How to Get Higher Ed to the Table for Meaningful Education Reform

As cautious and thoughtful higher education professionals it makes sense to show programmatic restraint.  Rather than committing precious resources to new initiatives that may or may not be successful, of course we should prioritize the stewardship of existing commitments over fleeting dalliances.

But here’s the problem- if we allow ourselves to be guided only by the voice of caution and restraint, we will never reach the necessary threshold to pull the trigger on partnerships and initiatives that are critical to our communities and the continued viability of our social systems.

As someone who has tried to work higher education partnerships- mostly education related- from a number of angles both inside and out, I understand the inherent challenges.  Universities, by definition, have a strong need for thoughtfulness, control, and clarity.  We are strategic entities that value research and solid decision making in all we do.  In many ways this is why we have so much to offer- we know how to do things the right way and how to be successful by design.  To universities, systems level issues embedded in community complexities are about as ill-defined as problems get.  They are messy, mired in politics, and promise little in the way of guaranteed successes and wins.

Having had the opportunity to work with and for the Buffalo School District for one short but fascinating year (half of my salary was reimbursed to UB for half of my time while serving as a liaison for higher education partnerships), I can hardly blame the University for their reticence.  In the highly polarized context surrounding our Prek-12 education system, the most well intentioned activities can become suspect within a circus-like atmosphere that spotlights blame and vilification.

To be clear, Higher Education has its own dysfunctions, but ours are much more subtle and accessible only to those who can decipher the intricacies.  To the Prek-12 world, however, we often come across as aloof, out of touch, and unwilling to take part in solutions to problems that we clearly have a hand in.  This reluctance can be maddening for community leaders who simply can’t imagine why faculty and leadership wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to partner when the work is so obviously critical and the opportunities so great.  And to their credit, I have seen an enduring determination to bring Higher Education to the table regardless of past failures and shortcomings.  I can only imagine that this tenacity is rooted in a deep understanding of the potential benefits of partnering and also the necessity of marrying the two systems.

Hopefully, readers already accept both the importance of Higher Education’s role in education reform, and the cultural chasm between these two very distinct worlds.  If so then logically it follows that in order to leverage and ensure the benefits of collaboration given these inherent differences, we must address Higher Education’s understandable reluctance to “get in bed” with such a risky partner.

I assure you that I’ve given this problem a great deal of consideration.  I have studied the issue of educational partnerships through a number of roles and reporting relationships, working for the President, Vice President for External Affairs, Dean of Education, Provost, and now through the lens of Experiential Learning within Undergraduate Education.  And the more that I see the more I know that to make PreK-16 partnerships both meaningful and sustainable, we need to mitigate the risks for Higher Education and allow them to do what they do best, while not expecting them to wander too far from their core.  Simply put, we cannot expect Higher Education to relinquish their need for caution, good decision making, and success- since doing so would put them at risk while diminishing the integrity of what they have to offer in the first place.

I am convinced that the only way to realize the potential and need for partnerships is to create safe spaces for Higher Education to participate in the development and implementation of models in ways that align with their core needs and goals.  In other words, their involvement needs to be around innovation, research, and engagement and the environment needs to allow for fidelity of implementation, scrutiny of data, and continued reflection and capacity building.  Risk has to be mitigated through carefully framed expectations, research questions and hypotheses, with the freedom and flexibility to follow the data and do what is needed to make the initiatives successful.

To those who will point out that these conditions are completely unrealistic within the constraints of the current system and that higher education shouldn’t have the luxury of opting out, I feel their frustration.  But I would also point out that we in Higher Education are as slippery as we are cautious- it is very difficult to force us to a table that isn’t appropriately set.  I can tell you that continued efforts to strong-arm, shame, or incentivize us into collaboration will only result in continued frustration and disappointment.

But please do not give up, for the riches that await us- and our children- are well worth the effort.  Clearly, the brokering of partnerships between PreK-12 and Higher Education calls for a deep understanding of the systems and cultures at play along with their respective needs and priorities. But perhaps more importantly, it calls for the creation of opportunities and spaces to do things the right way, to relax some of the constraints and conditions that contribute to the inherent complexities of the situation, and to allow Higher Education to do what it does well.

To echo the conclusions of many of my past posts, we need facilitators, designers, and architects who understand the strengths and constraints of all relevant systems and can create spaces and models to leverage the best they have to offer.  And above all we need a shared vision that is strong enough to keep us on track, working towards a common goal that will elevate all of our work and prevent our natural tendency to withdraw from the relationship when things get uncomfortable.

In summary, I concede that we in Higher Education may have commitment issues, but that does not mean that we can’t be good partners.  Perhaps like any good relationship we could all benefit from clarifying our expectations and needs upfront.  Once we’re clear and comfortable with our abilities to be ourselves while respecting and supporting one another, we can finally start to enjoy the riches of a long and fruitful relationship.

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