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Toward the Development of
School and University Partnerships
Based Upon Mutual Benefit and Respect

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph.D.
Berkeley, California


To the casual observer, the reasons for building school-university partnerships might seem obvious. Public schools provide universities with at least some of their future students, and colleges and universities prepare and train the vast majority of future teachers. Both institutions are devoted, at least in part, to the pursuit of learning and intellectual development, and both play a major role in socializing and preparing American youth for future roles in society. Still, despite this obvious interdependence, there are relatively few examples of successful partnerships between schools and universities aimed at mutual development and improvement. For this reason, it is important that we ask ourselves why more cooperation is not occurring, and to even re-examine why collaboration may be necessary.

Beyond the commonalties of purpose there are also the pressing needs which arise from the problems confronting public schools, especially in low income urban areas, which are chronic and severe. If public education is indeed in "crisis" as so many commentators would have us believe, then one might expect that universities, as centers of research and advanced learning, would be both a logical and appropriate resource for assistance. To the extent that this is not occurring, we must also ask ourselves why.

The Need for Collaboration

As a starting point for answering that question we might consider that even when there is no conscious and deliberate effort aimed at promoting cooperation, there is still a relationship and a high degree of interdependence between public schools and institutions of higher education. First, at an instrumental level, schools and universities are linked through the enterprise of preparing young people for adult roles as future workers and professionals. Moreover, at a functional level, public schools provide and prepare the vast majority of students/consumers that universities require in order to stay in business. In turn, colleges and universities train and prepare the majority of future teachers and administrators. Hence, even if motivated purely by self interest, schools and universities have a vested interest in the execution of their respective missions.

Historically, this has largely entailed universities issuing broad directives to schools on how students should be prepared, or in some cases, specifying the content of instruction (Cremin, 1988). Given their higher status, universities, have had a considerable degree of influence over public education even if only from the detached vantage point of the ivory tower. However, with the recent rise in complaints among numerous colleges and universities over the need to provide remedial courses to underprepared students, it would seem that should be rising awareness that more involvement may be necessary. Particularly given the ever widening gap in school performance between middle class and poor children, and its attendant racial implications, it would seem that greater university engagement in K-12 education might be necessary, or even unavoidable.

The question of how schools will serve and respond to the needs of economically disadvantaged populations of students is a critical issue because of the important role public education plays in our society. Historically, public education has served as the primary institution charged with addressing the welfare of children (Fass, 1989), and socializing youth to assume roles as adult citizens (Katznelson and Weir, 1985). Though not guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, public education has been the only public entitlement and the only social institution that has been accessible to any child (Carnoy and Levin, 1985). Though California's Proposition 187 may eventually change this, any child, whether homeless, severely disabled, sick, hungry or undocumented, has had access to public education. Though there are substantial variations in the quality of education available to segments of the population, no other institution in this country is as democratic, as open, and as responsive to the public good (Spring, 1991). That is why public schools may be the only institution that will not be able to ignore the effects of welfare reform and its impact on poor families and children. Each year, larger numbers of hungry, sick and neglected children show up in our public schools (Children Now, 1996). Though too often the resources needed to address the broad range of un-met student needs are not available, the fact remains that such conditions invariably affect learning, and schools have no choice but to attempt to figure out ways of responding to them.

This is one of the reasons why the time may now be right for major changes and renewed investment in public education. For the first time in many years public education is finally receiving sustained national attention. In response to public concern, politicians are recognizing that the effort to improve the quality of education in the United States must be treated as a top priority. Though this recognition has not led to immediate solutions, or even a significant increase in the provision of additional resources to the schools with the greatest needs, it may be that heightened awareness will provide an opening for consideration of new approaches in education. One major obstacle is that too often educational issues become politicized in ways that detract from building a sustained effort for reform aimed at solving some of the more chronic problems facing schools. Given the central place occupied by education in most conceptions of democracy and economic growth (Carnoy and Levin 1985), it may be possible that the involvement of universities can lessen some of the impact of politics on public education.

