On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998

Partnerships for Today and Tomorrow

By Gerald N. Tirozzi

There is an old Chinese blessing that says: "May you live in interesting times." Those of us involved in education must be truly blessed. We do live in interesting times—times that challenge us and require us to keep a constant eye on the future. We must do this while scanning the present environment for innovative solutions to the everyday problems of American education. We have to think about today, and be visionary about anticipating what the future holds. We can not be afraid to test our creativity and challenge ourselves to do what is right for America's children.

Bart Giamatti wisely predicted the impact dramatic changes in our society could have on public education. He said "the pressures and fears associated with dramatic demographic changes will threaten our commitment to universal public education if we forget that it resists the development of an elite class and the emergence of a large underclass." American society is experiencing a major shift in demographics right now—a shift that will continue and intensify well into the next century. The impact these changes will have on our public education system will no doubt be profound, but much depends on how we, as a nation, react.

Consider the following statistics:

American schools must be prepared to deal with the implications of these changes. The need for strong, safe schools with high standards of achievement, talented and dedicated teachers, and a curriculum that responds to the technological demands of the world in which we live has become a national imperative. Buoyed by President Clinton's support and his identification of education as the nation's "number one priority," schools and communities are now poised to engage in meaningful education reform. The schools, however, can not do it alone. Innovative partnerships with universities, business and religious organizations are needed to help schools bridge the gap to success for all students.

If we are to make any progress in bringing all our students to a high level of academic achievement, we must focus on teaching. Nowhere is the need for innovation and partnership greater than in the way we recruit, train and retain teachers.

Consider the following realities:

No matter what we say in Washington, education policy really begins when the classroom door closes. While federal, state and local legislation and policies play an important role in promoting reform in public education, it is ultimately the practitioner in the classroom who has the most significant impact on student achievement. All reform initiatives pale in comparison to the role and responsibility of the teacher. As the 21st century approaches, it is imperative that this nation have consistent, dedicated, and hard working teachers in all of America's classrooms.

Every day, our nation's teachers must deal with a myriad of complex social, economic and cultural issues. As American society continues to change and grow, more and more expectations are being lumped onto schools and teachers. We expect teachers to prepare all students for productive employment, good citizenship and a high quality life. Yet in many communities, low standards, poor student achievement, and unhealthy and unsafe learning environments are the norm. This point takes on added significance as our nation's schools prepare to receive two million new teachers by the year 2007. Now more than ever, we must address the way in which we prepare teachers for the classrooms of the future. It is imperative that these future teachers be well prepared in both core subjects and technology, fully licensed and ready to handle classroom dynamics. All teachers, new and experienced, must have access to ongoing professional development, based on the latest research findings and technology training. Professional development programs must be in place for all teachers and should focus on both curricula and instructional strategies.

As a former Superintendent of Schools in New Haven, I understand that a school district alone does not always have the resources and subject matter expertise to stimulate and energize professional development activities. During my tenure in New Haven, we were fortunate to find a willing partner in Yale University President Bart Giamatti. I am proud that with the support and assistance of President Giamatti, the resources of Yale University were made available to New Haven teachers in what was to eventually become the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Over the years, the partnership between the New Haven school district and Yale University has allowed more than 435 New Haven classroom teachers to work directly with Yale faculty in developing subject matter curriculum and related teaching strategies. In 1978, Yale's partnership with the New Haven schools was considered bold and creative. Today, university-school partnerships are no longer an anomaly; universities and school districts across the nation are realizing the symbiotic power of partnership.

Universities have the potential to play an important role in helping states and local communities strengthen their schools and boost student achievement. When you consider the vast array of resources found at most universities, it makes consummate sense for them to partner with elementary and secondary schools. The constant cycle of research, talent and technology that is at the heart of every good university can be a lifeline for troubled schools. Universities can also offer sustained, innovative, and resource-rich programs of staff development for classroom teachers and specific content knowledge in a wide variety of related areas including public health, psychology, architecture and business.

Likewise, public schools can offer universities invaluable hands-on experience in education. Working closely with elementary and secondary schools gives university professors and students the chance to put theory into action and allows researchers and future educators to work directly with students in the classroom—an experience that gives their work depth and context. By exposing teachers and principals to new ideas in curriculum, instruction, technology and school management, researchers and graduate students see the impact of their work on schools.

As Connecticut's Commissioner of Education, I built upon my own experiences with Yale University and made a statewide commitment to professional development. As a key component of the Education Enhancement Act, Connecticut promoted continuing education requirements for teachers. A major part of this effort was embodied in allowing colleges, universities, subject matter associations, and other curriculum/instruction providers the opportunity to offer Continuing Education Units (CEU's) to Connecticut's teachers and administrators. This commitment recognized that viable, instructive, and research-based professional development cannot happen with school district resources alone—partnerships and alliances with a broad range of practitioners and service providers make it happen.

At the U.S. Department of Education, we are strongly encouraged by the growing number of education partnerships across the country. By bringing together a wide variety of education stakeholders, these partnerships serve as a true catalyst for reform. We believe public education in the 21st century will continue to demand innovative partnerships. Universities, businesses and other community-based organizations can provide schools with a variety of financial, human and material resources and serve as advocates for education reform.

There must be a collective resolve—at the Federal, State and local levels—to commit substantial financial and staff resources to accommodate the individual and group professional development needs of America's teachers. In addition, there must be a greater awakening, especially at the school district level, to the fact that partnerships and compacts must be formed with a multitude of professional development "players" including—but not limited to—colleges, universities, community based agencies, corporations and businesses, and various subject matter organizations and associations. The "educational river" of professional development is too wide—and a "school district's boat" is too small to navigate the currents of the multiple and myriad issues, logistics, and resource allocations which have an impact on teacher development.

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has been a beacon of hope for what is possible when a significant partner and an enlightened school district commit to working closely and cooperatively together to enhance teaching and to improve the teaching-learning process. States and school districts across the country should pause and look carefully at the universities and schools that have discovered the power of partnership as a means for implementing meaningful school reform—the results speak for themselves.

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© 1998 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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