Are US universities doing enough to help schools?

With university set to become a near-universal expectation for high-school graduates, the separate silos in which K12 and higher education have traditionally operated are increasingly being seen as barriers to equity. But what, realistically, can universities do to bridge the great divide? Paul Basken reports 

August 4, 2022
University students framed by school bus door
Source: Getty montage

In the middle of the last century, US education underwent a fundamental shift.

High schools existed but attendance was not required; it had been common up to that point for fathers to pull their children from schooling after the 8th grade to start working jobs that would help their families.

Then, after the Second World War, the GI Bill offered returning veterans a range of benefits that included college tuition. With higher education a more realistic option for many, finishing high school quickly became the new baseline for everyone else.

In a big-picture sense, that moment mirrors the situation the US finds itself in now, with the onrushing advances of technology and lifestyle likely to make the transition from 12th grade to college an almost universal expectation.

The transition itself, however, is far from straightforward. The 1950s version was within the same “K12” (kindergarten to grade 12) institutions, which are open to everyone in their local communities as a matter of right. The newly emerging universal jump straddles two completely different worlds of education and has no consistent pathways or guaranteed payment methods.

Another point of difference is that while 1950s America was in the middle of its historic Baby Boom, making undergraduate recruitment particularly easy, the number of high-school graduates nationwide is now headed for a decline, an after-effect of the Great Recession. This raises the prospect of declining college enrolments and budgets if the transition from high school isn’t made easy for students.

Much of the policy attention aimed at easing that transition has been focused on the funding aspect. It’s a critical element, and real progress is being made there. President Biden promised during the 2020 presidential campaign to make two-year colleges essentially tuition-free for all students, and while Congress has so far refused, most states have enacted such a plan on their own.

But there are also a whole host of non-financial barriers to a seamless transition from school to college, most of which boil down to the fact that school and college are different organisational sectors that, more often than not, prefer to stay within their own silos. The consequences include their typical failure to align courses, counselling or teacher training expectations.

A number of school districts across the US have, however, been making determined efforts to bridge the divide. Two of the more successful examples are in the Chicago area. One involves all 340,000 mostly Hispanic and black students in the nation’s third-largest city, while the other is run by a much smaller coalition of predominantly white school districts in its north-western suburbs.

In both cases, the partnership efforts have centred on nearby community colleges – the easiest and lowest-cost post-secondary options – but have not been limited to them. Both schemes have produced gains in high-school graduation rates and post-secondary enrolment, in large part by better aligning course offerings between schools and colleges, creating robust systems of feedback and improvement across the divide, and giving students a much stronger sense of what is reasonable and possible.

The Chicago public grade-school system’s main post-secondary partner is the 54,000-student City Colleges of Chicago, although it has formal agreements with 35 colleges and universities in the region. Its approach was formed over the past two decades and includes a platform for lessons and student work portfolios that feeds into college applications, a heavy emphasis on college advising, and networks of alumni support. It introduces concepts of college readiness and career exploration (incorporating campus visits) in the 6th grade and it allows students to take courses for free at the City Colleges while they’re in high school.

The result is that even in a city plagued by youth violence, 85 per cent of Chicago’s high-school seniors now submit at least three college applications – and 85 per cent of them get an acceptance, says Megan Hougard, the chief of college and career success in the Chicago Public Schools.

The effort in the suburbs, meanwhile, centres on the creation of a consortium known as NECSS – the Northwest Educational Council for Student Success. NECSS is a partnership between Harper College, a two-year, 13,000-student institution about 30 miles north-west of downtown Chicago, and three surrounding grade-school districts that together average about 7,000 graduating high-school seniors each year.

About 30 per cent of those high-school graduates enrol at Harper, well above the nationwide average of about 23 per cent who attend any community college. Harper attributes that success in large part to NECSS’ provision of a forum where its instructors and administrators can regularly meet with their counterparts in high schools to agree on steps to take.

“Prior to 2009,” when NECSS was first envisioned, “we were not working very collectively with our high-school districts,” admits Michelé Smith, vice-president of workforce solutions at Harper. “We didn’t necessarily have the best working relationship with them.”

Leaders in both the Chicago and NECSS programmes talk up the importance of generating a sense among their grade-school students that college is a normal continuation of their educational journey, and that two-year colleges – sometimes looked upon as second-class institutions – are a smart and respectable pathway that creates and simplifies options from vocational training to four-year institutions.

“Because we’ve made these partnerships, Harper is a very viable possibility for many [local] students,” says Smith. “Because we work together, we’re not foreign to them.”

High school student in front of a locker
Getty/iStock montage

That recognition of student expectation may be one of the best ways to stop so much educational potential falling through the cracks between K12 and college, says William Tierney, emeritus professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and the founding director of its Pullias Centre for Higher Education.

In his view, the nine months starting around December of the senior year of high school may be the most critical lost opportunity in US education. By then, seniors have usually completed their college applications and their serious classwork. Colleges, in partnership with grade schools, ought to use that educational hiatus to prepare seniors for college, he believes.