I have participated in a number of different collaborations with public schools in districts throughout the Bay Area, California, and other parts of the country. Based on these experiences I have developed a sense of what the key ingredients to mutually beneficial partnerships between schools and universities are. I will make reference to some of those efforts as a strategy for analyzing the case for collaboration. I believe that it is important to learn from past efforts in order to build upon what worked well and avoid what has not. In many of the schools that I visit there is quite a bit of resistance to collaborations with universities because too often people in the schools have felt disrespected and exploited. By carefully analyzing the nature of those bad experiences we can at least try to make sure that we don't replicate them in future undertakings.

Building A Partnership: The Importance of Reciprocity and Combining Strengths

An important starting point for developing a school and university partnership is recognizing that schools and universities have different interests, particularly when it comes to research. Schools may not immediately see the need or the value of research, unless it is directly related to something that they are concerned about. That is particularly true when we are talking about basic research - research that is directed at fundamental questions related to learning, socialization or the use of technology. Such research can seem irrelevant to schools that are grappling with practical concerns such as how to manage schools with large numbers of children, or how to deliver high level of instruction to children from a variety of backgrounds. When the interests of a university-based researcher does not coincide with the interests of the school, there may seem to be no basis for collaboration.

However, if time is taken to communicate openly about the interests and needs of the respective parties, mutually beneficial partnerships can still be built. Obviously, school personnel can more readily recognize the value of applied research that addresses issues they regard as salient, but even when the issues seem to be more removed and less pertinent, cooperation can be developed through other channels. If schools can see no value in the work of a particular researcher, they may still be able to identify other ways to help each other. For example, in exchange for allowing non-obtrusive, ethically sound research, a school might receive financial compensation, or in-kind support in the form of materials (e.g. computers, lab equipment, etc.), tutoring for students, guest speakers or seminars for teachers. In the courses that I teach at the university, I encourage doctoral students and undergraduates who want to do research in schools to offer services that they can extend to the school in exchange for permission to do their work. In my experience, relationships built upon reciprocity are less likely to degenerate over distrust and feelings of resentment.

Clearly, when the research interests of the university coincide more directly with the interests of the school, much more promising relationships are possible. Schools are often in dire need of research to evaluate programs and interventions that they have initiated to ascertain their effectiveness. In such a case, the strength that the university brings to the school is a certain degree of detachment. As university researchers we are not involved on a day-to-day basis in managing schools, and unlike most teachers, we don't have to teach six classes a day or grade hundreds of papers a night. That detachment from the routinized work of school enables researchers to ask questions that those who are engaged in those day-to-day activities often don't have the time to ask or the privileged vantage point from which to ask them. University researchers not only have the benefit of detachment, they also have access to resources with which to do research. When a successful collaboration can be established, it should be possible for university researchers to lend their expertise in framing questions that might otherwise not be posed by those who are immersed in the business and day-to-day activity of schools.

However, the detachment of university researchers is also a weakness. Because we are not at the site on a daily basis and because we are not engaged in trying to find immediate answers to the difficult issues that the schools are faced with, we typically don't fully understand the reality that schools are addressing. Consequently, when university researchers devise solutions to the problems schools confront they may be completely off-the-mark because our detachment limits our ability to really know and understand the problem and issues that are the focus of our research.

For this reason, collaboration between schools and universities is essential because it allows for the strengths of the university and the schools to be matched for research-based problem solving and mutual benefit. By combining the detachment of university researchers with the familiarity of school professionals, educational problems can be approached from a broader and even more incisive perspective. Such collaboration makes it possible to bridge the divide between research and practice and can shed new light and perspective on problems that were once perceived as intractable.

Asking the Right Questions

To provide an example of how and why a detached perspective can be important, I will describe a school that I was working with in Northern California where the teachers were very concerned about how to discipline children (Noguera, 1996). During a visit to the school I was asked to assist the staff in finding solutions to discipline problems. I attempted to engage the staff in a conversation about their perceptions of the causes of discipline problems, but they insisted that such an analysis was superfluous. Dissatisfied with the direction I offered, their search for an immediate solution prompted them to approach district administrators for additional resources. In consultation with the principal and some teachers the district decided to help the school by creating a separate classroom for disruptive students. Teachers were asked to identify the most difficult students for placement in the class. The district insisted that the new program would not be punitive, but instead would provide "at-risk" students with additional support and an opportunity to be successful at school. Since most of the disruptive students were African-American males they decided to call the program a specially designed Afro centric intervention class. They recruited a young African-American male teacher to work with the students, and promised to provide extra support and resources in the form of adult mentors, employment and apprenticeship opportunities and field trips.

