Creating Vehicles for K-16 Reform

By Kati Haycock

Like everybody else who has worked in the school reform arena during the past two decades, I ve learned a lot of lessons. And one important lesson is this: No matter how hard we try, we will not succeed in bringing about fundamental changes in K-12 without also changing the way that higher education does business.

Why is this so? There are two main reasons.

Reason #1. To meet the challenges inherent in system-wide reform, teachers and administrators will need considerable help­including help from higher education.

Like it or not, many of the central tasks in systemic reform depend upon higher education. Teachers, for example, say that if they are to succeed in getting all of their students to standards previously achieved by only a few, they need more help than before: help in deepening their own content knowledge; help in learning more effective ways to engage their students; help in understanding more about how children develop and how the brain works. There are a range of ways to provide this help, including teacher networks and study groups; most of the best, though, draw heavily upon people and resources within higher education.

It is hard to imagine how to provide quality professional development on the necessary scale if higher education continues to confine its attention to handfuls of teachers here and there. But it is equally difficult to imagine the progress of other key reform tasks­including agreeing on what is most important for students to know and be able to do, and making sure that new teachers are educated in ways that further these student learning goals­if higher education is not an active partner in the reform effort.

Reason #2: Many current practices in higher education actually impede the progress of school reform.

There is, for example, a growing mismatch between what we measure­Carnegie units, grades, scores on norm-referenced, standardized tests­and the direction of measurement in K-12­clear goals and standards for student work and performance-based assessment against those standards. This mismatch sends confusing messages to teachers, students and parents about what is important and is already having a chilling effect on reform efforts in certain communities.

So far, only a handful of colleges and universities are making any effort at all to collaborate with local school systems on a more consistent measurement system for hig school graduation and college admissions and placement; more need to do so. But leaders in higher education also need to re-examine other practices that impede reform efforts, including the practice of assigning extra points in the admissions process for honors classes, which has had a devastating impact in many communities on the effort to reduce unnecessary grouping and tracking.

These are just a few examples of the complicated linkages between K-12 and higher education. Our two systems of education are intertwined in so many ways that we literally cannot change one without changing the other.

Although the need for change in higher education unquestionably complicates the reform task, in the long run it is good, because higher education really does need to change. We hear more about the need for change in K-12, and many within the higher education community have been lulled into a sense of complacency by the wonderful international reputation of our post-secondary system. But our results, in terms of student learning, don t always look so good.

Higher educators may like to believe that we have what Bud Hodgkinson once called a Brooks Brothers higher education system and a Robert Hall K-12 system, but the truth is that both systems can and must produce much better student outcomes. And we re more likely to succeed if we work together on the simultaneous reform of both systems.

Unfortunately, there are few vehicles to develop and support a coordinated reform strategy­at either the local or national level. Certainly, John Goodlad s network and the institutions participating in Project 30 are attempting to build structures for simultaneous reform of schools and schools of education. Our own Community Compacts and K-16 initiatives are aimed at helping local education and community leaders to create structures to design, mount and sustain institutional change strategies, kindergarten through college. And a few other communities are exploring this terrain on their own but are finding it often overwhelming.

For several years, the Education Trust has been working with urban education and community leaders to develop simultaneous reformstrategies for participating school districts and colleges. Six cities­including Philadelphia, El Paso, Birmingham, Pueblo, Hartford, and Providence­participate in the Pew-financed Community Compacts Initiative. Another twenty cities are trying to build K-16 reform strategies with help from the Trust but without funds from Pew.

Are there some lessons from our Compact and K-16 work that we can pass on to others­either about obstacles one might encounter or about solutions? Here are just a few.

1.Creating New Reform Structures. To undertake a comprehensive K-16 reform effort, communities will need to create umbrella-type structures to oversee the work. In general, we have found it easier to create new structures than to reorient existing partnerships.

2.Involving Key Leaders. While the composition of local Compact/K-16 Councils varies, the active involvement of at least two constituencies is absolutely critical: C.E.O.s of participating educational institutions and strong community leaders.

3.Staffing a K-16 Reform Effort. Making this effort work must be someone s full-time preoccupation. The human and institutional relationships are simply too complicated; the new vehicle can t possibly succeed if it gets only part-time attention from all participants.

4.Providing Top-Down Support for Bottom-Up Reform. While top-level leaders must create a vehicle to assure that the reform work goes forward, their primary goal must be to provide opportunities, support and guidance for teachers and administrators to change their own practice. Coordinating structures must be careful to provide a framework for change, rather than a detailed plan of action for others to follow.

5.Using Data to Drive Reform. Though most communities have a great deal of data about trends in student achievement, the data are rarely used by faculty and administrators to analyze success patterns and plan necessary improvements. Too, the public at large rarely gets honest, clear information about student performance. It is best to begin the change effort by honestly reporting available data and by creating a series of vehicles to engage building- and department-level educators and others in understanding the data and considering how they can improve their results.

6.Articulating Elements of Change. It is remarkable how many leaders jump into a change effort without thinking about the elements of a successful change strategy. Participants in our initiatives have agreed on five key elements in their change strategy, including development of challenging standards for student work, new assessments to measure progress, decentralization of authority, major investments in professional development, and accountability for results.

7.Committing for the Long Haul. Over time, school people have become jaundiced by saviors who disappear when the going gets tough; there s similar cynicism in higher education about leaders who don t hang around to see things through. Deep and comprehensive reform takes a very long time­maybe 10 years. Institutions unwilling to commit to a long-term relationship probably shouldn t bother in the first place.

8.Helping Educators Move from Programs to Systems Change. As clientele and/or needs change, educators are accustomed to creating add-on programs rather than changing the way they do business. Years of government policy have reinforced this tendency to the point where many educators are simply incapable of thinking systemically. Participants in the K-16 reform effort will need considerable help in thinking about change in different ways.

9.Being Clear about Goals. From the beginning, it is very important to be clear about the goal of the reform effort. Past efforts have suffered, we beieve, because of a confusion of goals and means. Our own focus is on improved learning K-16, especially among poor and minority students. Progress will be measured against clear standards for student work, developed in a process led by the combined faculties.

All of this, of course, can seem daunting. It is hard enough to transform a single school or a single department on a college campus; is it really possible simultaneously to transform whole districts and universities?

In all honesty, it s too early to tell. But anyone who doubts the power in a coordinated reform strategy or the energy that is released when, together with parents, educators in two systems work on problems that they view as their mutual responsibility, ought to go spend a few days in El Paso, Texas; Pueblo, Colorado; Northridge/Los Angeles, California; Akron, Ohio; or others of the approximately 20 cities where this work is underway. Or check back with us down the line as we test ourselves against our goal of generating significant, sustained increases in student learning.

Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

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