The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Part 2 Of Interview With NEA President Dennis Van Roekel

NEA President has made an important statement on the need for a union role in forging closer relationships between k-12 and postsecondary education. He signals a change in NEA activities to link members from k-12 and postsecondary to obtain better outcomes for students. Part 1 was on his strategy and goals. This part has a deeper look at tactics.
NEA: Will K-12 members be interested in NEA playing a larger role in higher
education policy nationally?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: Is it possible for higher education to survive and thrive
in America and have K-12 collapse? The answer is no, I don’t belie
possible. Can K-12 flourish and succeed if higher education doesn’t? No, of course
not. Once you start seeing the relationship, that we’re in this together, I think it’s
much easier.
Making connections between higher education and K-12 is not such a new
idea. Think of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. A lot of that
investment was in creating ways for higher education to interact with K-12. The
science institutes are one example. These were six-week sessions held in the
summer, in which higher education faculty in science and math helped K-12
teachers keep up to date with developments in their disciplines, which of course
helped them do a better job in their classrooms. So it really was, again, an example
of this natural connection.
THOUGHT & ACTION: Are there legitimate differences in the interest of K-12
NEA members and higher education members? And, at the same time, are there
areas where our interests coincide?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: I think the one thing that is fundamentally different is
how we’re funded. This affects a lot of things, and in some cases puts us in
competition with one another.
Without going into a lot of detail, the Reagan policies in the 1980s of cutting
federal aid to the states left the states in a serious financial bind. The cutbacks
made it tough for them to balance their budgets. It’s another thing that drove
higher ed and K-12 apart. As the states took care of the required funding of K-12,
higher education saw double-digit cuts in state funding and, consequently, higher
tuition.What you ended up with in a number of states is higher education and K-
12 going to the governors and legislatures and battling over scarce resources.
We also ended up with a college affordability problem, which remains a huge
issue right now. At the very time when we’re saying more and more students need
to have access to training and education beyond high school, higher education is
becoming less and less affordable to more and more students.
On the other hand, I think our members in higher education and K-12 agree
on the importance of providing quality education to all students at all levels. I used
to talk about the American Dream with my students. Sometimes they would act
as if I was corny or old-fashioned—but I did it anyway. I believe in the American
Dream. And our members believe that the foundation of that dream is education.
They also know that quality education from birth through graduate school is what
our students will need to reach that dream in the future. So, K-12 and higher
education interests definitely are aligned. How we accomplish what we’re all trying
to do may vary because of different systems a
THOUGHT & ACTION: Do you have any advice for higher ed members on how
to work more effectively with their K-12 colleagues in their state associations?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: Yes, get involved. Provide support. Take action. The
model of the Advisory Committee on Membership that we formed back in 1992,
when the organization went through what we called the streamlining process, is a
wonderful concept. The committee is made up of seven higher education
members, seven education support professionals, and seven K-12 members, as well
as one retired and one student representative. The idea is, instead of always having
separate committees or different constituency groups, or (in this group) levels of
education, there’s a point where you have to be in the same room—not
proportionally, but all with the same voice—saying, “How do we make this one
organization?” I think we need to make that happen in more places.
THOUGHT & ACTION: Are there specific ways that someone at, say, a
community college in a particular place might connect with the local school
district members?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: In any state where they’re forming these P-16 or P-20
councils, I think there’s a natural place for the leadership of both higher education
and K-12 to work together and collaborate in the interests of improving education
for students in their states. Another thing—we always want someone else to
understand our issues. And, as an organization, we do that a lot. It’s just as
important to understand the other person’s issues. K-12 must reach out and
understand the issues from the higher education perspective, and vice versa. The
only way you can really advocate effectively is when you know each other’s
interests. That takes communication and collaboration, and getting together and
supporting each other.
THOUGHT & ACTION: Moving from the general to a more specific issue that
our members are dealing with in some places, how do we, within the
Association, resolve competition between K-12 members and higher education
members on such things as dual enrollment courses?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: One of the things that gets us in that situation is we’re
reacting to someone else’s idea. A better way of dealing with that kind of issue is
to get out in front of it. Let’s work together and figure out together how to make
this work, both for students and for us. And then, we can go advocate with a
common voice and also respond to other agendas.
But if we don’t take the time to say what makes sense from each of of

