Colleges and the Common Core

July 19, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS -- For years, educators and policy makers have been talking about the need to better align K-12 and higher education, so that students coming out of high school have the skills and knowledge they need to do college-level work (and, not unimportantly, to reduce the need for remediation once students are in college).

But while many colleges are involved in various ways in their local communities' school systems, and virtually all states have created "P-16" or "K-20" councils aimed, among other things, at aligning high school graduation and college entrance standards, progress in creating a "seamless" education system, for students and states alike, has generally been seen as limited.

Higher education and K-12 "have frequently operated as if they reside in different universes," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said here Friday at the first-ever joint meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

The relationship between elementary and secondary education too often continues to be marked by finger pointing between the sectors, which the leaders of the two groups mimicked from the dais at last week's meeting.

"The reason we have problems is because you don't train the teachers well," is high school principals' frequent complaint about schools of education, said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the state school officers' group.

The knee-jerk comeback from college professors and administrators, said Paul Lingenfelter, president of the state higher education officers' association: "The students you send us aren't prepared, so we have to spend all our energies on remediation."

The two men are hopeful that the impetus for the meeting at which they spoke last week -- the recent establishment of a set of common core standards for high school graduates -- presents an opportunity to start to end what Wilhoit called the "repetitive cycle of nonproductive activity" and take the collaboration between K-12 and higher education to a new level.

The establishment of common core standards for high school graduates is of course first and foremost a matter of concern for elementary and secondary school officials, and the creation of the standards is barely on the radar screen of many college administrators and professors. And yet it is clear that the standards will be truly meaningful and useful only if they are fully embraced by higher education.

Only if colleges align their own admissions and placement policies with the common core standards (and agree to use the common assessments that are likely to be developed to gauge mastery of the standards) will high school students and their schools know what to shoot for, Lingenfelter and Wilhoit said. And only if colleges of education begin to reframe their curriculums and practices for training teachers and school administrators and their professional development programs for working teachers in response to the standards will schools have the future work force to carry out the standards.

The discussions among the state superintendents and higher education chancellors and commissioners who met here offered some reason for optimism for those who believe that better alignment between high school and higher education is essential to the goal of raising the level of college attainment and completion in the United States. (So too did the fact that they took place at all; much was made of the fact that the two groups had never met jointly before, with one state school officer holding up the morning newspaper and joking that if BP had figured out how to cap the Gulf Coast oil well, "then I know we can collaborate with SHEEO.")

"The fact that we’ve stepped up and said, 'We expect for every student exiting our system to be college- or career-ready,' drops on your doorstep an opportunity: to continue to engage with us in a process of discovery," Wilhoit said to the higher ed leaders in the group. "I don't think the wisdom [to improve college readiness and completion] lies entirely in the schools or in colleges and universities. The wisdom resides in our collaboration -- in getting the people who really understand the problems on the ground together with those who, from a little distance, can help them solve those problems."

But the discussions here also made clear just how big a job remains to be done.

Setting Standards, and Beyond

The task of setting the standards -- which involved more than two years' worth of work by the school officers' group, the National Governors Association, and many others -- has been a big job, but it has been done largely without the involvement of higher education. At Friday's meeting, Susan Pimentel, a senior consultant for the nonprofit education reform group Achieve, who helped write the common core's English language arts standards, described the surveys of postsecondary faculty members that helped frame the guidelines and the involvement of numerous college professors on the work groups that helped draft the standards.

And while some college leaders have balked that postsecondary educators were involved too late in the process, the American Council on Education helped convene panels of experts (based on advice from the Modern Language Association and the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences) to assess the standards.

If higher education's role in crafting the standards was minimal, it is likely to be much larger, on many fronts, in bringing the guidelines to life and making them meaningful. While the groups describe the standards as designed to "define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in work force training programs," they do not set specific levels of proficiency that students are expected to have. That will come only with the development of assessments that are tied to the standards; three coalitions of states and nonprofit groups are reportedly planning to develop tests that would measure students' proficiency in achieving the core standards.

Higher education officials have a clear stake in how those assessments are developed, but the big job for college leaders will then be to decide whether and how to use those tests in admissions and placement into public colleges, said Lingenfelter of the SHEEO group. "For that to happen, the standards and assessments are going to have to be organizationally understood and accepted" by public college administrators and faculty members, he said.

Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin system, noted that Wisconsin is among 31 states that have joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of three that have applied to the federal government's Race to the Top program for funds to build an assessment aligned to the common core.

The 15 campuses in the Wisconsin system "don't have common placement practices," Reilly said, but the system's eventual goal is to set a single, common level of proficiency that students would need to achieve to know that they could avoid developmental courses and begin college-level work at any of its campuses (from the highly selective flagship at Madison to more accessible institutions like Whitewater and Superior). "The goal would be to help drive more sensible messages about what you need to do to attend any of our campuses," Reilly said.

Those involved in shaping the common core standards acknowledge that those sorts of discussions could be vexing for many colleges, given the belief among many faculty members that their own colleges should demand more of students.

"When college faculty are asked to say what they think is important [for students in general to know and be able to do], they're good at listing 12 things," said Jason Zimba, co-founder of Student Achievement Partners and a member of the panel that drafted the common core math standards. But when asked about students should be required to know at their own institutions, Zimba said, "through admissions standards," they expect a lot more.

The second major task ahead for postsecondary institutions will fall to their education schools. "We're going to have to change the way we prepare teachers and school leaders," said Lingenfelter.

Wilhoit was more pointed. "Do we have a work force in place, and a structure to support those teachers and school leaders, to get children to the levels we now say we’re expecting of them? The answer right now is dramatically No," he said.

Changing that situation will require education schools and their professors to work with K-12 leaders in their states to rework their teacher training curriculums and their programs for teachers once they're embedded in schools. Much of the work, both on aligning the high school exit and college entry/placement requirements with the core standards and on better preparing teachers to carry them out, will take place between K-12 and higher education leaders within individual states, but the national organizations hope that their own collaboration can point the way.

Jack Warner, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents and incoming chair of the SHEEO group, said it and the school officers' group expect to set up two work groups to discuss aligning common core assessments with admissions and placement requirements, and educational preparation of teachers and school administrators, to see if they can "model the way" for leaders in individual states.

"The core standards open the door to more and more effective joint discussion between K-12 and higher education, but it's a question of seizing that opportunity," Warner said.

It won't be easy, several state leaders said. Robert L. King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, warned that if past practice is any guide, college and high school leaders should expect legislators in their states to try to "dumb down" the standards and lower cutoff scores if students start failing. "While everyone in this room is persuaded [about the wisdom of the common core standards and the need to raise educational attainment], we should be worried about parents coming back on our state legislatures," King said.

"We would be foolish when we leave this room to underestimate the resistance [in the public] to the idea that more and more of our students need to go on and get a degree," said Reilly of the University of Wisconsin system.

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