Some institutions already run various prep schemes, he concedes, but usually for only a few weeks in the summer and often limited to those students seen as the most needy. That kind of outreach is important, he says, but it should be much broader. However, the multiple college and university leaders to whom he has made that suggestion have been routinely frozen by their expectations of how university teachers and their unions would respond.

Fear of faculty reaction also blights the high-stakes quest to better align course offerings and completion credits. That imperative is especially strong between two-year and four-year institutions, given the potential value to students and taxpayers of making two-year campuses the widely accepted starting point for most post-secondary journeys. But while some states have made important progress on common course numbering systems and on mutual recognition guarantees, that is far from true across the nation, amid wariness about encroaching on faculty’s fundamental right to determine course content. That pushback is even more in evidence when it comes to faculty accepting courses taught in high-school settings.

Even within the cooperative atmosphere generated by NECSS, Harper College still feels that pressure. “Dual credit can sometimes be a little bit of a political football,” says Harper’s provost, MaryAnn Janosik. “Some of our college faculty are concerned about students taking these classes in high school and then not taking them when they get to college” because they have already done so – thereby depriving faculty of the opportunity to teach those courses.

That kind of anxiety is reflected in declining confidence in the Advanced Placement tests. The APs are subject-specific tests produced by the College Board to affirm the satisfactory completion of high-school courses that are meant to be equivalent to college-level material. As such, the APs are one of the most established tools for bridging the K12-college divide.

However, as AP courses grow more common, colleges – perhaps dubious of lax quality control – are becoming less willing to grant credit for them, according to Michal Kurlaender, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis. In one of the more overt examples of the skirmishing, Missouri just enacted a law that requires state colleges to give course credit to any student scoring at least three out of five on an AP test. That led one state senator to publicly worry that a score of three may be “giving our children a false impression about their skills and abilities to succeed and persist in college”.

At the other extreme, Tierney recalls one first-year community college student he helped advise, who complained of confusion in his English class. The problematic text, it transpired, was by the notoriously impenetrable French semiologist Jacques Lacan. Tierney learned that the instructor had been turned down for a post at a four-year institution but had decided to teach the material he liked regardless.

“It’s just nuts,” Tierney says. We still “have a long way to go” on faculty prioritisation of student needs, he adds.

The various K12-college alignment issues have been allowed to persist for far too long, says Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America, a coalition of state government and post-secondary leaders pushing for greater minority success in higher education. “We’ve got to move out of the talking space and get into walking the walk because students are suffering while we’re still playing political gamesmanship with their lives,” she adds.

Yet even optimal alliances between the worlds of K12 and higher education probably can’t overcome one of the major sources of inequity and poor outcomes: the US tradition of financing grade schools at the local level. That structure means that schools serving low-income communities perpetually struggle with under-resourcing and, therefore, find it harder to prepare students for college.

An analysis by the advocacy and research group EdBuild found that US communities where more than three-quarters of students are white gave their schools about $7,000 per student per year in 2016 – a more than 50 per cent hike on what is available to schools in communities where more than three-quarters of the students are black.

Given that intractable reality, universities are being challenged at least to avoid making conditions worse for local low-income communities. A leading advocate of that push is Davarian Baldwin, a professor of American studies at Trinity College, Connecticut, who has chronicled instances where universities wield their local economic power in ways that hold down local wages, undermine local businesses and promote the overpolicing of minority communities.

“Universities claim to solve the biggest problems in our world,” Baldwin says. “And yet they fail to look at the problems they create in their own backyards.”

Another bare minimum for colleges and universities, say longtime education policy leaders Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, is to help governments see human education on a continuum.

Baum and McPherson are spouses with extensive academic careers – he a former president of Macalester College, she a professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College – who hold fellowship positions at the Urban Institute thinktank. Their recently published book, Can College Level the Playing Field?, featured in Times Higher Education, argues that “large and effective investment in early education” is a more cost-effective way to equalise educational outcomes across social strata than trying to do it at college level. And they have begun urging universities to expand their lobbying agendas beyond their own immediate concerns to areas such as Head Start, the federal programme that promotes school readiness among low-income children from birth to age five.

“It’s really important,” McPherson says, “that everybody involved in the enterprise of developing people – from being babies, or even before they’re born, to being successful, productive adults who are living healthy lives – should be on the same team.”

High school doorway frames a university lecture
Alamy montage

Another aspect of the school-college nexus that institutions of higher education are facing calls to improve on is grade-school teacher preparation.

For instance, there is broad concern over the amount of in-classroom experience that teacher candidates are getting during their post-secondary training. As a general rule, according to McPherson, schools of education don’t take the practising of teaching seriously enough: “They don’t view that as a really important learning experience.”

In most US states, the minimum amount necessary to be licensed as a teacher is 15 weeks, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). But in the view of the group’s president, Lynn Gangone, a year would be much better.

Good intentions can be stymied by politics, turf battles, siloed traditions and “challenges with resources on both sides of the equation”, she says. Another problem is that schools of education are often housed in mid-sized regional public universities that aren’t located near the places of greatest need. Nevertheless, there are some good examples of universities working with schools to improve provision, Gangone says.

