The Why and How of K-12 to University Partnerships

What do you think about K-12 to University partnerships? That is the question that I’ll briefly explore in this article in response to a recent question posed by Dan Burk. Dan wrote:

For my class [Dan is a doctoral student.], one of our readings was on John Dewey and 3 of his lectures. In Lecture 1 his point that, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.”

What stood out more and my question for you came from his 3rd Lecture on “Waste in Education”. During this lecture, he comes that to remedy these issues is to connect the schools to their surroundings, to real-life, to nature, businesses, and etc. In this, he notes how his school works closely with the University. Do you agree on that part that we need to get our elementary schools working more closely with our universities and how would we go about this?

The school to which Dewey is referring is actually still in existence today. It is the Laboratory School that John Dewey started in partnership with the President of the University of Chicago, William Harper. As an aside, this is the school that Arne Duncan (former US Secretary of Education) attended as a child. Anyway, from its beginning, the school was born out of a close University partnership, with the University of Chicago president having oversight. Dewey appointed his wife as principal, but that didn’t work out well. Harper eventually asked her to resign and Dewey was frustrated with his ability to shape the school in the way that he originally hoped. So, he and his wife left and Dewey took a position at Columbia University. You can read more about it in this short essay.

As I understand it, the type of partnership that Dewey sought was one where faculty used the school as a laboratory (hence the school name), engaging in research as well as educational experiments and innovations. In addition, the education students in the University would benefit from seeing theories and models applied in a real context. There are plenty of modern examples of this sort of arrangement in various parts of the country to be sure with varying degrees of success. There are instances of University faculty actually serving in administration in the schools (even as founders), University faculty conducting research, and much more. Sometimes it is action research, working with teachers to test out the efficacy of a potential intervention or innovation. In fact, even if it is not as tight of a relationship as what Dewey envisioned, these sorts of relationships are critical to making much progress in our pursuit of best practices in education. How do you conduct research on what works in K-12 education without a laboratory or a population to study?

This is assuming that we are talking about a partnership with a research University. There are plenty of University education programs where the faculty have larger teaching loads and do not devote much time to research. As such, a K-12 to University school partnership would inevitably look different there as the University faculty are largely teaching that which they learned from other researchers. They are just passing on the knowledge and best practice to a next generation of students while doing a very small or modest amount of research on the side.

Nonetheless, given the right arrangement, I see great promise in strong K-12 to University partnerships focused upon educational innovation and best practices in teaching and learning. I see the most promise when the faculty from the University are closely integrated with the administration and teaching staff on the K-12 level. In other words, it is a truly academic partnership and not just a University attempt to get more enrollment or for the K-12 school to get free professional development or a funding source. It is a relationship where they are working together to establish priorities, co-create research agendas, and co-implement various models and promising practices. This is less of a consultant role and more of a true integrated team and partnership. For that to happen, it usually requires a solid funding sources and a formal agreement, one where there are often people at the University who are dedicated to overseeing the research and relationship.

How does this happen? Some higher education institutions establish dedicated offices, centers, or research institutes where a director of some sort oversees these relationships. Sometimes these are established by a single professor or team of researchers with outside funding. In other cases, there is a formal partnership between University executives and leadership at a K-12 school. With some states allowing Universities to be authorizers for charter schools, that has become a popular means of funding and encouraging such relationships. In still other cases, the school is co-founded, with the partnership embedded into the very formation of the school.

So, yes, I see great potential. In terms of how to do it, there are dozens of options. As many of my readers know, I see great wisdom in starting from scratch and pursuing the co-founding approach. Yet, there is promise and possibility in the other approaches as well.

Schools as Problem Solving Communities: Education Through Righting Wrongs

What would it look like to re-imagine schools as problem solving communities? In reading about Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, I came across several wonderfully thought-provoking quotes including the following:

Nobody has any right to find life uninteresting or unrewarding who sees within the sphere of his own activity a wrong he can help to remedy, or within himself an evil he can hope to overcome.

I couldn’t help but apply this to my work and thinking about learning communities. Consider the countless problems and challenges in all of our lives, families, communities, and countries. Now imagine a school focused upon students learning by studying related problems solving of the past, analyzing and seeking ways to solve problems of the present, and trying to prevent or proactively address problems of the future. I’m sure that it could happen, but I find it hard to imagine a student saying that class is boring when that student is devoting her time to addressing a problem in the communities that is impacting her and her family in some important way. The work might be hard, even overwhelming at times. It might be frustrating. It might require enduring through tedious tasks. It would not, however, be uninteresting, and solving a problem would undoubtedly be rewarding. And if students are able to see that their work directly impacts the well-being of other people, the solution to important problems, I suspect that we would find far more students engaged and striving for more.

Imagine a science teacher reorienting the entire class around wrongs that need scientific knowledge to remedy. Imagine the same thing for a history class. Imagine students learning how the arts can be used to overcome or challenge evil in the world. Imagine a classroom or school where you could walk into any room and interview the students, and each of them could frame their work around the wrong that they are trying to right or the evil that they are striving to overcome.

