Four ways K-12 and higher education can collaborate on pandemic recovery

Sara Allan
Blog Post

We can now clearly see the impacts of disruptions brought on by COVID-19, coupled with the failings of an education system that has systemically given only certain students access to the learning opportunities, supports, and experiences they need to succeed. The number of students transitioning into postsecondary has dropped substantially—particularly among Black, Latino, and Indigenous students attending high school in low-income communities. Fewer young people feel clear about their future path. And leaders across K-12 and higher ed are grappling with myriad challenges – lost instructional time, rebuilding trust with students, families, and teachers, and the need to better address mental health and physical safety.

Yet, at the Gates Foundation we are “impatient optimists” and believe that public schools in the U.S. have an incredible moment of opportunity. K-12 district superintendents will be making critical decisions over how best to use the huge federal resources flowing in to help schools transition out of the pandemic. This is a unique chance to combat inequities, build on what research shows can work, and keep students on a path to postsecondary success.

One critical priority must be, in our view, helping students navigate critical transition points — those key moments in middle and high school where the education system deprives too many students of gaining momentum toward achieving their education and career goals. To accomplish this, authentic partnership and collaboration – both locally and nationally – will be critical across both K-12 and postsecondary systems. 

School system leaders feel a great deal of weight on their shoulders around choosing the most impactful strategies and making sure those strategies are aligned and implemented at the right point in a student’s educational journey, as well as sustainable beyond the one-time funding. Fortunately, many system leaders have already begun asking important questions about how they can play a strategic and supportive role for each other.

As we’ve heard from these leaders and engaged with other partners and grantees, four high-leverage, cross-system collaboration opportunities for leaders in K-12 and higher education have emerged:

Rethinking the high-school-to-postsecondary-transition: More than a year of learning disruption means schools need to catch students up while simultaneously moving them ahead. We know from evaluating postsecondary developmental education courses that co-requisite remediation – where students who have been assessed as not ready for college-level work receive extra help while they take credit-earning courses, instead of receiving traditional, pre-requisite remedial courses – and personalized coaching models can be effective in providing the supports and additional instruction needed for under-credited students to become college-ready and stay on a path to completion. 

In addition to ramping up access to dual enrollment and early college learning experiences, which help students from low-income backgrounds gain college credits while still in high school and thus save them time and money, K-12 and higher ed leaders have an opportunity to provide high school students access to much-needed mentoring, advising, career-connected learning, and early credential attainment. 

States like Florida, Ohio, and Washington have demonstrated the models and principles that can lead to strong dual enrollment programs. These approaches can specifically address equity gaps and are primed for replication by other states and districts across the country.  

Accelerating learning with evidence-based student supports: Schools need extra classroom support, and postsecondary institutions have untapped talent pools. We can create a win-win model where college students—particularly those in social sector and education majors—can either earn credit or be paid as interns to serve as mentors, aides, tutors, and coaches in K-12 schools. College Advising Corps, Saga Education, and City Year all already have relatively low-cost and highly effective recruiting and training infrastructures that can be quickly scaled.  

Supporting teacher development: While teachers are doing their very best, now is the moment to reimagine how teachers are trained and supported, both pre-service and in-service, to reinvigorate the profession and set the workforce up for future success. Residency and teacher preparation models, as well as “grow your own” educator career pathways can expand and diversify the available talent pool.  Programs such as TechTeach at Texas Tech University have been effective in diversifying their local teacher pool, which research shows is vital for addressing the needs of students of color.

Prioritizing research and evaluation: More data about student progress and outcomes is greatly needed to help accelerate learning over the next several years. And we need this data in real time, in the context of today’s landscape. For example, while working with Houston school districts the Houston Education Research Consortium has been able to document in real time the impact of COVID-19 on people’s employment, education, and health and then connect people to resources.  Rather than only investing in traditional, longer-term studies, there is an opportunity for institutions of higher education and school systems to partner to create new data and understanding with rapid cycle evaluation in ways that serves communities right now.

Both K-12 and higher education leaders want to address the disruption and setbacks the pandemic has caused young people and their families, communities, and schools. With greatly needed funding and additional supports on the way, there has never been a more important moment for partnership in strengthening P-16 pathways to meet the needs of all of our students.