K-12 And Higher Education Are Considered Separate Systems. What If They...

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K-12 And Higher Education Are Considered Separate Systems. What If They Converged?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 8, 2017

K-12 And Higher Education Are Considered Separate Systems. What If They Converged?

Education in America is a tale of two systems. There’s K-12 education policy and practice, but a separate set of rules—and a separate culture—for higher education. A new book argues that it doesn’t have to be that way.

In “The Convergence of K-12 and Higher Education: Policies and Programs in a Changing Era,” two education professors point out potential benefits of taking a more holistic view to American education (in a volume that collects essays from other academics). They acknowledge that there are potential pitfalls, noting that even well-intentioned systems can have negative consequences. But they argue that “now more than ever, K-12 and higher education need to converge on a shared mission and partner to advance the individual interests of American students and the collective interests of the nation.”

EdSurge recently talked with one of the book’s co-editors, Christopher Loss, associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: The major federal laws governing both K-12 and higher education were created in the 1960s, but both are being reexamined. What’s different about the education landscape today?

Loss: A big difference is that we have far grander expectations for the entire educational system. And with those grander expectations have come a far greater sense of disappointment when that system fails to deliver in the ways that we often hope that it will—and think that it should. So the stakes around the education system are seen as far larger than they were in the middle 1960s when frankly it was still possible to earn a high school diploma, and thanks to a vibrant manufacturing sector, it was still possible to get a good union job and earn a good living.

And now we have a far greater sense of stratification, and the manufacturing sector has, as is well known, really diminished. And so higher education is seen as more or less necessary. Not just something that could maybe be pursued, but something that needs to be pursued.

I was interested in connections you made between higher ed and K-12. Do you think people might be surprised at how many parallels there are between some of the trends in K-12 and higher ed right now, such as both being pressured around accountability?

The idea of accountability and of trying to raise the curtain on the education sector from elementary school all the way through college, I do think that's a paradigm trending upward. There was a time when universities were held in the highest possible regard. And I think that kind of deference has really eroded in recent years, as we see a lot of different kind of polling data indicating that people aren't willing to just give the higher education system a blank check to go about their business. It's truly a newer trend in higher education, and I think we can really trace the origins of that back to the changes in the K-12 system.

What would you say to someone who says, ‘Let's keep these separate, because they have so many differences’?

We have traditionally thought of the two sectors as more or less separate. And I think there are real consequences to doing that. For example, we tend to study the two sectors separately. Instead of thinking about the sector as truly one that is connected, in which most high school students now anticipate that they're going to go on for some kind of additional education, whether at a community college or increasingly likely at a four-year college or university. Which is to say that we have tended not to think of the sector as most people actually experience it—which is one continuous ladder, one that often is missing rungs, and is sometimes difficult to climb, depending on a whole host of different factors. So, I think that the research agenda proposed by Pat and I and our collaborators is one that actually gets much closer to the experience that most people actually are having with the educational sector.

What role does technology play in some of the convergences that occur or are happening?

There's a great essay in the collection by June Ahn, which deals with the idea of technology as a key mediating source and mechanism for the creation of various kinds of convergences between and among different sectors. I think one of the important aspects that June deals with is the fact that those technological fixes are not ready and foolproof substitutes for some of the really important, tried-and-true ways that we have taught and learned across the decades. Education is a social experience. And so there are ways in which the technology, as effective and significant a development as it is, is still not a perfect substitute for some of the really traditional ways in which human beings have tended to converge and learn from one another in the past, and in ways that we still continue to learn from one another today.

Americans like to see themselves as among the best in the world in education. But lately, the education leaders have been looking abroad for ideas, I think. What can we learn from countries that do have closer links between K-12 and higher ed?

We think of education as a vehicle for training citizens. But what we are training them for has changed as our horizons have broadened beyond the local communities in which we live to the states and then the nation, and the entire world. And so increasingly, we are thinking of education as a mechanism to prepare not just citizens for this country, but really citizens of the world. So how do those factor into the educational experiences that our students are having? What kind of preparation and training do they require? And then conversely, are these actually worthy goals for us to pursue?

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