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What happens in K-12 schools rarely stays in K-12. You don’t need a long memory to recall that higher ed’s preoccupation with accountability, collaborative learning, learning outcomes and workforce preparation actually originated in K-12.

If you want to glimpse the post-pandemic future of higher education, you might want to see what’s occurring in K-12 schools today.

There you will see a stress on equity that strikes me as likely to shape college teaching and learning post-pandemic. You will also see a host of other trends that I anticipate will help define the future of a college education.

Long before this spring’s lockdown or this summer’s protests, public schools had already begun to reckon with gross disparities in learning outcomes and multiple barriers to students’ academic success. Colleges and universities have much to learn from their struggles to eliminate achievement gaps and promote educational equity.

Take grading: in a bid to combat racism and make grading more equitable, the San Diego Unified School District has decided to base grades on mastery of the course material, not on a student’s class average, which, official believe, penalizes students who get off to a slow start. At the same time, teachers can no longer take late work or classroom behavior into account when assigning grades. These will only count toward a citizenship grade, not an academic grade.

This shift comes partly in response to the finding that 30 percent of all Ds and Fs in San Diego go to English language learners, 25 percent go to students with disabilities, 23 percent to Native Americans, 23 percent to Latinx students, and 20 percent to Black students -- who, taken together, comprise 56 percent of the district’s students. In contrast, just 7 percent of failing grades go to non-Hispanic white students.

Or take the handling of students with disabilities: the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act requires K-12 schools to provide appropriate educational services to students ages 3 to 21 with disabilities. These students make up about 14 percent of public school enrollment (varying from over 19 percent of students in New York to 9 percent in Texas). Roughly 34 percent of those students have a learning disability, such as dyslexia, attention issues, developmental delays or emotional disturbances. In addition, about 20 percent have a speech or language impediment, 14 percent have a chronic or acute health problem, and 11 percent show symptoms of autism. Two-thirds of students with disabilities are male.

But when many of these students go to college, the number with documented disabilities plunges. According to one report, only about a quarter of students with a diagnosed learning disability tell their college that they have such a disability. (Another report places the figure at 6 percent.) Their reluctance to disclose is attributed to low self-esteem and stigma.

To ensure that students’ needs are met, K-12 schools are required to identify and provide appropriate services for mental, physical, emotional and behavioral disabilities and ensure that the students can be educated with their peers to the maximum extent possible. Schools must also develop a transition plan, spelling out a postsecondary vision and the skills needed to achieve it.

Colleges, in contrast, are only required to make reasonable accommodations to those students who provide documentation of learning disabilities and who request learning or testing accommodations. But I won’t be surprised if many K-12 requirements are extended to colleges. And I for one, believe that would be the moral thing to do.

What’s going on in K-12 schools now that is likely to have an impact on higher ed?

1. Prioritizing Equity

Closing equity gaps is on K-12’s front burner, and I expect pressure on higher ed to prioritize equity to mount. Every institutional decision should be made with an eye toward advancing equity, whether this involves recruitment, admissions, financial aid allocation or the academic experience itself.

The essential first step is to identify and address equity gaps. As Charles Dickens wrote in a very different context, “The one thing needful is facts.” No administrator should fly blind. Use institutional data to pinpoint courses with unusually high DFW rates, isolate variance in grading across course sections and isolate classes with extreme equity gaps in grading. Critically analyze student progress toward graduation, identifying roadblocks and hurdles, including course availability, credit transfer, “gated” majors and difficult-to-fulfill graduation requirements.

Also, ensure that all students’ basic needs are met, whether involving food, housing and transportation, technology and books, or academic and mental health supports. Prioritizing equity also requires monitoring and responding to students’ concerns, whether this involves the campus climate, access to advisers and other student support services, or students’ sense of belonging and connection.

