Linking the learning kingdoms

The Education Beat

Cooperation: The long-separate realms of K-12 and higher education are cooperating to smooth the path for state students.

October 13, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND IS slowly building bridges from the kingdom of elementary-secondary to the kingdom of higher education.

The instrument for this long-overdue development has a cumbersome title, the "Maryland Partnership for Teaching and Learning, K-16." Established in 1995 by the secretary of higher education, the chancellor of the university system and the state schools superintendent, the partnership is trying to create a seamless system from the earliest day children enter formal schooling to the day they receive their highest college degree. (K and 16 are symbolic. Many children attend preschool, and many adults study beyond the "16th grade.")

Think of the two systems -- K-12 and 13-16 -- as kingdoms separated by a river. For a century, roads approached from both sides, but there was no bridge. The kingdoms were separately ruled. They had their own laws, and their rulers seldom talked to one another.

Until the last years of the century, an old ferry ran across the river on an occasional schedule. It brought teachers from higher education to work in the lower schools. In the other direction, it carried high school graduates to enroll in the kingdom of higher education.

But several things happened that drew the kingdoms together. One was the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which forced the kingdom of higher education to help the kingdom of elementary-secondary raise academic standards and train teachers who could teach to those standards.

Then elementary-secondary decided to replace high school "functional" tests, which had become so easy and routine for most students that they had no meaning, with tough new end-of-course assessments. Beginning with the Class of 2005, all students would have to pass the tests to graduate.

But the bars would have to be raised. High school courses would have to be planned to prepare students for the exit tests.

The kingdom of elementary-secondary couldn't do it alone. It needed higher education's expertise.

Higher education had a major stake in what happened. Most of the students crossing the river to colleges and universities were from the kingdom of ele-mentary-secondary.

For decades, higher education had accused K-12 of sending unprepared students, students who couldn't read, write or compute. Community colleges were particularly on the hot seat. They conducted most of the remedial courses made necessary by what they saw as poor preparation in the lower schools.

The four-year senior colleges accused the two-year schools of passing along defective merchandise. The community colleges couldn't win.

Also roundly criticized were the colleges of education, where the teachers in the kingdom of elementary-secondary were trained. A round of reform occurred in teacher education in the mid-1990s, but it wasn't enough. Education graduates were particularly deficient in their ability to teach reading.

But then the ruler of the kingdom of elementary- secondary, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, and the co-rulers of the kingdom of higher education, Secretary Patricia S. Florestano and Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, devised the partnership idea, got money from Pew Charitable Trusts, and vowed to put aside their natural tendencies to put turf-protection above cooperation.

The K-16 partnership greatly expanded collaborative programs on both sides of the river. The Johns Hopkins University and its affiliated rehabilitation hospital, Kennedy Krieger Institute, joined with the State Department of Education in a partnership to improve reading instruction in the public schools. Hopkins, hitherto rather aloof, entered another partnership with the city school system and two traditional competitors, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Morgan State University. This partnership's goal was to train urban teachers.

For the first time, arts and sciences professors from the kingdom of higher education participated in writing academic standards for elementary-secondary. The sessions were occasionally hot, for they got down to the essential question in both kingdoms: What do students need to know?

Those involved in writing the standards discovered that there aren't easy answers. Consider mathematics. What should be the content of advanced algebra? Should high school graduates be expected to master advanced math and calculus? Grappling with those questions -- which had been answered differently on both sides of the river -- educators raged at each other and even cried at one stormy session.

Four years into the K-16 partnership, the two kingdoms have learned a good deal about each other. One of the things they have learned is that building a single, seamless system isn't a simple matter of the higher educators coming down from their ivory towers, and the elementary-secondary educators coming up from their trenches, to cross the river.

It's more complicated than that. Both kingdoms have serious problems. Both need reform, and each can learn from the other.

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