New Directions for Collaboration

by Ernest L. Boyer

More than thirty years ago, I was director of the Center for Coordinated Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This project had grown out of urgencies triggered by the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik. There was a flurry of concern about how well our schools were doing, and the Center was created to establish more contact between them and the university.

All educational institutions in Santa Barbara County­from elementary schools to the university­joined together in a loose­knit consortium. And I worked for the governing board that represented all levels. As part of our mandate, we developed a cluster of projects-from curriculum planning to teacher training programs. Looking back, the Center was an experiment with both vision and inspiration. School and college leaders did communicate carefully with each other. Still, gains were marginal at best. While experimental projects were introduced, thanks in part to a Ford Foundation grant, it was difficult to sustain systematic change. Resources were limited, day-to-day pressures were distracting, and the campus crises of the late 1960s forced other priorities on administrative leaders.

Three decades have passed, the challenges confronting American education are even more urgent, and today no one seriously doubts that higher education has a responsibility to work closely with schools. Colleges and universities with all their talent and resources can no longer be spectators. Many of our classrooms are filled with students who are falling by the wayside, dropping out. Many others, who do make it to graduation, lack the requisite skills for further education, for effective citizenship, and for success in life.

I am convinced that we must, in the next five years, immerse ourselves in collaboration. The time has come to acknowledge that education is a seamless web and that all levels of education are inextricably connected. But how is this to be accomplished?

First, in the decade that lies ahead, collaborative efforts must focus, not just on schools, but most especially on children. The harsh truth is that, in America today, nearly one out of every four children under six is officially "poor." They are undernourished, disadvantaged, struggling. If we continue to neglect poor children, both the quality of education and the future of the nation will be imperiled. We know, for example, that brain cells develop before birth, and yet one-fifth of all pregnant women in this country receive belated prenatal care­or none at all. We know that all malnourished babies are two to three times as likely to be blind, deaf, or intellectually deficient, and yet nearly half a million children are undernourished. The social and human costs of these deprivations are tremendous, and the fact that a country as rich and as well­educated as ours tolerates such conditions speaks unfortunately to our foolishness and to our shortsightedness.

But what does all this have to do with higher education? For universities and colleges to ignore the deteriorating health and education of the youngest generation is not unlike the vision of the snake who feasts on its own tail. Funding priorities, college standards and goals, and even the availability of promising students will all be affected by this neglect.

I believe that higher education must recognize that the nation's first education goal­that all children will be ready for formal schooling by the year 2000­is the most essential goal of our six educational goals. For all children, this means good nutrition, a stimulating childhood, and good arenting. In a very practical way, it also means that higher education must become an active partner in the process. Last year, for example, at the Texas Woman's University, I visited a residence hall that had been converted into apartments for single mothers and their children. While the mothers worked and attended classes at the college, the youngsters were cared for in a day care center run by college students. And the Nursing School at the University had a medical clinic for mothers and babies at a nearby housing project.

As well as becoming actively committed to helping single parents complete their education, other roles are available to institutions of higher learning. In a recent Carnegie Foundation report called Ready to Learn, we suggest that both two- and four-year colleges take the lead in training preschool teachers. It's a disgrace that we are trusting our youngest children to those who are often poorly educated and who are paid far too little. We know that children need continuity of care, yet the turnover rate in many of these centers is sometimes 40 percent each year. Preschool teaching is an undervalued profession that must be given status and recognition in the culture. Some colleges are already developing a response to this critical need.

Dutchess Community College in New York grants an associate degree in early childhood education. About half of those who graduate teach at child care centers, and the rest transfer to four-year programs. Miami Dade Community College has a 62-credit child-care degree program, and the college also has established a "satellite" public school on its campus to help preschools make the transition to elementary education.

The Bank Street College of Graduate Education in New York offers graduate programs in early childhood education, with an infancy program and a day care program. Bank Street also has a Child Family Center, which serves children six months to four years of age and is a demonstration site for teacher training in infant care. Efforts such as these demonstrate the vital role that higher education can play in advancing school readiness in the nation.

The second issue is that while all children must be well prepared to learn, it is equally essential that schools are ready for the children. After a decade of focusing reform efforts on the upper grades, the time has come to concentrate on improving elementary education as well. The gap between preschool years and the elementary schools also must be bridged. And restructuring kindergarten through grade five in a way that taps the full learning potential of all children should become a national priority.

