Rethinking Education Reform
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industrial economy that is now outdated.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
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
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
"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
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.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group