University­School Collaboration and Educational Reform

By Jay L. Robinson

Thomas Toch ends his valuable examination of "the struggle to reform the nation's schools" with a chapter titled "Conant Was Wrong: The Human Side of Schools." Near the end of the chapter, while acknowledging that "significant strides have been made on some reform fronts, especially in the campaign to professionalize teaching and in strengthening the academic training of the nation's top students," he worries that progress will be lost, and quickly, "unless dramatic changes are made in the climate in the nation's public schools, unless schools become places where teachers want to teach and students want to learn." A change in climate, he argues, is of especial importance for students who have typically not done well in school, students usually labeled "the disadvantaged":
...the education of disadvantaged students is unlikely to improve without dissolving the alienation and apathy that pervade so many of the nation's public secondary schools. Unless schools "reach" disadvantaged students, instilling in them a sense of belonging and a measure of enthusiasm for learning, other reforms are unlikely to help them, and the central goal of the excellence movement, the broadening of public education's academic mission, is likely to fail. Indeed, unless a human element is added to the reform movement, the gulf between the educational haves and have­nots in public education and in the nation is likely to increase....
University­school collaboration has made its own special contributions to what Toch calls the excellence movement, with many programs contributing significantly to the improvement of academic preparation for students and the professionalization of teachers. But perhaps the unique and most important contribution the collaborative movement can make to educational reform is to add the "human element." And to its credit, the movement has committed itself both to the "haves" and to the "have­nots" in America's public and private schools.

Attending to the human element to the persons behind the titles "teacher" and "student," to the very human relationships that must be established for collaboration to work is the central task in collaborative projects. As educators, our various titles "professor," "teacher," administrator" most often serve to separate us, as do our roles and responsibilities in our separate institutions. Those of us who work in collaborative projects find ourselves struggling to find new titles for ourselves: "partner" serves sometimes, because it implies a common aim and joint responsibility in working toward it; "colleague" can be useful as long as its use is sincere an acknowledgment of equality of status and as long as its users realize that a new kind of collegiality has to be worked for to overcome separations that have been institutionalized and assigned differential status. In good collaborative projects, one hears the title "friend" more often than is customary in most professional gatherings, and first names are often all that is needed. Some students I worked with (in partnership with my friend and colleague Sharon Floyd) long enough to learn their first names came to call me "Doctor Jay." I hope the name acknowledged my humanity more than my degree, but even the playfulness of the name suggests the distances that in fact separate an inner­city classroom from the office of a professor in a self­consciously prestigious university.

Our struggle to find names for participants in collaborative projects is a healthy one, in human terms, and can be a useful reminder that in undertaking such work we are inevitably trying to establish new structures for educational change. Our capitalist, probably not post­ capitalist, society has flourished through specialization of expertise and through the assignment of differentiated roles, responsibilities, and rewards. The structures of our work separate us, as a glance at any institution's table of organization (certainly mine) will show, as the breakdowns in communication across unit boundaries show even more clearly.

Most collaborative projects I know, and know to be effective, are problem centered, and the participants in them are, or at least include, those who are primarily responsible for finding solutions for the problem. Teachers must be the active participants in collaborative projects and, given the current status attached to the title "teacher," empowerment must be one of the project's aims. Empowerment comes more easily and the term empowerment makes more sense, when both school and university partners call themselves "teacher" and when there is mutual recognition of both common and differential experience and expertise, common and different needs and aims. In collaborative projects, all teachers have to be learners as good teachers always are; university teachers especially must see themselves in the role of learner, never in the role of "professor," even though their specialist knowledge of subject matter is likely to be a valuable contribution to the joint work. Effective projects often include administrators among their participants to insure that innovations have some chance of finding their place a more stable one in existing structures and among budget priorities. But administrators in projects must at least imagine themselves as teachers who have things to learn about life in classrooms.

Putting things in more human terms: as a university partner, I have found a recognition and confession of my own ignorance one of the best contributions I can make to the opening conversations about work that will be done in collaboration. Even though I am a willing learner and a pretty good observer, I'll never know as much as my school colleagues do about the circumstances of their work in classrooms, about the shapes of learning as these are influenced by forces within the school and in the community; about the lived­lives of students and how those lives shape learning; about perspectives on subject matter that emerge in illuminating and valuable ways when one's charge is to teach all young comers in their quite splendid diversity of capacity and background. In collaborative projects, local knowledge of the kind Clifford Geertz writes about is essential knowledge, and neglecting it can lead to offering silly solutions for serious problems.