Assuring equity requires a full-court press and that means cross-campus engagement. Provide faculty with information about trauma-sensitive teaching, including best practices in addressing trauma and various adverse childhood experiences in the classroom. Show them how to use the LMS features that track student engagement. Also, make sure faculty learn to apply the principles for universal design for learning in course design and delivery and in evidence-based strategies for addressing sensitive or controversial instructional topics.

2. Embracing Differentiated Instruction

Just as K-12 classrooms contain students who differ profoundly in preparation, ethnic, linguistic, religious and socioeconomic background, and frames of reference, higher ed classrooms have grown similarly diverse. If all students are to have an equal chance to succeed, it is necessary to tailor pedagogy to students’ differing interests, abilities and needs.

The answer is differentiated instruction, which is not the same thing as individualized instruction. Rather, it involves delivering course materials in multiple ways; allowing students to progress through class content at their appropriate pace; offering special support to struggling students; breaking students into various kinds of groups (for example, by interest or content, but almost never by ability); and providing options for student activities and assignments.

The goal of differentiated instruction is to bring all students to a minimal viable competency. No institution should admit students who can’t succeed. It’s up to instructors to help students master the course material and meet the prescribed standards.

Differentiated instruction also provides a way to address classroom management issues. In the decades following World War II, classroom management in colleges, unlike in K-12 schools, was not regarded as a pressing problem, partly because students tended to defer to professors’ authority, in part because disruptive or upsetting students could be flunked out, and partly because the dominant “transmission” approach to pedagogy offered students only limited opportunities for self-expression.

But attention problems have become more common, no doubt abetted by access to smartphones, conflict among students has apparently become more frequent, and challenges to professors’ authority more widespread.

In today’s much more diverse college classrooms, where all of society’s partisan, religious and value divides now intrude, professors must find a way manage contentious discussions and to effectively handle grading disputes without sacrificing rigor or reducing standards. Differentiated instruction, including group work, can help motivate students, leverage their interests and keep them on track. Also, by giving students more voice and choice in their learning trajectories and projects, differentiated instruction can encourage students to make a greater investment in their classes.

3. A Skills and Outcomes Focus

Long before college faculty began to speak the language of active learning and measurable outcomes, K-12 teachers had, in growing numbers, focused their attention on Bloom’s taxonomy’s higher-order thinking skills: application, analysis, evaluation and synthesis.

Whereas in the early days of No Child Left Behind, skills simply meant reading and math skills, the meaning broadened over time to include 21st-century skills, which had been embraced by Finland, the exemplar of successful K-12 teaching. These included cross-cultural competence, multiple modes of communication, numeracy, information literacy, contextual thinking (similar to historical and sociological modes of analysis), creativity, and learning to learn.

Although a growing number of colleges and universities have revised their curriculum to recognize the importance of critical thinking, global awareness, cross-cultural communication, productive collaboration and marketable skills, I am aware of relatively few examples where courses actually make a concerted effort to explicitly align instruction and assessments with those objectives and institute reliable ways to validate mastery of those competencies.

The time has come.

4. Life Skills and Social Emotional Learning

In addition to emphasizing 21st-century competencies, K-12 school began to stress the importance of life skills and social-emotional learning. This shift in emphasis reflected a growing recognition that certain noncognitive skills are as important for students’ academic, interpersonal and career success as their cognitive skills.

These life skills, which include compassion, empathy, self- and social awareness, and self-management and relationship skills, exist across multiple dimensions. They include:

  • Executive function skills, such as the ability to focus attention, follow directions, define and achieve goals, juggle multiple tasks, plan and prioritize, organize, manage time, and avoid distractions.
  • Emotional competencies, including impulse control and the ability to cope with frustration, disappointment, and criticism, recognize and manage emotions, appreciate other people’s perspective, and demonstrate empathy and compassion with others.
  • Social and interpersonal skills, involving the ability to interpret social and emotional cues, navigate social interactions, resolve interpersonal disputes, collaborate successfully, and effectively advocate for oneself.
  • Metacognitive skills, including the ability to self-monitor, to understand and reflect upon one’s own cognitive processes, self-assess and self-correct, and accurately evaluate one’s own performance.
  • Mind-sets, the attitudes and dispositions that can affect motivation and performance, including the belief that intelligence and talent are inborn, fixed and unchangeable or can be developed and strengthened.

