Where's Waldo?: The Conspicuous Absence of Higher Education from School Reform and One State's Response

By Conley, David T. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Where's Waldo?: The Conspicuous Absence of Higher Education from School Reform and One State's Response


Conley, David T., Phi Delta Kappan


Mr. Conley offers four possible reasons why we find such a limited higher education presence in school reform and suggests Oregon's Proficiency-based Admission Standards System as one model that enables a higher education system to participate constructively in high school reform.

My 8-year-old daughter was fond of the "Where's Waldo?" posters, which challenged her to locate Waldo, a somewhat disoriented fellow lost within a complex scene of characters engaged in any number of interesting, if moderately chaotic, activities. I find this an apt metaphor for the relationship of higher education to reform in the K-12 system. I'd like to offer four possible reasons why we find such a limited higher education presence in school reform and then turn to a discussion of Oregon's Proficiency-based Admission Standards System (PASS) to suggest it as one model for the way a higher education system can participate constructively in high school reform.

Most discussions of higher education's relationship to school reform begin and end with the observation that there doesn't appear to be much of a relationship. This seems somewhat odd, particularly considering that, historically, higher education has been one of the main drivers of change in secondary schools.

Current reform scenarios have begun to focus on the school-to-work transition and the elimination of the "general education" track in high schools. This round of reform has not been about improving the college preparation that takes place in high schools. It may result in more students who are capable of doing college-level work as a happy side effect, but this does not seem to be a primary goal.

Four Factors Inhibiting Higher Education's Interest in Reform

Are there other factors inhibiting higher education's interest in reform? I see at least four. First, it seems that many people in higher education almost instinctively view school reform as an attempt to lower standards. Second, higher education has always made a distinction between conceptual and applied, or instrumental, knowledge - and school reform seems more concerned with the latter. Third, admissions officers are wary of anything that looks as though it will complicate the admissions process and of portfolios in particular. And fourth, higher education really doesn't have very high expectations for the secondary school system.

Many people in higher education with whom I have spoken - including presidents, provosts, deans, and faculty members - seem to believe that any reform movement in the public schools is really a smokescreen for lowering standards. This perception influences the way in which higher education administrators and policy makers have viewed current reforms. In essence, they have not taken them very seriously, except to view calls for "restructuring" or "systemic reform" as distractions or "fads" at best and as threats to the proper preparation of students at worst.

Since the rhetoric of reform has focused on improving the performance of all students, the perception is perhaps understandable. Furthermore, the track record of high school improvement after a decade of sustained attention and action at the state level, prompted by the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, is spotty at best.(1) The limited success of attempts in the 1980s to increase achievement is particularly troublesome, since the focus was on requiring more of the types of courses required for college admission.

Most important in some respects, the current call for educational redesign is coming not from the academy but from the business community, state legislatures, and, more recently, the federal government. The connection between educational competence and economic productivity has recently become an unquestioned (and largely untested) assumption, and those in higher education may look on this linkage with suspicion. Activist state legislatures have tended to exclude higher education from emerging programs of state educational restructuring. …

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Where's Waldo?: The Conspicuous Absence of Higher Education from School Reform and One State's Response
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