As I heard about the new intervention I immediately had doubts about the set-up. According to the plan, the students were be placed in the same classroom for five hours a day isolated from the rest of the school. I believed that no matter how young and enthusiastic the teacher was, that this would be a bad situation. Though I expressed my reservations and concerns to the principal, they proceeded with the plan and placed twenty-one of the most disruptive students into the class.

I visited the class on a daily basis, and after a week it became evident that the class was a failure; not just for the kids, but for the young teacher as well. After three weeks it was clear that none of the additional support that had been promised would be delivered. Soon the students began to openly express their frustration at being isolated from the rest of the school and vented most of their anger at the teacher. Initially, he tried to respond positively and avoided reacting too harshly to their complaints. However, before long he was as angry as they were and voiced his animosity to the students and the administrators who had placed him in this predicament.

What I actually found most interesting about this situation was that when I went around asking other teachers what was going on in their classrooms now that the disruptive students were gone, they said, "Well, something interesting has happened, new kids have emerged and they've taken the place of those other kids formerly gave trouble." Some even went so far as to assert that "We need one more classroom, just one more classroom for disruptive kids, and that will certainly solve our problem!"

In response, I asked the teachers why they were so sure that it was the kids who were the source of the problem and not something else. My question seemed to baffle most of them. I pointed out that I had found through my observations at the school that certain teachers experienced no disruptions at all, and that perhaps we should try to learn what these teachers were doing that made it possible to create such an atmosphere. Though my observation seemed to surprise some of them, some still clung to the idea that isolated classrooms was the best solution since they believed that "some of these kids just can't handle a regular classroom".

However, by this time it was obvious where the logic of such an approach would lead. Eventually several rooms for disruptive students could be set up, based on Afro-centric, Chicano-centric, or any other kind of culturally enriched innovation. However, it was not likely that much would be done to address the environmental factors that contributed to problematic behaviors among students. As an outsider attempting to work with the school I avoided passing judgment over the initiative despite my doubts, but as a partner to the school I felt it was my obligation to pose questions about its effectiveness. I understood how difficult it was for teachers to teach effectively when they were constantly being challenged by misbehaving students. However, because I was an outsider, I was perhaps in a better position to recognize the weaknesses inherent in the approach that was taken. Such a position made it possible for me to ask questions which those closer to the problem had not even considered. Because we were working together in a reform collaborative, eventually the questions I posed prompted the school to re-examine in how the problem of disruptive students was defined, and ultimately, addressed.

Respect: the Key to Sustained Collaboration

In my experience, in order for a partnership between a K-12 school and a university to be sustained over time, relationships between the parties involved must be based upon mutual respect. From the outset, it is very important to make it clear who is going to benefit from the research or collaboration activity, and to be sure that expectations and roles are clearly defined. Part of the reason why there tends to be so much suspicion about universities within schools is because there have been many examples of research that has violated the trust and cooperation of school personnel. There are too many projects that fail to provide any benefits for children, and too many cases where the results or findings generated through research undertaken at a school are never even shared with those who helped to make the research possible.

But respect is a two-way street, and I know of several examples where teachers and administrators have reneged on promises that were essential to successful collaboration, and as a result research and support activities for students have been jeopardized. In one case, a university project invested two years planning and developing a system for school-linked social services designed to serve the children and their families at an inner city elementary school. Just two months before the plan was to be implemented the principal decided that it was no longer needed and demanded that the university representatives leave his school site. Though no reason was given, my own informal conversation with the principal led me to conclude that control of "turf" was the only plausible explanation for his actions.

On the university side, disrespect can come from the arrogant belief that researchers are smarter, more knowledgeable and better able to figure out solutions to complex problems. This can be accompanied by the view that school personnel lack the sophistication to understand research much less grasp the abstract theoretical concepts that may guide it. Even if never stated, when such views are held they can often be sensed. Invariably, such attitudes are likely to be manifest in the interactions between school and university actors in subtle or blatant ways.

