ESSA: An Opportunity for Deep Collaboration Between K-12 and Higher Education

As state K-12 education agencies simultaneously scramble to complete their required state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and wonder what the Trump Administration will mean for enforcement of the new law, an important opportunity might be slipping away to deepen collaboration across the education system.

Buried in the long list of groups with which states are required to consult on their ESSA plans is higher education. Based on my review of draft ESSA plans released to date, it appears that states generally have included higher education representatives on committees and at meetings as they have formulated their plans. However, few of the draft plans released so far suggest deep collaboration between the two sectors. Teacher preparation is a notable exception, but in that case the two sectors have little choice but to work together.

This represents a significant lost opportunity. According to the Education Commission of the States, thirty-six states have set statewide educational attainment goals. In most of those states, colleges and universities are working on a variety of policy and programmatic changes to boost college completion. At the same time, state K-12 education systems across the country have adopted and are working hard to implement college and career readiness standards.

K-12 and higher education are like two teams of builders working on a bridge from opposite banks of a river, but each with their own unique set of plans. They share the same goal, but because they haven’t coordinated their efforts, it is unlikely that they will meet that goal and many travelers (students) will fall between the cracks.

What does it look like when K-12 and higher education really do collaborate? The draft ESSA plan for Tennessee provides one model. There are references throughout the plan to meaningful collaboration with higher education that go well beyond teacher preparation. The plan builds on the statewide educational attainment goal encompassed in Governor Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, articulating the specific K-12 goals and benchmarks that support achieving the goal that 55 percent of Tennesseans have a postsecondary credential by 2025.

There is an entire chapter in the plan that describes the initiatives K-12 has undertaken, often in partnership with higher education, to ensure that more high school graduates complete a postsecondary degree or certificate. These initiatives include improved postsecondary and career exploration and planning beginning in elementary school, a financial aid application drive, expanded access to the ACT college admission exam and an ACT preparation course, the Tennessee Promise scholarship and mentoring program, and a wide array of early postsecondary opportunities that span traditional academic disciplines and career-technical fields.

Both K-12 and higher education in Tennessee are holding themselves accountable for results. The accountability system described in the ESSA plan includes both postsecondary matriculation and completion. In higher education, Tennessee now conditions all state funding on an outcomes-based funding formula.

Tennessee is by no means the only state doing great work across the two sectors, but it is a useful first stop for states that want to improve their level of collaboration. Education First’s brief on K-12/Higher Education Alignment, arising from its successful Core to College program, includes examples from additional states. For more information and additional examples from states, see Education First’s six-part series on alignment. Higher Ed for Higher Standards has even more information and can serve as a valuable resource.

It may be easy for state education leaders to let the latest activity in Washington, DC become a distraction. However, now is the time for states to seize the new flexibility offered by ESSA—and promised by the Trump Administration—to focus on the long-term needs of their states. Through close collaboration, state K-12 and higher education leaders can craft policies and programs that increase educational attainment, close equity gaps, increase economic mobility and raise the quality of life in their states. There could be no more important work.


Jacqueline E. King is an independent education policy consultant who works with both K-12 and higher education.

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