiatives as a means to improving educational attainment, both for our highest and lowest achieving students. Bringing together schools, colleges, universities, parents, and community leaders, collaborative projects have attempted to renew the democratic value of education, equalize educational opportunity, support our nation's teachers, break down institutional barriers, and share resources for maximum benefit. And while the movement has not exactly mounted a revolution in American education, the popularity and practicality of partnership attest to the wisdom of the strategy and the importance of deepening our understanding of the relationship between education and democracy.

The promise of partnership lies in our continuous effort to achieve both deep and wide educational change. Its power is in the projects themselves and in the daily experience of the collaborative. Consequently, partnership literature cannot capture all levels of interest and engagement, nor can it represent some of the more qualitative measures of success.

From over twenty years of experience, however, numerous case studies and reflective essays on the process of partnership have emerged. In fact, the prodigious amount of literature assists us in measuring our progress in bringing collaboration into the mainstream of strategies for educational improvement, and provides a partial basis for assessment. The question of this essay, then, is where are we now? And given the complexity of the answer, I will focus primarily on California, a state befuddled by educational dilemmas, whose leaders, both academic and legislative, are turning to partnerships as part of the strategy for fundamental and systemic educational change.

According to F. P. Wilbur and L. M. Lambert in Linking America's Schools and Colleges (1995), over 2,300 partnership programs currently exist. Although the term "partnership" has broad and varied usage, many educational critics insist on a specific definition to prevent a catch-all category of programs and projects. S. M. Hord points to the differences articulated between collaboration and cooperation, insisting that cooperative arrangements do not require a mutual goal or participation by more than one organization (A Synthesis of Research on Organizational Collaboration, 1986). The idea of a partnership, then, involves engagement and exchange, with collaborative activities aimed at mutually derived but perhaps independent benefits for all participants.

The basic principles of the partnership movement have been best defined by Ernest Boyer, whose lead essay in High School/College Partnerships (1981) set the standard for partnership rhetoric. He argued for five basic principles: agreement on common problems, breaking down of the "traditional academic 'pecking order'," sharp project focus, recognition and rewards for participants, and a "focus on action - not machinery". These guidelines, reiterated two years later by Gene Maeroff in the Carnegie Foundation report School and College: Partnerships in Education (1983), were intended to shift focus away from "budgets and bureaucracy" to the activities which bring educators together on a regular basis for the purpose of "breaking down the barriers and . . . rebuilding the quality of schooling in this nation".

Boyer's model remains popular because it can be adapted to many types of collaborative projects. And in fact, much of the literature following this early work has built on Boyer's principles, with various attempts to define a clear theoretical framework for partnership activity. W. A. Sirotnik and J. I. Goodlad (School-University Partnerships in Action,1988), for example, argue that a successful partnership must function "symbiotically." Such a relationship requires "three minimum conditions . . . dissimilarity between or among the partners; mutual satisfaction of self-interests; and sufficient selflessness on the part of each member to assure the satisfaction of self-interests on the part of all members". According to P.L. Jones and R.W. Maloy (Partnerships for Improving Schools, 1988), maintaining this kind of relationship requires an understanding of "multiple realities." Maloy argues that conflicting perceptions of the same event can lead to a breakdown in communication, and that only through a negotiation of individual interpretations can partnerships be sustained over time. He argues that partnerships should be the result of a mutual desire on the part of two or more institutions to effect change; all partners should volunteer their commitment to the project.

Sustaining that commitment, however, is perhaps the most difficult challenge for any partnership. As S. Trubowitz and P. Longo (How it Works—Inside a School-College Collaboration,1997) argue, "[m]aintaining innovative gains . . . requires as much—if not more—imagination and skill than was required to attain them." Over and over, practitioners and researchers agree that the key to sustaining the energy of interinstitutional collaboration is strong leadership and effective governance. Among those characteristics deemed essential are mutual self-interest and common goals; mutual trust and respect; shared decision making; clear focus; manageable agenda; commitment from top leadership; fiscal support; long-term commitment; dynamic nature; and information sharing (G.B. Van de Water, The Governance of School-College Collaboratives, 1989).

Much of the literature rehearses the structural limits of partnerships, perhaps in part because the daily gains and interpersonal dynamics are much more difficult to capture in prose. However, it also seems to be the case that the practice of partnership has taken precedence over the development of a theory or a set of competing theories to define the movement or contextualize the use of the term. And while debates over terminology might seem like a silly semantic game to some, agreement on a set of terms would allow a more rigorous investigation of collaborative work and its potential impact on educational institutions, as well as on students, faculty, and administrators. T.H. Gross (Partners in Education, 1988), for example, believes that "the hub of the wheel [of partnerships] must be the college, the spokes of the wheel must be the schools," in part because of the greater resources available to higher education. Yet the term partnership implies equity among institutions and individuals within a system circumscribed by entrenched inequities and hierarchies. In fact, Z. Su argues that many partnerships are nothing more than "noblesse oblige, service arrangements," which "focus mostly on piece-meal reform plans" (School-University Partnerships, 1991), rather than authentic attempts to build strong interinstitutional relationships and work toward long-term goals for educational improvement.

