Connecticut's "developmental education gap" leaves appalling numbers of high school graduates in need of remedial help to do college work — about 60 percent never make it to or through college. Employers no longer trust a high school diploma — and now, nearly all jobs require at least some education beyond high school.
Part of the problem is a lack of coordination between public schools and what lies beyond. Most high school teachers and curriculum planners have no interaction with the colleges for which they are preparing students. These systems have operated in isolation from each other for decades, and it's time the state mandates a change.
We have a unique opportunity to make that change successful. With Connecticut's adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which more clearly define the knowledge and skills high school graduates should possess, districts are working to realign their curriculums to meet these new requirements by the 2014 deadline. In many cases, there are major differences between what elementary and secondary schools now teach and what they will need to teach.
Last spring, the state Department of Education brought together groups of educators to begin rewriting a model of core curriculum. This was not completed — but it should be. Without the state's leadership and models, every school district will have to do its own analysis of what exists today and what is required to meet the more rigorous standards. This will result in duplication of work and inconsistent outcomes — and just does not make sense.
But a larger challenge exists. If high schools continue on in isolation, we will only perpetuate the problems of the past and miss an opportunity. We should be conducting this curriculum revision work with higher education leadership and faculty. This would ensure proper alignment with their expectations and would allow them to better understand the challenges public schools face in meeting these standards.
To do so, however, will require more than just coordination of effort. Having public school educators and higher education professors in the same room will not ensure coherence. After all, each local board of education is going to want to have its voice in what is taught. Universities, on the other hand, operate based on faculty governance and academic freedom.
The two institutions also have very different methods of approving curriculum. Higher education relies on individual professors to develop courses and then curriculum councils at each school or college must approve them. Public education typically relies on small groups of teachers to write curriculums that are then approved by the local school board.
It's easy to see why there is so little coordination between the levels, given the differences in process and governance.
Recently, the Connecticut Association for Human Services hosted a meeting of groups interested in this issue. Representatives of public schools, community colleges, state universities, the state Board of Regents, the workforce development system and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association engaged in a frank and far-reaching discussion of how we all must work together. The group found common ground on the nature of the challenge and some potential solutions. One obvious solution is to take advantage of all the work now going on in the public schools to meet the new state standards and incorporate higher education representatives into the discussions.
But it is unlikely that the stakeholders will come together for sustained and meaningful course work integration unless there is a mandate to do so. It's going to be a lot more work on everyone's part to accomplish this together and some long-standing traditions will need bending.
I'm not a fan of mandates and have spoken out against unfunded mandates. But this is one area where the institutional barriers are so great and past practices so hard to overcome that mandating public and state higher education systems to work together just makes sense. This, coupled with the completion of the state's unfinished model of a core curriculum, would help propel schools toward meeting the new standards and prepare students for successful post high school education.
Philip A. Streifer is the superintendent of schools in Bristol and chairman of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents. The views are his own.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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