Encounters with university researchers who possess such attitudes can leave school personnel jaded and distrustful. For example, during a visit to one inner-city school I was asked by a group of teachers which reform initiative I was promoting. "We've heard from the Comer people, the Essential Schools people, the multicultural people, and they all claimed to have the solutions to our problems. We figured that since you're another university professor that you must think you have the solution also."

On the other hand, university-based researchers and support personnel can also experience disrespect and a lack of appreciation even when they approach schools with a genuine interest in providing tangible assistance. As outsiders, the validity of the knowledge, skills and services may be viewed with suspicion and the ideas may be rejected out-of-hand simply because they don't emanate from the school's experience. Such a posture can act as a deterrent to collaboration since most people are hesitant to place themselves in situations where they are unwanted.

In my own experience it generally takes a very long time to cultivate relationships based upon respect that get beyond suspicion. Often, it has required ignoring a rude or hostile remark or overlooking a missed appointment. School personnel, particularly in urban areas, expect university researchers to have such fragile egos that one bad experience will be enough to get them to leave. I have found that persistence and perseverance are key ingredients to lasting collaborative relationships, and that trust and respect come from enduring the initial mishaps which are likely to occur as two parties get to know each other.

For another example of how respectful relationships can be forged I will recount another personal experience. I was invited by a principal at yet another school to talk his staff about discipline and school safety. In the course of discussion, I asked the teachers, "What do you know about these kids and their lives outside of school? And what do you know about the community in which they live?" To this they answered, "Well, we don't really need to know these things. The school's been here for ninety years. The community is irrelevant. Our job is to teach. That's what we do here."

In response, I posed the following question: "Suppose you were invited to teach in another country? What kinds of things might you want to know before you went there?" The teachers responded by generating a long list of the things they wanted to know. They said they wanted to know about economy, about politics, about religion, about the culture, about history. They wanted to know whether or not there was a war going on. All of these things they regarded important information to know before they departed. Then I asked "But how many of the things that you say are important to teaching in a foreign country do you know about the community where you are teaching now?"

Since none of the teachers could provide even basic information about the community in which they worked I suggested that we go on a tour. The following day we piled into a van and took a four hour tour of the community. We visited the parks, the apartment buildings where many of the kids lived, the public library, grocery store and a few noteworthy historic sites. We even ran into some kids from the school and got out of the car to talk with them..

To my surprise, when we returned to the school nearly everyone was angry and agitated. When I asked what they thought about the trip one teacher said to me, "You had no right to put us through that experience. How dare you come from the university and think you can tell us that we need to know about this community! We don't need to know about this community to teach. Those people were staring at us. We felt like tourists sitting in that van. We don't need to know about what it's like to live here in order to teach these children. So, thank you very much, go back to your university, we don't need you."

I was shocked. I hadn't anticipated that the trip would generate so much anger and so much hostility toward me. But I didn't give up. Despite their resentment, I continued to work with the school on the reform that had been started that summer. The teachers seemed to be surprised that I kept coming. One teacher even said "You're still here huh? I guess you haven't finished your research yet."

Eventually, the hostility subsided and over the next several weeks, one by one, several of the teachers who had gone on the bus tour of the neighborhood approached me with ideas for working with the community. One confided, "You know, I thought about that trip quite a bit, and what it was that made me feel uncomfortable. After a while I thought, well, maybe there are some things I can do to get to know this community better. And I'm actually starting to. I went to the church of one of my students last Sunday and I saw her sing in the choir. Afterwards, I got to meet her parents and the pastor. And guess what? The church wants to work with the school to set up an afterschool tutorial program. They say they'll recruit tutors and provide snacks for the kids. I guess learning more about this community ain't so bad after all". She was not the only one. A group of teachers began meeting together to develop an integrated social studies language arts unit on the history of the city. They approached their students about inviting their grandparents to class so that oral histories could be incorporated into the curriculum. Several others told me individually that the experience had motivated them to try and find ways to increase contact and with the families of their students and with community based organizations that were serving youth.

