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Rethinking education reform

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Esther Cepeda
April 7, 2011
— CHICAGO

Across the country, cities and states are reconsidering their traditional roles as local competitors and banding together to overcome shrinking budgets and crumbling economies. Their hope is that regional planning efforts will enable them to carve out a shared future through a new knowledge economy.


These alliances are still in their infancy, but the new wave of collaborative thinking inspired James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus and professor at the University of Michigan, to apply the same concepts to the unwieldy business of education reform.


His new paper, “A Master Plan for Higher Education in the Midwest: A Road Map to the Future of the Nation’s Heartland,” makes recommendations based on the premise that our higher education system was created for an industrial economy that is now outdated. Duderstadt challenges us to rethink the education system from kindergarten through post-graduate study to support lifelong “cradle to grave” learning, and his emphasis on institutional cooperation is worthy of national consideration.


The tactics he suggests for redesigning education through collaboration are based on the practices of the best education systems in the world—setting high standards for student and teacher performance, extending the school year, investing in modern learning resources, implementing rigorous methods for assessing student learning, preparing and rewarding outstanding teachers, and managing and governing school systems in an accountable fashion.


But Duderstadt’s road map is groundbreaking because he brings those proven methods together and applies them to a lifetime educational experience, whereas today the terms “master plan,” “strategy” and “education” rarely go hand in hand. This country’s education system from kindergarten through graduate school is a patchwork of uncommon learning standards, curricula, methods of assessment and criteria for admission and graduation that vary from state to state, and from school to school. That’s because education, like the politics that shape and support it, has traditionally been considered a strictly local concern.


Duderstadt envisions states, governments and educational institutions shifting “from Balkanized competition to collaboration.” In this utopian environment, public and private colleges and universities would work with elementary and high school districts to streamline curricula toward the goal that all students graduating with a high school diploma are either college-ready or workplace-ready and prepared for a world that requires a lifelong commitment to learning.


He suggests that colleges and universities share facilities and programs, thereby enabling them to expand specialized programs while decreasing their reliance on dwindling state financial support. He proposes that colleges standardize their requirements for academic credits and majors so students could transfer between institutions freely. Duderstadt also challenges higher education institutions to set a “zero-defects, total quality” performance goal in which all enrolled students are expected to graduate in a prescribed period.


None of this is rocket science, but the ideas are striking because they’re prudent yet unimaginable, considering the tangle of education providers who would have to come together to collaborate, much less agree, on a master plan.


For example, in my home state, there are almost 900 public school districts, each with its own sets of teachers, staff, administrators, school boards and regional offices of education. There are 300 different accredited local community colleges, regional universities, independent liberal arts colleges, research universities and for-profit providers in Illinois, each supporting its own infrastructure, staff and educational missions.


Seldom do these people talk to each other with common goal-setting in mind.


“The idea of a greater collaborative approach and a more integrated system just hasn’t ever been a topic of discussion,” said Douglas C. Bennett, president of Earlham College, a liberal arts school in Richmond, Ind.


He told me that the success of his college is tied to drawing students from neighboring Ohio, but that state might as well be a different world when it comes to cooperation.


“When (educators) get together to talk at the state level, the conversation is usually a nasty one about who gets what out of the state budget, and I’ve never seen anything like this on a national level—and we should.”


With all the financial stresses facing education, you’d think these dialogues were already under way. But it isn’t too late to start. The new reality is that states will always compete against each other in a national marketplace, but as our country is increasingly asked to compete in a global marketplace, regional and national collaboration between the educators preparing students through a lifetime of education will become indispensable.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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