Precollegiate and postsecondary education have been like toddlers, playing side by side in the sandbox but not together, and they've got to start playing together if students are going to be well prepared for college and good jobs.
That was the message that Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, carried to a national forum of K-12 and higher education officials here. The event is aimed at defining how two sectors that haven't historically worked closely together can collaborate in the interest of turning the new common standards into better teaching and learning. (The CCSSO and the National Governors Association co-led the initiative that resulted in the standards, which have now been adopted by all but four states.)
The toddler metaphor was offered by Wilhoit, whose wife works in early-childhood education. Using a term from that world, he said that higher ed. and K-12 have too often engaged in "parallel play." But with a new set of standards that substantially change the game for students and teachers, such disconnections can't continue, he said.
New expectations create a new urgency for cooperation, Wilhoit said. And the fact that the global economy now demands education beyond high school means that more students will have to pursue some form of higher education. For that reason, K-12 and higher education face one of their biggest challenges yet: preparing and serving a bigger, more diverse pool of students than ever.
To do that well, he said, they have to "form a trusting relationship with each other" and plunge into the cooperative work to create shared sets of expectations and processes to help students move successfully through secondary school and into some form of additional education. That will have to include a "redesign" of teacher-preparation programs, Wilhoit said.
Wilhoit's appearance at the forum, sponsored by the agencies that oversee Kentucky's K-12, higher education, and teacher-preparation systems, came in the former Kentucky schools chief's third week back to work after a Christmas Eve heart attack. He cracked a dark joke, in fact, about a possible connection between his health trouble and the work leading to the common-core standards.
"I would blame the recent intervention in my life on the common core," he told the roomful of educators. "It caused me to have that heart attack."
Talking with me during a break, he said that his recovery time allowed him to reflect on many things, and he returned to work with an intensified awareness of the need to bring all segments of education together on the common standards. He's also been busy at the CCSSO helping states draft and implement their applications for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, and "reconnecting" with members of Congress as they consider reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
He's gotten back to running and lifting weights, he said, but he said he just couldn't promise to do one thing his doctors advised.
"They told me, 'No more 15-hour days,' but that isn't gonna happen," Wilhoit said. "We have a lot of important things to do."