For instance, Bowling Green State University’s “incredible partnership across dozens of districts” allowed it to respond to a lack of special-needs teachers by creating a specific training programme for them. And a particularly important model for the nation, says Jacqueline Rodriguez, vice-president for research, policy and advocacy at the AACTE, is Arizona State University. Working with the Mesa Public Schools – the state’s largest K12 system – ASU helped design a model by which teachers work in teams serving large groups of students, providing trainees with much deeper and more durable support.

Yet even when teacher candidates get good classroom experience as students, says Belinda Biscoe, a pioneering educator with extensive experience in both grade-school and university settings, they rarely get enough ongoing help, especially in their early years. Newly trained teachers are “overwhelmed with discipline issues”, she says. “They’re overwhelmed with the diversity of languages and all the things that they have to deal with to educate a classroom of students.”

Especially in minority communities, she says, teachers need a level of ongoing attention that too often is not available. “How do you educate a classroom when 10 of your students speak in a language that you don’t speak, and your students have a disability, either visible or invisible, that you don’t know how to deal with,” asks Biscoe, now the senior associate vice-president for outreach in the College of Continuing Education at the University of Oklahoma.

That lack of structure for new teachers in tough school environments is common across the US, says Sharif El-Mekki, the chief executive officer at the Centre for Black Educator Development, a Philadelphia-based initiative dedicated to improving the nationwide pipeline for creating black teachers. But El-Mekki’s centre believes that proper teacher education should not be left to universities. Rather, it should be a 12-year process, beginning with activities throughout high school to encourage students to consider a career in teaching, then continuing through their undergraduate years and their first four years on the job.

Nationwide, more than half of schoolteachers are thinking of quitting, with the problem especially acute among black and Hispanic educators, according to a member survey this year by the National Education Association. Causes include the pandemic – in Philadelphia, resignations among teachers have increased by 200 per cent over the 2020-21 school year – as well as longer-term issues such as low pay and poor environments, El-Mekki says. But another contributory factor is that schools of education are failing to get trainees ready for the actual communities they will be serving.

“Too many are so far up the Ivory Tower that they can’t really understand what’s happening on the ground,” he says.

Guidance counselling is another area of critical importance and shortage, says Complete College America’s Spiva. High schools should have about one counsellor per 100 students, but often have just a tenth of that number, she says.

School counsellors also face criticism for not making the best use of data to shape their recommendations of college or career to students. But that may not be fully solvable, Spiva says. “That field is part art and part science,” she says. “[Counsellors] really speak from their heart, and when you’re speaking from your heart, you’re not necessarily relying on your training.”

The Biden administration just made another new push in that direction, working with the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University and other service groups to create a network called the National Partnership for Student Success. The partnership has an initial three-year goal of getting the nation’s K12 system another 250,000 tutors and mentors, including post-secondary transition coaches. The plan offers at least $20 million in federal pandemic relief funding and calls on US colleges and universities to choose specific partners among K12 schools.

McPherson is among many who want to see less finger-pointing across the K12-college divide. “You can find plenty of cases of high schools blaming grade schools, grade schools blaming kindergarten, kindergarten blaming households,” he says. “That’s not the point – we don’t spend enough on education in aggregate.”

Where possible, McPherson says, educators should tackle smaller chunks of what may seem a daunting problem. One example he and Baum offer is the urgent need to improve the teaching of reading at very young ages, given research showing that children fall almost unrecoverably behind if they can’t read by third grade. Nationwide, only about 60 per cent of students meet that benchmark, even though educators have the basic knowledge to help about 95 per cent of them, McPherson says. “To not do that,” he says, “is terrible.”

Biscoe also sees an even worse lack of attention to the fundamentals in mathematics. While teacher training programmes at least prioritise the production of reading specialists in the elementary grades, “everybody thinks that anybody can teach elementary math”.

More fundamentally, Biscoe says, higher education might do well to worry less about crafting big-picture strategies regarding K12 education and more about addressing specific real-world situations where a need seems clear.

A generation ago, for instance, Biscoe realised that Oklahoma City had large numbers of homeless people whose children were not in school. Investigation revealed that it was often because schools were reluctant to admit those lacking standard childhood vaccinations. When she asked, local health officials told her they had been unaware of the problem – and they promptly set up a clinic to provide the shots.

That experience led Biscoe to identify numerous other obstacles, big and small, that prevented homeless Oklahoma City kids from entering and staying in school. The result is Positive Tomorrows, a grade school she founded in the late 1980s that now serves more than 70 homeless students from pre-kindergarten to grade 5.

Michael Sorrell, the trailblazing president of the historically black Paul Quinn College, has taken a similarly pragmatic approach. Seeing that the community around his campus just south of downtown Dallas needed more educational opportunities, Sorrell invited two high schools, with a few hundred students each, to share the college’s land. And he has an instinctive sense that working in a common environment will reveal its own advantages.

“One of the problems we have in this country,” he says, “is that we’ve just siloed so much of our lives, as if we’re pretending that, really, we’re not all interconnected. But, actually, much of what we do is interdependent.”

If US educators grasp that message fully, then perhaps one day the transition between 12th grade and the freshman year of college will be no more problematic than that between grade 11 and grade 12.


Print headline: Can US universities do more to help schools?

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