Those of us who believe that college has a responsibility to educate the whole student should integrate life skills and social and emotional learning into our own classes. This is not a mission impossible. Begin and end each class session with a check-in and checkout that includes attention to students’ feelings and concerns. Teach your students how to work in a group, distribute roles and manage conflict. Consider having students maintain a class journal to foster self-awareness. Have students engage in role-playing activities followed by structured reflection to cultivate social awareness. Ask students to track their performance to strengthen their metacognitive capacities.

5. Redesigning Assessments of Learning

Many school districts, not just San Diego’s, have begun to embrace competency-, standards- and mastery-based approaches to assessment that highlight a student’s skills, achievements and progress, through projects and portfolios rather than quizzes and high-stakes exams.

What’s good for K-12 can certainly make sense in higher education. The purpose of assessment should not be to sort and rank students, but, rather, to evaluate whether and to what extent, students have mastered essential skills and knowledge. The best assessments are themselves learning opportunities that help students accurately gauge their own command of the material and what they need to do to improve.

Consider shifting from a small number of high-stakes tests to frequent low-stakes formative assessments (which can be autograded) -- to help identify students’ confusions and misperceptions. Offer activities that entail inquiry and problem solving (which, in some cases, can be graded simply as proficient, outstanding or needs improvement). Devise capstone projects that involve a sequence of steps and that can help you measure student mastery of essential skills and knowledge.

6. Addressing Nonacademic Barriers to Student Success

If there is anything that the pandemic made clear, it is that K-12 schools are much more than educational institutions. Schools are where many students get their meals, health care and physical activity. Many students who are out of school are at risk for hunger, neglect, health problems and even abuse.

We are now aware that many college students also suffer from housing and food insecurity and lack health care, a computer, a reliable broadband connection and a quiet place to study. The situation is particularly bleak for international and undocumented students who are ineligible for federal aid and have trouble paying rent or utilities.

Colleges responded by instituting emergency grants and loans, setting up food pantries, distributing Wi-Fi hotspots, and loaning laptops and tablets. But these stopgap measures appear to be insufficient, and in the future, colleges and universities, to live up to their commitment to access, will need to follow the example of K-12 schools and reimagine how to ensure that all students’ basic needs are met.

7. Building a Learning Ecosystem and Wraparound Supports

In addition to exposing long-standing racial disparities and worsening mental health issues, the pandemic drew attention to the fragmented nature of our learning ecosystem. As a recent Inside Higher Ed essay observed, “What happens before college matters.”

No institution is an island onto itself, and we need to better align the pathways between K-12, community colleges and four-year institutions and encourage constructive collaboration between higher education, museums, cultural and arts organizations, and nonprofits. One way colleges and universities can do this is to expand middle school and high school tutoring and after-school programs. I can’t think of a more valuable forms of community service.

But students at four-year colleges, if they are to thrive, also need a wraparound system of support and genuine communities of care at their home institutions. K-12 schools have found that collaboration is a way to promote equity. Learning together works. In colleges, too, study groups and peer-led supplemental instruction and problem-solving sessions can scaffold collaboration, raise achievement and foster a sense of belonging. Our institutions need to encourage these kinds of collaboration.

The pandemic has upended college life as we knew it. It has also created possibilities for reform and institutional transformation.

By laying bare a host of challenges involving equity, the current crisis prods us to rethink every aspect of our institutions. K-12 schools have for years had to wrestle with many of the challenges we now face. No longer are our students a small and privileged subset of the K-12 population; our students are theirs, only older.

However disconcerting it might strike some of us, we have a lot to learn from our K-12 counterparts.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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