Undoubtedly, had I given up, or had they chosen to remain angry with me, the elements of the partnership between the school and the community would not have developed. The experience of touring the community was indeed unsettling, and did make people feel uncomfortable. However, it may well be that it is precisely this kind of disruption to the norms and practices that go on within schools that are essential to creating an environment where change toward improvement is more likely. Building and sustaining relationships between schools and universities may be difficult, but when commitment and follow through are present, tangible changes for the better can be produced. For those who are willing to invest the time in forging such relationships, trust will gradually develop, and from that trust can come a willingness to test out new ideas, to try things that we've never considered before and that can actually lead to lasting change.

Producing Results Through Sustained Partnerships

The final point that must be made about school-university collaboration is the importance of prolonged engagement. Sarason (1971) has argued that one of the primary reasons for the failure of past school reform initiatives is the unwillingness of the partners to commit to collaboration over an extended period of time. In my own experience with schools I have found that no substantial change is possible through a short term arrangement. It takes so long just to develop trusting relationships based on respect that to think improvements in school or useful research can be produced quickly is at best naive. Particularly if the focus of the work is school reform, without a commitment to sustained and ongoing engagement it is very unlikely that substantial results can be achieved. And if we are not willing to make that kind of investment, and demonstrate the kind of commitment that is necessary, then we shouldn't enter the relationship. Part of the reason why schools are so suspicious of universities is because they've seen researchers make promises, often with considerable fanfare, do their thing, and leave before anything has been accomplished. Such practices reinforce the sense that what universities are primarily interested in is publishing papers and pursuing their own narrow research agenda.

We must recognize and be mindful of the fact that the problems schools face are largely not school problems. They are societal problems, and if we are serious about having any influence at all on these problems, we have to recognize that it's going to take ongoing, long-term, sustained involvement. Unless we are willing to work for gradual change that will only come over an extended period of time, then we are fooling ourselves.

As partners, we must also approach the task of improving schools with a healthy dose of skepticism. We should constantly ask ourselves, why it is that so much of the research that goes on in schools makes so little difference to the lives of children and the functioning of schools? And, why is it that despite substantial investments in research and reform so many efforts aimed at changing schools fail? The threat of failure, of meaningless research, of wasted funds spent on useless reforms, should haunt us as we carry out our work. We should be so afraid that this will be the legacy of our work that we try that much harder to do something to make a difference in public education.

I was asked to attend a dinner this past summer with some members of the state legislature. After we ate a question was posed by Assemblyman Murray, a legislator from Southern California. He asked, "Why is it that the University of California has been able to make a substantial difference in agriculture so that California is the number one producer of agriculture not only in the country but in the world but we can't figure out what it will take to teach black children to read?" He went on to point out that university researchers have figured out how to grow rice where there is no water, so why can't we figure out how to teach poor black children to read.

Various researchers present attempted to respond, with the typical response going something like this: "Well, it's actually much more complicated than teaching kids to read. You see there are many factors to be considered. The latest research shows..." Finally frustrated, the Assemblyman lost his patience and shouted, "The hell with it! I want to know why isn't it happening? We seem to be giving the university lots of money, but we don't see much coming out of it, at least not in terms of seeing real change in the outcomes for children (something as simple as teaching children to read)."

At that point, I got the nerve to speak and told the Assemblyman that we already know how to teach Black children to read, and in fact I could show him schools where this was happening quite effectively. I suggested that the problem he was largely not an educational problem but a societal one because poor, hungry, sick and homeless children have a range of un-met needs that inhibit their ability to learn. I went on to point out that his question was not really an educational question, but a political question. That is, when it comes to student outcomes in public schools we get what we pay for. I suggested that he find ways to provide health care and jobs for more poor Black parents because this would have a positive impact on teaching Black children to read.

And this is why we need collaborations between schools and universities because the problems are multifaceted and schools can't solve them on their own. It may very well be that universities can't solve them either, but perhaps together through sustained effort, we can begin to make a difference at specific sites and demonstrate that change is possible and even attainable when the will and commitment are present.

Published in In Motion Magazine July 9, 1998.