Several years ago, I proposed that we reorganize the first years of formal education into a single unit called the Basic School. The Basic School would combine kindergarten to grade four. It would give top priority to language, and every student from the very first would be reading, writing, engaging in conversation, listening to stories, in what the foreign language people like to call the "saturation method."

I've spent forty years in higher education. College education is surely consequential, and I love to teach undergraduates. But the years of early formal education establish the foundation of all future learning. If this country would give as much status to first grade teachers as we give to full professors, that one act alone would help revitalize the nation's schools.

I'm suggesting as a second priority that school-college partnerships focus on primary education. In this arena, the collaboration provides the ideal forum for modifying the education of elementary teachers. In addition to more short-term institutes for practicing elementary teachers and arranged exchange relationships for mutual mentoring and growth between teachers and college students, there should be increased expectations for college students to volunteer not only in child care centers but in afterschool programs as a way of widening their own understanding about people and to benefit the young students. Another way that the collaboration should exist is by colleges and universities reexmining their course offerings in the schools of education with the counsel of professional teaching groups. Given the political exigencies of such matters, this is not an easy exercise. But with the growing agitation for improved education, those institutions that raise standards, that offer courses that inspire creativity instead of rote methodology, that require aspiring teachers to be truly well­educated in their fields of speciality­and in the case of young children, this means great understanding of human development and capabilities as well as domains of knowledge­those institutions will become leaders in the educational revolution that is fomenting.

Third, in the coming decade school-college collaboration must return to the central issue of what we teach. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to develop with the schools a curriculum with more integration and coherence. Today almost all colleges have a requirement in general education. But all too often this so-called "distribution requirement" is a grab bag of isolated courses. Students complete their required credits, but what they fail to gain is a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life. And what's even more disturbing is the way colleges impose the old Carnegie units on the schools, requiring students to complete credits in history and mathematics and science and English without asking what's behind the label.

The Carnegie Foundation created the Carnegie unit eighty years ago. High school students were applying to college from places colleges didn't know existed, much less what kind of program they offered. The Carnegie unit was meant to set standards, and it worked in its own way, but it fails now because it focuses on seat time rather than substance. It is time to bury the old Carnegie unit.

The truth is that the old academic boxes do not fit the new intellectual questions. Some of the most exciting work going on in the academy today is in the "hyphenated disciplines,"­in bioengineering and psycho linguistics and the like­in what Michael Polanyi calls the "overlapping academic neighborhoods." Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, at the Institute for Advanced Study, in his fascinating book called Blurred Genres, says that "these shifts in the disciplines represent a fundamental reconfiguration of knowledge. Something is happening," Geertz says, "to the way we think about the way we think."

During the coming decades, we will see a fundamental reshaping of the typology of knowledge as profound as that which occurred in the nineteenth century when philosophy was submerged by science. And wouldn't it be tragic if a nineteenth-century curriculum design continued to be imposed on schools at the very time scholars were redefining the structure of knowledge for the twenty-first century?

This collaboration of educators at all levels, then, can be forged not only by common goals but by common questions: What do we want our children to learn and be able to do after sixteen years of formal education? Wouldn't it be exciting, as we move toward the next century, if we would start to rethink the nature of the new knowledge that relates not to the last century but to the coming century? How can we organize knowledge in a way that seems to make it relevant and powerful for students in the days ahead? Wouldn't it be exciting if both kindergarten teachers and college professors could view knowledge using understandable categories that would be newly integrated and would spiral upward in common discourse? Wouldn't it be exciting not only to build connections across the disciplines but to build them vertically as well, from preschool through college?

The new directions for collaboration between colleges and schools must be on the early years­preceding school itself and on the very first grades­as well as on what students are actually taught at the beginning of formal classroom work. If we're truly serious about the attainment of quality education for all, then we have to be equally serious about building a better foundation for learning, a new­truly ew­design of curriculum and expectations, and a professional level of collegiality among teachers at all levels. In this way not only will our schools be better served, we also can have, in the longer run, a profound impact on the future of higher education.

More than fifty years ago, Mark Van Doren wrote: "The connectedness of things is what the educator contemplates to the limit of his capacity." Van Doren concluded by saying that the student who can begin early in life to see things as connected has begun the life of learning. And this, it seems to me, is what school and college collaboration is all about­connections.

Back to Table of Contents of the Summer 1994 Issue of On Common Ground

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