perspectives on a particular issue, we end up reacting to someone else’s proposal.
This is one more reason it makes sense for us to come together.
These dual-enrollment initiatives are happening everywhere. I often wonder
whether the right questions are being asked as these initiatives are taking place. As a
math teacher, the example I always use is, for years there was a debate about whether
students should be allowed to use calculators in the classroom. I think it was the
wrong question. Would any one of us balance our checkbook without a calculator?
The right question should have been, when do you want students to use calculators
and when not? So, as we face these changes, are we asking the right questions?
THOUGHT & ACTION: What are some of the questions we should be asking?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: Where does the money flow, and who gets it? Should a
college offer online courses free to a high school student and charge a college
student? And what are the standards? If you’re the college faculty member
teaching a course, you have academic freedom. But someone else—a high school
teacher, for example—doesn’t. Can this work?
I’ve read enough on systems change to know that it’s far more important to ask
the right questions than it is to try and get the right answers. Because if you have
the wrong questions, it really doesn’t make any difference what your answers are.
A sea change is underway in how the nation educates its students. Higher
education and K-12 need to ask, how do we see this transformation working for
us, for students, and for the country as a whole?
THOUGHT & ACTION: To move to our final topic, how does the Association
address questions in the larger society? What role do you see the Association
playing nationally in the creation of this pre-K to graduate school seamless web?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: I would hope that we play a much bigger role than we
have in the past, and to do this, we have to be willing to reach beyond our own
“borders.” Sometimes we talk among ourselves and think we have an answer. Then
we expect the rest of the world to just accept it. That model doesn’t work.We have
to go out and talk to people who don’t necessarily agree with us. And we have to
reach out and build a common understanding with people who see the world
differently than we do. I think that’s a critical area for us in the future.
THOUGHT & ACTION: You mentioned college affordability as a critical issue,
would you elaborate on that.
INTERVIEW: DENNIS VAN ROEKEL
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: I don’t know where I saw this, but the picture remains
in my head: It was a chart listing low, medium, and high academic achievement
for various socioeconomic groupings.What the chart showed was that the highest
academic achievers in the low-income group had the same probability of going to
college as the lowest academic achievers in the wealthiest group. Affordability is
the main reason we’re not giving these bright kids an opportunity to go to college.
THOUGHT & ACTION: At different times in history, NEA had a tremendous
influence on educational policy at all levels in the United States. Are we still
influential in terms of influencing policy? And, if we’re not, how do we get there?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: I’m not satisfied with the level of influence NEA has on
educational policy. How we get there, I think, is through our collective voice. And,
there’s not just one way to do that. Part of it is through bargaining. Part of it is
through political action. Part of it is building partnerships. Those are the routes to
securing influence and shaping outcomes.
We have to have influence at the federal level because so much could be
accomplished there, and that’s what NEA can do for higher education, as well as
K-12.
I loved it, the first time I heard someone say, “We have the National Institutes
of Health. What if we had the National Institutes of Educational Research?”
States don’t have the capacity or the resources to do all of their own research in
educational practice.Wouldn’t it be great if the federal government did that? Sixty
million dollars a year in the federal budget is nothing. With a
10-year commitment, we could really do some incredible work. We could, for
example, delve into the scholarship of teaching and develop authentic assessments,
so we really do know if students are learning.
THOUGHT & ACTION: I think you’ve answered this question in various ways,
but I’ll ask it specifically:What do you see in the future for the relationship of
K-12 and higher education within NEA?
DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: I think it’s going to get much stronger. We’ve made
progress in identifying how best to organize in the higher ed community. But we’ll
have to do more.We need to ask what do we change as an institution in order to
organize and service higher education most effectively, at the same time we’re
providing for K-12? Maybe there are more connections than we realize. But, the
way the world is changing, there’s a need for all of us—pre-K, K-12, higher
education—to be working together. So we’re going to have to do it well.
THE NEA HIGHER EDUCATION JOURNAL: THOUGHT INTO ACTION

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