Some years ago, a group of us spent many frustrating hours planning a sequenced curriculum for some English classes for at­risk students. We made a nice curriculum, but we didn't know how to make it work until we faced the problem that really got in the way of our students' learning. These were not dropout students we were seeking to serve; rather they were drop­in students who attended class irregularly, often seemingly at whim, students whose lives outside school offered little in the way of sequence as those of us who are more privileged in some ways understand such a concept. One student, an able one as we were to find out, fed and dressed three small siblings before he could think about getting himself ready for school; the night before, he worked until midnight to earn his essential share of the family's income. More than a half of the students in our classes were themselves real, not surrogate, parents and most took their responsibilities seriously.

To meet these students' needs, we had to think of much more than curriculum; to give them the sense of belonging that Toch talks about, we had to try to restructure schooling to accommodate, in so far as we could, to the shapes and realities of these students' everyday lives to give them what so many wanted: a glimpse of possibility, a chance at learning that might help them re­shape the lives they led. In circumstances like these, the human element is the essential one; it must inform any curriculum that has as its end academic achievement. The human element is no frill; it is both basic and the basis of any learning.

In collaborative projects, participants always meet in a borderland, a space that has recently been named by scholars who are interested in examining new structures of interaction that emerge when members of separate cultures find themselves, for whatever reason, living together and working together. Trying to find one's way in a borderland, old maps help some, but new maps must be drawn. Walking on unfamiliar ground, people have to find new ways to talk together if they are not to get hopelessly lost; working together for a first time, people have to find unaccustomed ways of interacting. In Saginaw, Michigan, an inner­city district providing space for a borderland called what we were doing "Staff Development;" but what emerged from our steps onto strange land took shapes unfamiliar to most who use that well­known term. As colleague explorers, we negotiated the borders of our unfamiliar territory, moving from the Staff Development Center into classrooms, homes, and community centers; we translated for one another when we found our separate languages inadequate to our new tasks; we tried for a language of friendship when silence, or angry disagreement, threatened such common citizenship as we were struggling to form.

Structural change inevitably results when work is being done in a borderland. In Saginaw, joint talk about expectations for student literacy led to new modes of writing assessment, modes that are now district practice; teachers' daily schedules were changed to provide more time for collaborative planning; classroom locations were changed to facilitate that planning and to enable both team teaching and friendly collegial talk; conversations about expectations and assessment opened the way to experiments and innovations in teaching practices and to the discovery of unsuspected student capacities; experiments in team teaching and with cross­age peer tutoring led to a teacher initiated move to abolish all tracking in Saginaw's language arts classrooms. Work in a borderland invites even demands innovation; and when the inhabitants of a borderland include both students and the administrators who are responsible for effecting beneficial change for their good, maps can be purposefully redrawn.

A school where I have worked as a university partner has adopted a motto that serves to remind me of what I am or should be doing when I venture from my comfortable study into a borderland. The school, an alternative one in a tough Detroit neighborhood, uses this as a guide for their efforts toward educational change and improvement: "It's the children, stupid!" Few people miss the deliberate allusion to a similar motto, used in a recent presidential campaign, which for many now serves as an adequate shaping end for American education: children imagined as commodities, as "human capital," in a competitive corporate marketplace. Fortunately, most teachers and many administrators know full well that the children they see everyday are many more things than prospective employees, that their minds and imaginations can be kindled by other goods than productivity and profitability, or what can be purchased in a mall. In this school, "kid­watching" is the research method teachers use to find out what kids are learning and whether or not they are learning; kid­watching offers the added value of finding out how many good things children can be if our teaching is made accountable to them, if our schools provide "a human element" all too absent in all too many American institutions. In Saginaw, we found out that drop­in students attended more regularly when we worked hard to make classrooms places they wanted to be places where they would be treated humanely, places where their very human problems, hopes, and aspirations could be articulated and responded to.

Workers in collaborative projects, workers in the borderlands, might do well always to ask these questions: Where in our plans for change is the human element? Are the structural changes we are proposing likely to instill in students, "disadvantaged" or not, "a sense of belonging and a measure of enthusiasm for learning?" No structural change is ever likely to be as important as are the changes we can make in the ways we perceive and respond to one another as human beings.

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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