Each school day at 9:55 a.m., everyone at Salt Lake's Horizonte alternative school, including housekeeping, stops to read for 25 minutes. The students' reading scores are among the most improved in the district. The reason is simple it's the culture of expectations set by the administration.
The Board of Regents is trying to deal with the problem of declining enrollment in higher education with an ambitious effort to recruit more women and minorities and provide a remedial program to help struggling students in the system graduate. Among the top priorities is a $1 million budget item to have each of the institutions hire senior level administrators ($100,000) to coordinate efforts to improve participation rates of women and minorities. That money for the bureaucracy would be better spent on student tuition assistance.
The leadership of each institution has to make improvement a priority for it to work. Successful organizations have long learned that what the "boss" says is what gets done. So, unless presidents of each institution "walk the walk" and create a culture of expectations, nothing will happen.
Higher education leaders are rightly concerned that there are fewer people earning college degrees and that enrollment rates are declining. But are their plans simply good intentions with unintended negative consequences? Won't they be "dumbing down" and diluting the core purpose of higher education by expanding into remediation programs for students who come unprepared to enter the system? Aren't they trying to correct the failures of public education that can't get it right the first time? The current K-12 Alliance with higher education is a way of creating a cozy relationship between two systems where the mission of each is blurred and accountability further masked. Leaders from both agencies should take a lesson from former Gov. Olene Walker's reading program. It is successful for two reasons: It is focused and has specific outcomes that can be measured. Focus, focus, focus!
Public education must get it right the first time and be responsible for preparing students to enter the workforce or go on to higher education. That's including overcoming the high dropout rate for minorities. If remediation is necessary, its adult education programs should do so, including the use of the federal Carl Perkins program. The scholarly and scientific approach that has been the province of higher education should not be compromised by doing public education's cleanup work. The role of higher education today is more critical than ever in preparing individuals and our nation to succeed in the global economy.
Rather than lowering its standards by remediation programs for unqualified students and doing more of the same, higher education should take the time to examine how the world has changed and the more awesome role it must play in today's "flat world," where knowledge and innovation are the needed currency.
Higher education leaders might heed the words of John W. Gardner: "Most ailing organizations have developed a functional blindness to their own defects. They are not suffering because they can't solve their problems but because they won't see there are problems. They can look straight at their faults and rationalize them as virtues of necessities."
Education leaders ought to take a look at how individuals are now seeking higher education and improving their skills through a host of other means the Internet, private institutions. Because of changing lifestyles and work needs, the high cost of tuition and the rigid structure of the system, individuals are finding programs that are more user friendly and are open entry and open exit.
Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: [email protected]