According to Trubowitz and Longo, "[t]here is a shop-worn characterization of school-college attitudes towards innovation that is part caricature and part truth: Schools pursue progress while attempting to avoid any real change, while the colleges pursue change without attempting to determine whether it leads to any real progress." The truth of this assessment lies in the different cultures of schools and colleges and universities. Schools are under tremendous pressure to reflect predominant social values, while colleges and universities are often seen as challenging those values. Ironically, but not unexpectedly, both institutions are conservative, as they preserve basic social structures and values through their socializing functions. Critics like D. S. Seeley (Education Through Partnership, 1981) have expressed distrust in any institution because of a social tendency for institutions to maintain themselves as bureaucracies without lasting or profound change. And yet, educational reform attempts to create this change without threatening the stability of the system. The difficulty of this task should provoke us to conceptualize the theoretical dimensions of partnership within a broader social context. Otherwise, we run the risk of relegating partnerships to the periphery of educational reform, undertaking only superficial and temporary change.

It may be that the promise of partnership remains strong because it reflects the more noble aspirations of American democracy: equality of opportunity, celebration of a common community, and a better way of life for all. And the promise becomes more poignant given the realities of education at all levels. California, which educates 10% of the nation's students, is looking to partnerships to mend an educational pipeline with multiple fractures. The Migden Bill (California K-12 College Opportunity Program), introduced into the California Assembly, asks for funding to be allocated for the development of local educational collaboratives. And in July of 1997, the University of California Outreach Task Force proposed a series of school-centered partnerships to raise the academic achievement of students in some of our most disadvantaged schools. Why this interest in partnership?

In a nationwide assessment conducted by Education Week in 1997, "the vast California education system rates among the worst of the worst," earning a D-minus in "overall 'school climate.'" Students living in poverty attend schools at the bottom of the bottom. In higher education, a decision by the UC Regents to abolish affirmative action at the University, along with the passage of Proposition 209, have exacerbated concerns over educational equity. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, cut local funding for schools by 50%, and recently, Governor Wilson threatened to hold back even more state funding unless legislators agreed to institute a statewide standardized achievement test. And all of this is occurring in a state in which English will be the second language by the end of this century (M. Justiz, et. al., Minorities in Higher Education, 1994), where per-pupil spending remains among the lowest in the nation, and where prisons will command twice as much funding as colleges by 2004 (M. A. Shires, The Future of Public Undergraduate Education in California, 1996). Debates over bilingual education, academic standards, the impact of race and gender on educational opportunity, and school choice attest to the chasm of controversy and labor which must be crossed to mend the system.

Many now see partnerships as a viable strategy, given the overlapping and overwhelming nature of the problems. A recognition that only a comprehensive joint effort can raise academic achievement and expand educational opportunity, as well as sharing scarce resources, has catalyzed educators, legislators, and community leaders to begin pursuing collaborative projects. And certainly there exists much in the existing literature on partnerships to assist them in organizing and structuring these initiatives. At the same time, however, much is left unsaid about the prospects of collaborative success, given the profound social issues embedded in the educational process.

It is, for example, a good thing that the University has drawn partnerships into the mainstream of its outreach efforts, and has drawn outreach closer to the mainstream of its academic mission. But how can we be sure that our efforts will not merely replicate those of traditional outreach, which function on the assumption that the schools are the problem and the University becomes the disciplining parent? How can partnerships succeed without the recognition that college and universities need to change as well if they are to be authentically engaged in long-term collaborative ventures? Few maps exist to chart the terrain of this comprehensive effort. The dangers in this new territory are even greater given the renewed emphasis on standards. How can standards be determined, let alone met, until enabling conditions for improvement are created? Efforts to reduce class size have helped in some districts, for example in San Francisco, which has experienced a rise in test scores for five years straight, but those districts most in need of smaller classes have the fewest resources and the least adequate facilities to make the change. And how can we expect to undertake fundamental alterations in our institutions, at all levels, without a clear understanding of the role that education does and should play in a democratic society? And how should we proceed knowing that our educational institutions remain mired in the social problems which nourish inequity and social fragmentation?

Those who remain committed to partnership see as obvious the supposition that systemic change will occur only through equitable participation of all who comprise the system. Yet in spite of such an observation, the democratizing elements of partnership, as in democracy itself, hold most of their power in promise. In part, the delayed gratification of the movement might be related to the absence of a theoretical basis for educational collaboration and an almost exclusive focus on practice. For without more rigorous philosophical scrutiny of the relationship among partnership, education, and democracy, profound systemic change seems unlikely. And yet without partnership, the promise of democratic education is certain to remain only that.


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