K-14 Partnerships

There are numerous partnerships that have sprouted in recent years between school districts and their local community colleges. Superintendents and college presidents have managed to blur the line that frequently exists between K-12 and higher ed. There are many advantages to do this for both institutions but it is the students that benefit the most.

Recently, under the auspices of AASA and the American Association of Community Colleges, superintendents and community college presidents come together to share the results of their partnerships and to consider what steps can be taken to broaden their collaboration.

The K-12 goal to get students to be college and career ready for the top forty percent of students is not much of a challenge. It is the remaining sixty percent that will require some heavy lifting, particularly for minority students and students living in poverty. A bachelor’s degree after four years of college is a lofty goal that may not be desirable or realizable for some students. We are also aware of the heavy student debt and lack of employment opportunity that many of our four-year college graduates face today.

At the same time we hear from the business community that thousands of jobs that do not require a four-year degree are begging to be filled but the skilled workers are not there. Our community colleges are positioned to meet this demand and provide a viable option to the many students that do not aspire to a bachelor’s degree, or cannot afford it, and would benefit from acquiring employable skills with an associate’s degree. The two-year colleges also provide a viable option for students that cannot afford the bachelor’s degree but can complete the first two years at a community college.

Many school districts are now working with their local community colleges to provide the pathways that will present students with the options that best fit their interests, talents and economic situation. College and career ready can mean a post-secondary education with a host of opportunities ranging from certification in a trade to a postgraduate professional degree.

The dropout rate for Black and Latino students still hovers above the fifty percent mark. A college degree is a distant reality for a student that faces the daily challenges of having to contribute to the financial support of their family or who is simply not motivated to consider a post-secondary education. Rather than allowing these students to disappear from our schools, superintendents are partnering with their community college presidents to design programs that begin at high school and carry through enrollment at the community college. It is an opportunity that has appeal to many of our white middle class students as well.

Today, higher standards have been set and all students must achieve them  in order to graduate from high school. However, there is nothing to prevent schools from offering their students alternative pathways to the diploma. The Seminole County Public Schools in Florida require the same high standards for all of their graduates, including four years of math. In partnership with Seminole State College and the University of Central Florida, as superintendent Walt Griffin says, “ A Seminole student can ride his bike to school from kindergarten right through his doctorate.”

Students can earn up to twelve college credits in high school and are offered a myriad of options that cover every conceivable course of study. Griffin and Seminole State College President, Ann McGee, have forged a unique, almost seamless, K-16 relationship that even includes the sharing of two members that sit on both boards.

In Illinois, AASA President-elect David Schuler and his colleagues in the feeder school districts have also created multiple pathways to secondary credentials with Harper College President Ken Ender. Together they have worked to better prepare the high school students to be college and career ready through a significant increase in the number of students taking dual credit courses and an emphasis on math readiness that has reduced by 21% the number of students requiring math remediation at the college.

These successful partnerships between community colleges and school districts must extend to all communities in America. We will continue to partner with our colleagues at AACC to realize that goal.

