Higher education has a bone to pick with public schools. Too many high school graduates entering colleges and universities are not prepared for post-secondary education.

That complaint is true enough, but the missing element is that lower education cannot improve unless higher education gets much more involved in helping. The complaint suggests its remedy.

“Every problem contains within itself the seeds of its own solution,” concluded Edward Somers, a jurist from New Zealand. To understand this point, let us look at the arguments.

Professors constantly complain that entering students are not prepared for the academic rigors of post-secondary education. State legislators regularly grill university presidents about the costs of remedial courses for students entering college. In schools of education, many professors criticize the move to raise academic standards in the public schools which is meant to avoid the need for these remedial courses.

What is ironic about all these complaints is that answers are embedded in the criticisms themselves. The solution to students not being adequately prepared for education beyond high school is simple: colleges and universities should not admit unprepared students.

A demanding admissions policy would send a strong signal that high school students wanting to go to college should take rigorous courses and learn more. Other economically advanced countries which have such a policy have little need for remediation.

Why then don’t many American institutions have demanding admissions standards? The answer is that those institutions might lose students–and the revenue they bring in. College and university leaders fear that a high bar for admission would simply drive applicants to other institutions without such high standards.

In the United States, there are nearly 5, 000 degree-granting institutions of higher education. In this competitive “free-market,” some colleges and universities are highly selective; but most need students to survive. This often ignored economic reality prevents colleges and universities from excluding poorly prepared high school graduates.

Truth be told, many parents like this low bar for college admission because it means that their children will be able to attend some institution of higher education. Public opinion polls have consistently shown that most parents want their children to attend college.

So, if the obvious solution cannot be adopted because of this social pressure and the need to keep institutions in business, what else can post-secondary education contribute to the improvement of elementary and secondary education?

In Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press, March 2015), I describe the last half-century of school reform at the elementary and secondary education level, and analyze the research for the best ways to improve the schools.

A major conclusion is that post-secondary education must play a role in raising the quality of public schools. Increasing teacher effectiveness and raising curricular rigor are two main areas where cooperation between the education sectors is essential.

First, the caliber of the elementary and secondary teaching force needs improvement. Strong verbal ability has been shown by research to lead to more effective teaching. Yet, many teachers scored low on the ACTs, SATs, and GREs that have been linked to this ability. To give one example, nearly half of new teachers scored in the bottom one-third of ACT and SAT test-takers.

An essential step to improving teaching is to raise the entrance requirements for admission to education schools. Good verbal ability should be shown by high test scores, good grades in school, or other measures.

Another proven means to greater teacher effectiveness is for colleges and universities to provide clinical experiences for aspiring teachers. Although classroom teachers who had such training have found it valuable in increasing student learning, universities rarely fund these opportunities on a par with the extensive clinical training required and supported for other professions.

Teaching should become a profession on the same level as medicine, law, and architecture. A major barrier to teacher professionalization is that college and university leaders too often use education schools as “cash cows” to bring revenue into the general budget helping other institutional divisions at the expense of teaching!

Another area where post-secondary education can assist is to support the new academic standards now being implemented in thousands of classrooms across the nation. The Common Core State Standards for reading/English language arts and mathematics and the Next Generation State Standards for science are explicitly meant to prepare students for college and thus avoid remedial courses.

Schools of education have often kept a distance from the movement to raise academic standards. Some professors did not like the emphasis on tests in ensuring that students learned the content of the standards. Others felt that the standards/testing/accountability approach epitomized by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was based on business principles and not on what is known about how to educate better.

Those complaints are valid, which I address in my book. But, it is important to separate the Common Core and the Next Generation Standards from testing and accountability. Those academic standards are well-conceived and will make elementary and secondary education more rational and also more rigorous. A stand-offish attitude will condemn many students to a mediocre education.

Despite loud political controversy about these standards, the reality is that they are being implemented in most states. Teachers badly need the assistance of higher education to become better trained in using those standards.

In conclusion, the complaints from post-secondary educators are valid that many high school graduates have not been adequately prepared for post-secondary education. But, elementary and secondary education needs the assistance of colleges and universities to solve that problem.

Will colleges and universities move from criticism to assistance? Let’s hope so.


This blog by Jack Jennings first appeared in the Huffington Post on February 10, 2016.