Education reformers have held out hope that the Common Core State Standards Initiative -- the bottom-up effort by governors and state school chiefs to define college readiness and create national standards and assessments to measure progress toward it -- could get college and K-12 leaders out of the silos in which they too often operate.
If it does, a new partnership between the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers could be the mechanism that brings them together.
The arrangement, which the groups announced Thursday, aims to connect public higher education leaders with elementary and secondary officials in their states, with a specific focus on the two key tasks that lie ahead if the embrace of common academic standards is to have the desired effect of producing more high school graduates ready for college. The two big jobs: (1) aligning the standards with college admission and placement requirements and standards and (2) ensuring that colleges better prepare K-12 teachers who can help their students meet the standards. More than 40 states have signed on to the standards project so far.
"For the Common Core to work, we have to have both systems, higher education and K-12, working together," said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "This partnership has the potential to bring those groups together in individual states and regions, but also nationally, about how to implement the lofty goals we have. It's only going to work if higher education is an active and involved participant in what need to be deep conversations."
Added Robert L. Moran, director of federal policy at the state college association: "There have been a lot of walls up between K-12 and higher education, and a lot of finger pointing. The goal of this partnership is to bring higher education institutions and the K-12 community together and break down some of those walls."
While the exact framework for the partnership is still being developed (and funding still being sought), the basic structure is in place. A steering committee (whose members have yet to be announced) of five chief school officers, five state higher education system heads, and five public university presidents will lead the overall project and set the broad agendas for four groups that will work in specific areas. The four working groups are in:
- Leadership, focused on building relationships between the key officials in each state or region.
- College readiness, with the goal of bringing higher ed and K-12 administrators and instructors together to craft strategies for improving college readiness and, perhaps, helping colleges align their placement requirements and guidelines with the high school standards.
- In-service professional development for teachers, to improve programs to help train existing high school instructors to teach students the skills they need to attain the standards.
- Pre-service teacher training programs, aimed at bolstering the quality of colleges' teacher education programs and getting advice directly from secondary school leaders about how postsecondary programs can better prepare the teachers they need.
"Higher education needs to take a big swallow, step back and not get defensive about what it needs to improve," said Moran of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, whose members produce large numbers of the country's teachers. "We can either sulk and cry, and keep saying that we've been doing as good a job as we can, or we can take constructive criticism and go forward."
While the partnership between the groups is specifically designed to facilitate work on implementing the Common Core Standards, the associations' leaders hope it will have a broader impact: to "develop more meaningful and sustained relationships between K-12 and higher education," said Blakely Whilden, program manager for federal relations at AASCU.
Higher education leaders and academic disciplinary associations in mathematics and English were involved to some degree in developing the Common Core Standards, but few rank and file faculty members and campus officials were, admits Wilhoit of the school chiefs' association. "We didn’t penetrate a lot of the institutions in the country," he said.
The core standards will only be truly effective if "higher education is satisfied that the common core is an adequate measure of college readiness," Wilhoit said, and school leaders and teachers have much to learn from their colleagues in postsecondary education. "How might you re-deploy college faculty to help [high school] teachers develop stronger understanding of their subject matter" in mathematics and English language arts? What advice and direction could higher education give high school faculty about how to redesign curriculums to make them more effective?
"We've set lofty goals that students need to achieve, but we need to get it down to the teacher level to make it operational," Wilhoit said. "This will not occur unless we have deep conversations" between the groups.