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.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

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