School­College Partnerships: Lessons of the Past

By Arthur Levine

School­college partnerships are in vogue today. They are being touted by government, foundations, national commissions, the press, and educators of all stripes. And despite all the hoopla, they actually seem to be a pretty good idea.

In fact, they are such a good idea that every few decades we as a nation, resurrect the notion of building a bridge between grades 12 and 13. Historical memory being what it is, there has been a tendency to view each resurrection as a birth rather than a rebirth or as an innovation rather than a renovation. This essay is a quick look backward at the first attempt at school­college partnership, which may have been the most successful cooperative foray. It was certainly the longest in duration, lasting from roughly 1810 to World War I.

Much about this first partnership is reminiscent of contemporary initiatives. Then, as now, schools and colleges were under public attack. They were said to be the root of most national problems, ranging across the economic and social fabric of the country from the moral decay of the nation and the worsening conditions of our older industries to the decline of civic engagement and the coddling of immigrants. The schools themselves were criticized for poor quality and diminishing standards. The curriculum was characterized as being anachronistic and incoherent, and including too much remedial education.

The leaders in the current partnership efforts were the leaders in the first era, too. They included the chief federal education officer, the heads of a few prominent schools and colleges, an assortment of journalists, and a few of the better­known foundation presidents.

Then, as now, there was an outpouring of reports and task forces, and one inescapable fact about school­college partnerships is that they have never been a friend to trees. The recommendations of the reports have not changed much over the years either. They initially proposed higher academic standards, more rigorous curricula, a longer school year, better quality teachers, stronger student discipline and, of course, more school­college cooperation.

So much for deja vu. This is where the historical mirror ends. In two critical respects the first movement differed sharply from the current version. One difference is the nature of philanthropy. In the first era of cooperation, there were far fewer funders.

Their resources were larger, their goals were more focused, and substantial incentives were offered to schools and colleges for achieving specific goals. For example, perhaps the most influential force for bringing about planned change across secondary and higher education early in the century was the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It had sufficient revenues to offer a pension to the faculties of colleges that met its goals, which among other things, required, for admission, a four­year high school education, including 14 units of study, which consisted of four major classes taken five times a week. In demanding these changes, the Carnegie Foundation simultaneously changed the nature of collegiate and secondary education in the United States.

The point is not whether the Carnegie­induced reforms were good or bad but simply that the place of resources in school­college partnerships has changed. Today, philanthropic support is more diffuse and less effective. The number of foundations involved has expanded geometrically over the years. The size of their resources has shrunk in equal proportion. The result, in the main, is a cornucopia of underfunded and ephemeral initiatives, sponsored by lone foundations, which lack both the focus and the leverage to support substantial, long­term partnership activities.

The second difference between the two eras is that the first created permanent mechanisms to support the partnerships. Accreditation is an example. In 1885, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges was created to bring together the secondary and higher education communities. The idea caught on, and regional associations were created across the country. In 1901, one of them, the North Central Association, set standards for high school recognition or accreditation that included an annual calendar of 35 weeks of instructions, four to five major periods a day, and instruction in specified subject areas. The standards were widely adopted by the other associations, and by 1903 the regionals were not only accrediting schools, but also colleges.

Another example is the common college admission test. Created in 1901 by a newly established organization named the College Board, this exam was designed to replace the individual tests of the more than 400 colleges and universities in the country. In this sense the test became a vehicle for establishing common subject expectations for both college admission and high school graduation.

In contrast, the current partnership movement has not tended to produce "permanent" structures of this sort. Rather, the relationships between schools and colleges have been looser, more local, and more diverse in nature. Few offer much promise of surviving the current movement.

After more than a century of intermittently supported revivals of school and college partnerships, we have learned a few things. Maybe the most important is that cooperation is faddish. Historically, periods of high school­college partnership have been short. They have lasted only as long as public pressure persisted and colleges and schools could solve their problems better together than apart.

I have no illusions that the current effort will bridge the gap between grades 12 and 13, but I do believe we can make real progress in reducing the gap. We do not have a lot of time left to do this. If we are to make the most of it, I think we need to learn the lessons of the first reform period and engage in three activities:

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

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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