C.L. MAX NIKIAS, president of USC, and WILLIAM G. TIERNEY, university professor and director of the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education.
This op-ed originally appeared in Education Week.
As we look back on research universities in the 20th century, one regrettable legacy we see is the firewall between too many of them and our public schools.
University administrators and professors missed meaningful opportunities to help K-12 educators manage and overcome the challenges they face daily. There was little sustained interaction between public school teachers and professors. Commonalities across high school and college curricula were largely nonexistent. What students learned in a math class in their senior year in high school, for example, frequently did not prepare them for freshman-level math. And the academic and social gulf between high school and university left too many of our poorest children unprepared for the transition.
This disengagement has much to do with how research universities were born and evolved in the 20th century. Institutions that were small, parochial scholastic backwaters morphed into academic powerhouses whose raison d’être was research. Faculty members doing research earned new respect within and outside the academic world, a development reinforced by the rise of nonacademic funding sources, such as foundations. By the end of the 20th century, research-oriented professors received higher compensation than their peers who only taught in the classroom. Growth and distinction became the new watchwords. Admired throughout the world, these universities helped drive American economic pre-eminence, especially in the second half of the 20th century. But the rise of the American research university had little to do with the creation or sustenance of K-12 education.
Times have changed and so, too, must the research university’s lack of engagement with public schools. No problem is clearer and more compelling where those of us in the research university might add our voice, knowledge, and support.
While not as bleak as commonly perceived, data on K-12 student achievement have remained sobering for over a generation. Many of our urban high schools are “dropout factories,” with up to half of the entering students never graduating. At too many schools, fewer than half the seniors will qualify to enroll in a four-year college or university. At many of our state universities, more than half the entering freshmen require courses in remedial math or English—or both. Several recent studies show that the performance gap between affluent and poor students in terms of test scores, high school completion rates, and, ultimately, wage earnings continues to grow at an alarming rate.
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