Doing Away With Grade Levels

  • It seems sacrilegious, really, but I am advocating that we do away with the K-12 grade level structure in education. Perhaps because it is how we have organized our schools since we evolved from the one room schoolhouse back in the nineteenth century, the grade level structure is taken for granted. You notice that reform agendas do not include doing away with grade levels. We have vouchers, charters, extended day, extended school year, evaluating teachers and principals if we are not firing them, privatizing schools or closing them and reopening them under new management, but no talk of doing away with grade levels. If anything, there is renewed interest in having students repeat grades as a backlash against social promotion.
  • We talk about thinking out of the box but no one talks about thinking out of grade levels.
  • The reality is that many of the problems affecting our education system can be traced to the grade level organizational structure. Back in the day, when there were thirty-some students assigned to a class with one teacher, the modus operandi were for that teacher to teach to the middle of the pack. The class was taught as a group. Consequently, the kids at the bottom were lost and left behind and the kids at the top were bored and frustrated. Teachers lectured and, with so many students, were seldom able to provide individual instruction. The students who did not grasp the lesson would have to stay after school or come in early to try to get extra help from the teacher. Often that was not enough and thus began a cycle where students were being left further and further behind. Our solution was to provide remediation, summer school, after school, private tutoring. All kinds of add-ons to the school day to deal with students who could not keep up with instruction aimed at children of a certain age at a certain grade level. For the gifted and talented we saw the creation of gifted and talented programs that would either group these students into homogeneous classrooms or provide for their needs at certain times of the day, much like what was being done for their less talented peers.
  • Whoa there, some of you may be saying, isn’t this what we are still doing today? Yes, over the years we have effectively reduced the number of students in a class to the twenty-something range but we are still tied to the same organizational structure with the same results. The pity is that it no longer has to be that way. Smaller class sizes and technology make it absolutely possible for us to break away from the grade level structure and provide individualized instruction to each and every child. Our teachers will need to be trained to become directors of instruction, guides on the side rather than the sage on the stage. The laws, rules and regulations that have firmly ensconced grade levels into our schools will have to be repealed. Can schools operate without grade levels? Of course they can. Since the 1970’s there have been sporadic attempts at non-gradedness. Montessori programs have been doing it for years. Individually Guided Education was popular in Wisconsin as early as the 1960’s. And of course, the original one-room schoolhouse was non-graded.
  • The notion of grouping students by age was an accommodation to expediency, not pedagogy. It fulfilled the adult’s need to efficiently organize children into manageable units. And in the days where one adult had to deal with a large number of students without other means of support, it was the best possible arrangement. That is no longer the case.
  • Under ESSA, we have the opportunity to move towards a performance-based, competency-based system of education that would allow each child to learn at his or her own pace. The current system expects all children to learn the same thing in the same time frame. In a competency-based system children would never be left behind because the instruction would always be appropriate to their level of performance. Today’s technology makes that possible. The teacher as a director of instruction can develop an individual lesson plan for each child using the multitude of software and online courses currently available. Formative assessments will constantly monitor the child’s progress thus informing the next level of instruction.
  • Rather than grade levels, we can identify children by their level of progress relative to the standards. High School diplomas would be bestowed upon those that achieve the prescribed level for mastery of the standards. Students will achieve such mastery at various ages but a high school diploma will have meaning, ensuring that the holder has achieved a specific scope of knowledge and level of performance. That would be a real transformation.

On the Senate’s Appropriations Bill

This is the letter AASA sent to the Senate on their proposed appropriations bill:

On behalf of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, representing more than 13,000 school system leaders across the country, I write to relay our thoughts on the FY 2017 Labor-Health Human Services, Education and Other Appropriations bill, which is scheduled for consideration in your committee today, June 9. While we commend the sub-committee for their work to move the first bipartisan LHHS budget in seven years and acknowledge the budget pressures facing each appropriations sub-committee, we remain concerned that the education provisions within the bill, which include nominal increases for a small number of programs, include a $220 million reduction in discretionary funding for education (compared to FY2016 enacted levels).


Almost exactly six months ago today, President Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. FY17 allocations are the funds that will support the first year of ESSA implementation, and the allocations included in the bill you consider today fall short of supporting the new law. Congress must follow its strong bipartisan support for authorizing statute with adequate funding levels. In particular, it is critical to ensure a Title I allocation that ensures at least level funding to school districts. While the bill includes a $50 million increase over the FY16 Title I and School Improvement Grant allocations, it still results in a shortfall of $150 million in local level allocations, meaning school districts will start their first year under ESSA with a Title I cut. We are also deeply concerned with the low allocation to the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (Title IV). Title IV helps provide well-rounded education opportunities for all students, and we believe the program should receive a higher allocation, at a level robust enough to support meaningful formula driven allocations.


The success of our nation is shaped by the success of our public schools and the students they serve. We strongly urge Congress to support negotiations to raise the caps on non-defense discretionary funding, even beyond those of the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act, which increase pressure on subcommittee allocations and continue to tie the hands of appropriators to more adequately invest in education. In addition to the nominal increase and local level cuts in Title I, the caps and subsequent allocations mean that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) receives a $40 million increase, which leaves the federal share hovering around 16% (less than half of the authorized 40% of the additional cost associated with educating student with special needs) and below FY10 allocations when adjusted for inflation.


As the FY17 LHHS-Education bill moves forward, we urge you to improve Title I funding to avoid cuts in local level allocations, to increase Title IV allocations to a level that supports meaningful formula allocation, and to oppose any ideological policy riders.