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Higher Ed and the High Schools

January 23, 2007

Colleges, like factories, need to work with their “supplier community” to improve the quality of the raw materials they end up shaping, a business leader told a group of about 120 college leaders and state policy makers gathered in Washington Monday for a summit on higher education’s role in improving America’s high schools.

“You want products to come to your factory that are suitable,” Craig Barrett, chairman of the Intel Corporation’s board said in industry speak, pragmatically pointing to a challenge for higher education that so often is couched in more tender terms.

Speakers at Monday’s "Advancing College Readiness" summit outlined the role higher education leaders should play in ensuring that high school graduates learn the right skills and graduate ready for college and the workforce. But some in the audience, while enthusiastic about the premise and willing to work toward it, seemed a bit skeptical about the potential for change within a seemingly intractable system -- skeptical, and even a bit cynical.

Among the longstanding challenges they pointed out were low respect and pay for teachers (and the poor job higher education has often done in preparing them), the failure of higher education leaders to agree on standards among themselves, let alone dictate them to high schools, and minimal incentives and opportunities for dialogue between the K-12 and higher education sectors.

In another speech to the group,  Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping states raise their standards, spotlighted the aims of the American Diploma Project, a coalition of nearly 30 states that has committed to aligning the K-12 curriculum with the demands of college and work.

“The high schools can’t improve college readiness on their own,” said Cohen. He outlined a four-part agenda for college leaders: to involve professors in identifying the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in credit-bearing courses; work with policy makers to ensure that when states review their graduation requirements, they make choices consistent with the demands of college-level work; collaborate with the K-12 sector to ensure that the assessment measures they use adequately measure college readiness (and could double as college placement tests); and to initiate a feedback loop, one that sends information about first-year students’ performance back to high schools as readily as it accepts data surrounding the challenges facing high school instruction.

About 40 to 45 percent of recent high school graduates report experiencing significant gaps in the skills they need for success in college and in the work place, Cohen said -- evidence, he argued, that higher education leaders need to do a better job of communicating expectations to high schools, and ensuring those expectations are met. “The students are basically telling us that, ‘Nobody’s giving us very good signals about what we need to learn, what we need to take,' ” Cohen said.

“There’s a moral imperative here,” Kathleen Schatzberg, president of Cape Cod Community College, said during a panel that also featured Nancy Grasmick, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, and Mark Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System. “Over its history, American higher ed has played a role in moral leadership,” Schatzberg said, adding that articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions could be used as a model for higher education’s collaboration with high schools.

Yudof added that universities should play a bigger role in researching educational policy and establishing clear, coherent scholarship opportunities   to spread a message of access. “What you’re trying to influence are the conversations around the dining room table," he said, stressing that any progress must result from cooperation with K-12 leaders, not coercion.

It would be hard to find fault with the good intentions displayed Monday by the higher education leaders. But real barriers to progress exist, and they weren’t ignored by many of the attendees. As Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, pointed out during a question and answer session, the higher education and K-12 sectors have “had decades of growing apart, existing on their own.” After all, he noted, Monday’s summit was geared almost exclusively toward those on the higher education side of the fence (a scenario, it’s worth noting, that Schatzberg defended later in the day for allowing college leaders to set their own agenda without the risk that leaders from the two sectors would simply defer responsibility to one another).

How to best engage higher education leaders with “busy jobs” in a dialogue that hasn't traditionally happened? Kirst asked. “What are the incentives, why do they do it, how do you give incentives?”

Such questions served as entryways for debate during Monday’s summit, which featured a number of discussion groups, in addition to talks by Sara Martinez Tucker, the new U.S. under secretary of education, and the governor of North Carolina. The summit was sponsored by Achieve, the American Council on Education, the National Association of System Heads and the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

“I’m more cynical than most,” Stephen G. Sylvester, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hawaii West Oahu said of the progress being planned under the umbrella of Monday’s summit. “What I hear is the same story: We need to tell high schools what to do. Frankly, we don’t really know what we expect college grads to do.”

“I’m involved in this because I think it’s worth doing,” he said, but added that, “somehow, students need a better way to determine what’s important.”

“Pretending that faculty, high school or college, can tell them what’s important, is not it,” he said. “If we don’t convince students that the future is what they’re looking at, all of this probably isn’t going to be very helpful.”

 

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