Higher Ed Taking Leadership Role in Improving K-12 Education

Nov 6, 2012

In education, it’s pretty easy and uncomfortably common to see the finger of blame get pointed in someone else’s direction. Here’s how it usually goes: colleges blame high schools for not getting students prepared to succeed. High schools blame middle schools. Middle schools blame elementary schools. Elementary schools blame parents and kindergarten programs. And in the end, no one wants to be accountable. I’ve traveled all over the nation, and the story is the same nearly everywhere I go.

So it was rather refreshing to see the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) take responsibility and execute some leadership in issuing its latest report, Serving America’s Future: Increasing College Readiness. Specifically, the report calls on its member institutions to do four things:

  • Improve their teacher preparation programs
  • Increase the number of dual credit courses it offers to high school students
  • Help align K-12 curricula and standards to college expectations
  • Provide high schools with data on how their students perform in college

Calling this report a breath of fresh air might be an understatement, as it hits on what are easily among the biggest leverage points we have to improve our education system.

Teacher prep programs have increasingly come under fire lately for their inability to provide prospective teachers with the tools they need to help their students. The National Council on Teacher Quality has done quite a bit of work in evaluating these schools, and offers many common sense improvements that can certainly make a big difference in improving how we train teachers to be successful. Lots of people are calling for more teachers and smaller classroom sizes. However, even if you somehow reduced the teacher/student ratio to 1:1, you still aren’t going to see much in the way of improvement if those teachers are ill suited to the job.

Dual credit courses, which provide high school students with the chance to earn college credit before they ever enroll in higher education, can help in a variety of ways. For one, it reduces the amount of time it takes for these students to earn a degree, which greatly increases their likelihood of completion and limits their exposure to college tuition. Secondly, they can provide students with the necessary confidence that, yes, they can in fact do college-level work and succeed. Thirdly, since many of these courses take place during the senior year of high school, dual credit courses replace what is typically considered a “lost year” of education with something that is worthwhile and relevant to their future. Finally, since these courses are typically more rigorous than standard high school classes, it better prepares students for what they can expect in higher education. Really, there’s very little downside to this practice.

Aligning K-12 curricula to college and career readiness is something that’s been in the works for years now, with the Common Core State Standards Initiative moving into its third year of existence this past June. While these standards have the potential to reshape education, and while most states have signed onto and made progress in implementing the initiative, there’s still a long way to go in making these standards a reality. The leadership that colleges can provide in getting these standards fully in place, and preparing schools and educators to teach to these standards, could be the difference between the success or failure of the initiative. And in states that haven’t signed on to Common Core, institutions must be ready to reach out to K-12 schools to ensure the same kind of rigor is installed.

The last part of the plan—providing high schools with information about how well their students perform in college—might be both the most exciting and most disappointing of the bunch. On the positive side, it’s always a good thing when institutions of higher education express their willingness to be more transparent. Doubtlessly, this information—if comprehensive enough—can aid K-12 schools and systems in better adjusting their policies and practices to maximize the success of their students when they graduate. The disappointing part is that colleges could still go a lot further than they are by providing similar information to the students themselves to help them make more informed choices about what they intend to study and where they intend to study it. I’m not going to nitpick, though—any movement in transparency is a good thing, and I certainly hope that this isn’t the end of their generosity when it comes to data.

AASCU and its member institutions should be lauded for taking on this important issue. This is the kind of leadership our colleges and universities deserve, and it’s the kind of leadership we should come to expect from their national associations.

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