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Colleges’ Late-to-the-Party Scramble to Get Ready for Common Core

By Jon Marcus

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In sterile, air-conditioned conference rooms across the state, educators will be gathering this summer to prepare for the new standards soon to be in place in most of the nation’s kindergartens through high schools called Common Core.

But the people at these meetings won’t be primary- or secondary-school teachers. They’ll be university professors, planning changes to accommodate the imminent arrival of students being taught in dramatically new ways.

Even though the Common Core has been promoted as a means of better preparing America’s children for college and careers, the people who run higher education have, for the most part, gotten involved only late in the process, they and others say.

Many academics helped design the standards for kindergarten through 12th grade. But colleges and universities have been slower when it comes to bringing their own programs into synch with this massive overhaul of U.S. primary and secondary education.

Many higher education types “sit in their ivory tower assuming that Common Core is a K-through-12 issue. It is not,” said Pamela Clute, assistant vice chancellor of educational and community engagement at the University of California, Riverside, who is spearheading an effort among university professors and administrators to collaborate on the Common Core with public school districts in two surrounding counties. “It’s a pipeline issue.”

Universities like hers, Clute said, are at the end of that pipeline. Yet despite years of blaming each other for precisely the lack of preparation among students that the Common Core is supposed to address, she said, educators at the various levels of the education system have proven tough to bring together.

“It took a lot of politicking,” Clute said. “Everybody at the table is thinking, ‘Why should I spend my resources? Why should I spend my time? Am I going to get an award for my work? What’s in it for me?’”

What’s in the Common Core for higher education, its advocates say, is the chance to reduce the frustrating and expensive need to teach students what they already should have learned in elementary, middle, and high school.

Only a quarter of high school students who took the ACT test last year were judged ready for college in English, reading, math, and science, according to the company that administers the test. Another national study (pdf) found that more than half of recent high-school graduates entering community colleges needed remedial courses, a process so demoralizing that only about a quarter of them ever manage to earn degrees. Providing all of that remedial education costs universities and colleges $7 billion a year, the National Bureau of Economic Research reports.

Collaborations in Tennessee, California and elsewhere are trying to figure out where in the lower grades students fall behind, and piggyback on the Common Core to patch those holes.

UC-Riverside and its partners in the Inland Empire College Success and Career Readiness Collaborative (pdf), for instance, traced math deficiencies in arriving college students back to the fourth grade, where they found that there was too much emphasis on pure multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division, without a sense of how in real life those computations might be used. Giving students that kind of context helps them stay on track, Clute said, and get to Algebra II by the time they’re in the 10th grade — essential if they hope to major in science, engineering, or math.

“It doesn’t sound like a huge thing, but to get the academic heads of all the districts, all the community colleges, all the universities to agree on that took me six months,” she said.

That’s because longstanding rifts remain between education levels. While nine out of 10 school superintendents and eight out of 10 university heads surveyed (pdf) said they think working together is very or extremely important, for example, only a third of each think they’re doing a very good job of it — and even fewer than that said they think their counterparts in the other system value collaboration as much as they do.

In another survey, nearly 90 percent of high-school teachers said students left their classrooms ready for college-level work, but only 26 percent of university professors said those same students arrived on their campuses prepared to succeed.

And of the 45 states and the District of Columbia that have signed onto the Common Core, education commissions in 35 of them report major or minor challenges in working with higher-education institutions on the transition to the new standards, according to the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.

“It’s probably fair to say that, out of all the players involved in the development of the Common Core, higher education was the one that was less involved than it probably should have been,” said Maria Ferguson, the center’s executive director.

More than 200 college and university leaders announced in June a new group to support the Common Core, called Higher Ed for Higher Standards.

But their comparative absence until now was not a big surprise to Anand Vaishnav, a senior consultant at Education First and project manager of the Core to College initiative, a network of 11 states — Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington — that are trying to align their primary and secondary schools with higher education.

“These sectors are completely different, with completely different cultures and leaders and governing structures and incentives, and the lines aren’t always clear,” said Vaishnav.

Core to College is one of several programs pushing to narrow this rift. “The Common Core is a great way to put an end to” it, Vaishnav said. “Then that blame game can stop.”

Rather than simply memorizing facts, the new standards call for students in primary and secondary schools to master critical and analytical thinking and problem-solving — college-level skills.

“The hope is that the students will come not with a new set of information they didn’t have before, but with different types of thinking that really are required for success in higher education,” said Elizabeth Hinde, director of teacher preparation at Arizona State University, who is working to coordinate the Common Core among educators across that state.

That means changing some of the curriculum in college, particularly at the introductory stages. Those summer workshops in Tennessee are to train university faculty who teach entry-level courses in English and math, which are being redesigned to account for what students now will be expected to learn in the 11th and 12th grades — and to synch up with the Common Core by emphasizing interdisciplinary reading and writing, for example, rather than solely reading literature and doing narrative writing.

Getting teachers and professors to confront this major change in how they do their jobs is hard, said Melissa Stugart, who coordinates the work going on in Tennessee for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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