On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998


The Future of Partnerships

By Gene I. Maeroff

When my report School and College: Partnerships in Education was published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1983, the idea that precollegiate schools and institutions of higher education should cooperate was still a novel notion in some circles. The conference organized at Yale University that year to bring together chief state school officers and college and university presidents was only the second such gathering, according to Ernest L. Boyer, the late president of the Carnegie Foundation.

Of course, collaboration was not new to everyone. The College Board's Advanced Placement had already existed for a generation and the College Board itself dated back to the turn of the century. And such programs as Syracuse University's Project Advance, the National Humanities Faculty, the University of Michigan's English Composition Board, and the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute were well underway.

Yet, a scant decade and a half ago, voices calling for closer ties between schools and colleges reverberated across a landscape in which often few ears were attuned to hearing them. A Nation at Risk was not quite out of the womb and arrogance and autonomy still counted for more than humility and cooperation in relations between schools and colleges. When students were unsuccessful at one level, blameplacers simply pointed to the level below, asserting, "It was their fault," with no thought to getting together to improve the situation. Higher education set its requirements without regard for the impact on elementary and secondary schools, as the abolition of foreign language requirements showed in its devastating effect on precollegiate language studies.

In reflecting on the changes since 1983, one cannot help but be struck by the shift in attitude. There is now a widespread understanding that there is—if not a seamless web—at least a series of interlocking shackles that link all levels of education, like it or not. This recognition of a shared destiny has pretty much ended talk of schools and colleges continuing down their separate paths. Shifts in attitude, though, do not readily translate into changes in practice. Yes, the American Association on Higher Education and Syracuse University found 2,300 examples of school and college collaboratives to list in their national directory in 1995, but that hand-holding has not blossomed into full-blown romance.

Three main obstacles, among many, come immediately to mind in trying to identify what continues to hold back the parties who profess a new-found commitment to collaboration:

  1. The reward system in higher education still does not usually look favorably on college faculty members—particularly those outside departments and schools of education—who invest time and effort in work involving elementary and secondary education. The emphasis on research and publication for those ascending the promotion steps means junior faculty members, especially, participate in such collaborations at some peril to their careers.
  2. Despite paeans to mutuality, the worlds of precollegiate and collegiate education remain as separate as Brooklyn and Staten Island. These are different cultures that sometimes, it seems, can be connected only by bridge builders as skilled as those who spanned the Verrazano Narrows.
  3. For all the political correctness that resides in statements about how both sides have something to gain, the benefits of these associations flow overwhelmingly to the elementary and secondary schools that are involved. Thus, precollegiate education remains a decidedly junior partner in this enterprise and, like all of those who are less than equal, it is the supplicant.

Some strong forces, however, continue to prod change, and the situation today is sufficiently different from what it was in 1983 to give hope that what happens during the next 15 years by way of cooperation may be even more substantial than what occurred during the previous 15 years. Three areas demonstrate these possibilities—new concerns about the preparation and professional development of school teachers, the onset of the standards movement, and the crisis in elementary and secondary schools serving impoverished minority students.

One report after another has appeared from such organizations as the Holmes Group and the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future in response to the desire to improve the education of those preparing for careers in the classroom. At the same time, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education has been taking bolder steps to enforce quality. Furthermore, the ongoing education of teachers, formerly abandoned to one-shot, unconnected inservice sessions, is on the verge of being revamped as professional development gets unprecedented attention.

Few serious-minded people any longer maintain that issues involving the quality of the teaching force can be addressed on one level while ignoring what happens on other levels. School districts and institutions of higher education recognize more than ever before that they must act in concert if teachers are to fulfill their potential. One of the best examples of this recognition is the professional development school, still imperfect, but a promising venture for allowing those at the precollegiate level and those in colleges and universities to work together in behalf of better education.

The standards movement comes into play in this connection because teachers have to have something to teach. Too often in the past, the content confronting students in elementary and secondary school classrooms has been unchallenging, inappropriate, and ineffectively delivered. Attention to standards usually focuses on students, but it is clear that teachers have to learn to take responsibility for doing more than lecturing from textbooks.

Efforts to raise standards must proceed hand in hand with programs to equip teachers—novices and veterans—to know, understand, and be able to facilitate the lessons. Institutions of higher education, in both preservice and inservice, will have to play a pivotal role in this effort. Surely, at this juncture members of arts and sciences faculties in higher education must demonstrate greater willingness to build connections with teachers in elementary and secondary schools.

Finally, improvement of the schooling of disadvantaged students demands the cooperation of all sectors. Even back in 1983, when School and College was published, I was able to cite such examples as Queens College of the City University of New York and Massachusetts Institute of Technology involving themselves in the work of public schools serving minority students. Today, when universities focus their attention on schools inner cities, they acknowledge this need in a more intensive way. But the proportions of the task are so huge that a much broader effort is needed. Glimmers of such initiatives appear when an institution like the University of California system announces, as it did in 1997, that each of its nine campuses will create long-term partnerships with selected high schools and the associated junior highs and elementary schools in their feeder patterns.

Moreover, the struggle to improve the education of needy children requires the collaboration of many schools, departments, and colleges of the university to forge programs that deal with the whole child and his or her family. California State University at Monterey Bay, for example, began a program in 1996 leading to a bachelor's degree in collaborative human services, offering academic concentrations in social work, community health, public safety administration, and parks and recreation management to prepare a new class of professionals to work in elementary and secondary schools.

Teachers will have to do most of the heavy lifting if these efforts in California and everywhere else across the country are to dislodge what until now has been a weighty and intractable problem. Teachers will bear the main responsibility for eliciting the cooperation of parents, for addressing the needs of the whole child, for stirring motivation and inspiration in the students, and for learning how to handle new kinds of assessment and other reform measures.

The synergy derived from collaborations between school districts and institutions of higher education could strengthen these attempts immeasurably. School districts alone are unlikely to be able to give teachers and administrators the assistance they require to succeed in these challenging assignments. This means that colleges and universities must enter the fray with more enthusiasm and vigor than most of them have shown until now. It does not matter whether or not the institution has a teacher education program and, even if it does, the burden should not be borne by the teacher education program alone.

The story that is written about these efforts 15 years from now may very well be the story of whether or not America is to survive as the democracy that we have known until now. That, increasingly, is what is at stake in the schools of this country.


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