These don’t always have to be massive global issues. We don’t need to have our 1st graders bringing peace in some distant, war-torn country. Yet, we can engage them in solving problems and issues in their sphere of life. As Eliot mentions in the quote, this is about seeing “within the sphere of his own activity” what problems need addressing. These could be surfaced by the students. They could be shared by parents and the community. Then we could design projects and experiences around trying to address one or more of them.

A single wrong or evil could occupy days, weeks, months, or even years of study and effort by students or groups of students. What started as a school project could blend into a life pursuit, maybe even some sort of career. The connection between school and life would rarely be clearer than with such an approach.

Of course, trying to solve problems calls for new knowledge and skill. Students might find themselves driven to solve some sort of problems that requires them to first devote time and energy to developing mastery in some field of study. That might even look like a more traditional class or learning experience for a time, but with a difference. Students would no longer wonder why. The famous “so what” question would rarely arise…or maybe it would be constant. Either way, relevance would be at the center of school, and students would be active and engaged in solving important problems.

When I Don’t Practice What I Preach About Credentialism

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m an idealist. I’m an idealist with a propensity to do and act, but I’m still an idealist. As such, there are plenty of times where the ideal in my mind doesn’t necessarily line up with where I am in practice. I’m in pursuit of that ideal, but I still live in the world of the present reality. Sometimes I work hard to recreate that reality through some new personal habit, innovation, or effort. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. Yet, a simple recent event reminded me about the inconsistency between at least one thing that I’ve been preaching and reality.

I started working on a new writing project recently and, unlike my rough draft (typos and all) candor on this blog, it was important for me to produce more polished final pieces. In such instances I often seek out an editor / proofreader to help me out. In fact, I have a few excellent editors that I’ve used in the past. Yet, for this new project, I decided to post in an online service to see if I might connect with some new talent as well (I find it good to have a few options for when timing or the nature of the task isn’t the right fit for someone).

I posted the job and watched the dozens or more applications come into my inbox. Now it was time to start reviewing these applications to decide who to reach out to for further discussion. If I’m hiring an illustrator or graphic designer, I usually turn right to their portfolio followed by reading their reviews and ratings from past clients. Then I look at their rate of completion (What percentage of client projects did they follow through to completion?). I rarely even glance at their formal education. If they can do the job well as shown by past performance and the quality of their work that I can view for myself, then I hire them.

I pride myself on reviewing talent for jobs. I’m certainly not perfect, but I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years and reviewed thousands of applications. I’ve learned to read resumes from the bottom up, to notice nuances in language, to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter, to notice patterns, to identify core convictions and character traits that are likely to help something struggle or thrive in a given job, and much more. In fact, I love this part of my full-time job, and I enjoy it just as much when I’m hiring part-time people to contribute their passion and talent to a project.

Then there is my work around credentials, access, and opportunity. If you frequent my blog (or my book on What Really Matters in Education), you know that I am a concerned critic of what some call credentialism. I wrote about this in a 2016 Chronicle of Higher Education article. I’ve written about it in my blog. I spoke about it in front of hundreds and rooms of thousands. A degree is not the only pathway to competence, but too many employers today just use the degree as shorthand for competence. That is at least part of my criticism.

So, when I post for an editor / proofreader and start reviewing applications, what did I do? The first thing that I did was read their cover letters to get a sense of whether they understood the job and might be a potential fit. There are subtleties in their writing that also hint at (but don’t definitively indicate) whether they might be a good match for the task at hand. Then where did I look? Unlike my search for an illustrator or graphic designer, I didn’t go straight to the portfolio of work. I didn’t do that because it would take me too much time to read their editing, and most portfolios didn’t really show me what they edited and what they didn’t. It was just a polished article or piece of writing. I did glance at their reviews from past projects and their completion rate.

Yet, I also found myself doing something else. I scrolled down to see where they went to college (yes, I paid special attention to those with a college degree) and their major in college. When I saw English, technical writing, or journalism; I paid special attention to that application. When I saw a degree in an unrelated field, I lost at least part of my interest in that application. Do you see what I just did? I used the name of the school and the major as a shortcut for sifting through a large number of applicants. Yet, who knows if they were actually the best fit and talent in the pool of applicants?

I caught myself doing this and, while school name and major still influenced me, I turned back to the portfolio and reviews for more information. I looked for past employers who seemed to have the same level of commitment to excellence that I had for this project, paying special attention to their reviews of the candidate. Yet, this job site didn’t always list the name of the employer in the reviews. As such, even when I tried not to pay attention, the name of the school attended and the major kept coming to mind for me. A well-ranked liberal arts school made a difference in my opinion of them because I knew the caliber of writing expected in those schools. When they went to certain other schools, I had far less trust because I was aware that standards for writing were not as high.

Endorsements from others mattered to me, but I just didn’t have enough to go on so I reverted to the credential and reputation of the school. This might seem mundane to some readers, but this was a humbling moment for me. I believe in working to overcome credentialism. I believe that a vision for access and opportunity in education calls for us to embrace multiple pathways to competence. I believe in promoting systems that allow people to build candid and useful online reputations, allowing them to connect with others (including employers). Yet, we are not there yet. We still have plenty of work to do before we get there.

Reality check confirmed. Now it is time for me to get back to work trying to change that reality.

What Would You Prioritize If You Were the Next US Secretary of Education?

It is decided. On the late morning / early afternoon of February 7, 2017, the Vice President broke a 50/50 tie to confirm Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education. Now what?

I followed the nomination, hearing, vetting, debates, and lobbying closely in this process. Given the nature of my work, this particular position is one of personal interest. I’ve been candid about my past criticisms of the US Department of Education regarding certain policies and practices that are restricting promising innovations and reforms in education. I’ve also spoken up in support of other efforts, especially the desire to create ways to increase access and opportunity to quality education (even if I might have differences on the “how” in the past).

I didn’t speak out in support of Devos, nor did oppose her. If you read my work often enough, you already know where I have some shared ideas with Devos and where I might deviate from her stance in other areas. I am and will continue to be a person who speaks out about affordances, limitations, and promising possibilities in education, and all three are always present.

Now Betsy Devos is the US Secretary of Education and I will work alongside her in the effort to create and refine the educational ecosystem in the United States. For any of us who are engaged in the good and important work of education, I consider that a minimum responsibility. We are charged to speak out when we disagree, but in productive and civil ways. We are also called to work together on areas where we can agree, setting our personal agendas aside and striving to help create the best possible education ecosystem in the United States. Even more important, we are called to live out our educational callings in our distinct contexts.

Yet, I also want to use this as an opportunity to muse about this role. What if the Senate just confirmed you as the next US Secretary of Education? What would be your priorities? How would you spend your first ninety days? Here is what I would do.

Build a world class team.

This is not a lone ranger endeavor. You need to build a great team. These are people who understand the issues, strive to explore the breadth of possibilities, can engage in systems thinking, are committed to collaboration and coalition building, have bigger ears than they do a mouth, put students and families first, refuse to politicize education, they are deeply curious, they have a love of learning, they think deeply, and they are going to get things done. Some diverse viewpoints and experiences will only make this richer and more impactful.

Revisit the Mission Statement.

This is not a quick and easy task, but the US Department of Education mission statement is outdated. Missions matter, especially if there is leadership committed to focusing upon the core mission and sifting everything (and I mean everything) through that mission statement. Yet, if you read it carefully, I think that you will probably agree that it feels like a relic from the days of the Cold War and the industrial revolution, and it needs revision. Work with the necessary stakeholders to rewrite it and establish a clear set of core values to inform what will shape our work. Then we can build the rest around this mission and values. I know that a US Secretary of Education can just change such things on a whim, but I think this is worth the time and effort to push for change.

Systematically Review Existing Policies.

The current state of federal policies regarding education are often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and often so tied to past or current education practices that they unintentionally inhibit innovation and emerging practices. They are too often established without careful enough attention to unexpected consequences. It is hurting quality and progress. As such, I would engage policymakers, education administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders in a robust analysis of the affordances and limitations of existing policies, seeking to surface the problems with certain policies and ways to resolve these policies without also creating loopholes that allow for abuses and a complete lack of accountability. The financial aid program would be an early priority for me.

Clarify Local, State, and Federal Roles.

People talk about protecting all students through federal mandates. Others talk about pushing as many decisions to the state and local level. We need to get everything on the table and assess what belongs where. We will likely discover that there are a small but important number of policies that belong at the federal level, while others are better suited for the state or local level.

Support, Celebrate, Disseminate Educational Innovation and Preparation for Vastly Different Futures in Education.

We need a boost of future-readiness. Whether people think most of the innovation should happen on the hyper-local level, the state, the federal level, in private enterprise, or a mix of them; I see the US Department of Education as well-positioned to be a supporter and champion for educational innovation that empowers all individuals, equipping them to thrive as humans and citizens in a connected age. I would maybe even consider establishing, if possible, a Moonshot Task Force to aid in this effort. We can’t stay tied to existing models and constructs for education too much longer. It is holding us back from creating a better education ecosystem that truly equips people for life and learning in a connected world. Personally, I would love to make the future of credentials and reputation systems a priority and key part of this effort. It is time to move from a faster horse mindset to creating the educational equivalent of the automobile.

Create Conversations About What Really Matters and What Really Works.

We can benefit from having have national, state, and local conversations about what really matters; and this has to get beyond soundbites and political positioning. Our students deserve this, and our definition of “student” needs to broaden extensively. We have existing efforts around this, but I believe that we can be better about how we approach it. We need deep and substantive conversations. Our public knowledge and conversations (even within plenty of schools) are still too often uninformed about important foundational matters and emerging research.

We need to tell better stories and tell them more broadly. We can find powerful ways to tell stories, inspire people to action, deepen our collective knowledge about education, and facilitate the dissemination of quality resources. I’m not talking about a large, bureaucratic federal effort. I’m just talking about using this office to facilitate and amplify all the great work that is already out there.

I know. I’m not the next US Secretary of Education. Yet, these are still the types of priorities that I will push for as I am able. Devos is in and (regardless of a person’s stance before her confirmation) it is now time to get to work.