George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

We’re in This Together: The University of Washington and Public Schools

How a large college is helping small schools.

September 1, 2000

Richard McCormick, president of the University of Washington, has acted on his belief that college involvement with K-12 schools should not be limited to teacher education.

Credit: Mary Levin, University of Washington

Institutions of higher education -- and particularly public research universities -- have a responsibility to K-12 education. If there ever really was a time when higher education held itself apart from the broader educational system, that time has passed. For several reasons, we no longer have the luxury of just minding our own educational business.

First, there is the pressure of widespread public expectations that higher education will help with K-12 reform. Wherever I go across this state, and especially in Olympia at the State Legislature, there are questions about what the University of Washington (UW) is doing for the K-12 schools. The public is right to ask. As a matter of citizenship, universities do have an obligation to help make the country's entire educational system the best it can be.

More practically, it is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Most of our students come from public K-12 schools. What we can accomplish in freshman English or Biology 101 depends directly on what happened in public school classrooms across the state. We have a stake in enriching the resources and raising the level of achievement in public schools.

But there is an even more compelling reason we need to step up to our role as a public institution in a larger public system. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a public research university in the twenty-first century. In my view, universities such as UW must establish a new social compact with the society they serve. The public research university is uniquely positioned to help tackle problems facing society today, whether those be crime, poverty, environmental degradation, or the health of the K-12 educational system.

Among UW's efforts:

  • The Office of Educational Partnerships, led by Vice Provost Louis Fox, coordinates K-12 programs.
  • Professor Leroy Hood brought together private and university scientists and Seattle schools to promote hands-on science projects.
  • Professor Ed Lazowska helped bring technology to the schools, and the Smart Tools Academy provides school administrators with technology training.
  • The John Stanford International School is a university/school partnership with special emphases on international relations and technology.
  • The Institute for K-12 Leadership trains teachers, principals, and superintendents.
  • The College of Education has been preparing teachers and doing educational research for more than a century.

Overseeing K-12 Projects

The administrative headquarters for many of our new K-12 programs is the Office of Educational Partnerships, led by Vice Provost Louis Fox.

Created in 1997, the office coordinates programs already in operation and works with faculty and staff on new collaborative projects with the schools. UW has chosen to focus its efforts on areas where we can match distinctive university expertise to important K-12 needs, where UW's existing academic strengths permit us to make a difference, and where our own faculty and students can benefit from collaboration with the schools. Those areas include inquiry-based science, leadership in technological innovation and science, commitment to an international perspective, and dedication to producing educational leaders.

Inquiry-Based Science

Professor Leroy Hood, former chair of UW's Department of Molecular Biotechnology, developed a business-schools-university partnership that reflects his passionate belief in the need for inquiry-based science as the norm in every K-12 classroom. Hood, an eminent research scientist and educator, brought together scientists from UW and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, executives at the Boeing Company, and leaders of the Seattle School District for the purpose of promoting hands-on science projects in local schools. Instead of listening and memorizing, students in inquiry-based programs learn science by doing science -- by carrying out experiments and learning from the results.

This group won a National Science Foundation systemic change grant to bring inquiry-based science training to every K-5 teacher in the school district. Over the five-year life of the grant, which is now in its final year, 1,000 teachers in sixty-seven schools will each have received at least one-hundred hours of training in small groups led by skilled science resource teachers. The NSF awarded us a second grant to extend the program to middle school teachers in five Seattle-area districts.

UW mathematicians have also won two NSF systemic-change grants, and there are many other kinds of programs at UW that link research scientists with K-12 teachers. Neurobiologists teach hands-on summer institutes for high school science teachers, oceanographers take middle school teachers as research assistants on summer cruises, astronomers visit elementary classrooms and help children make sundials and simple telescopes, and graduate students in mathematics work with middle school teachers to build new districtwide curricula.

These programs are part of UW's K-12 Institute for Science, Math, and Technology Education. The institute serves two purposes: It acts as an information hub, giving both UW faculty and K-12 teachers a central directory of programs and resources, and it helps create new partnerships among those who want to promote inquiry-based science and math programs in the schools.

Technology Connections

UW serves as the Northwest regional hub of the Internet and the Internet2 and has a top-ranked department of computer science and engineering. Meanwhile, the state's schools, like schools everywhere, are struggling to bring technology into the classroom. We all know the costs involved -- equipment, training, maintenance. We also know the importance of the task. Access to information technology is now a major equity issue in educating our children for life in the next century.

Professor Ed Lazowska, the chair of our computer science and engineering department, believes that university computer scientists have a special responsibility to their communities in this age of galloping information technology. Lazowska's expertise, missionary zeal, and access to industry resources were key parts of both statewide and Seattle efforts to wire the schools. He and his colleagues worked closely with state officials on Washington's K-20 Network. They also helped develop the blueprint and assemble the donated resources that allowed the Seattle Public Schools to get its network up and running.

Of course, the hardware and the connections are only the first step. Teacher training, technical support, curriculum, and overall leadership and planning are other crucial ingredients in making effective use of technology in the schools. The Smart Tools Academy was created in fall 1998 in collaboration with the Technology Alliance, a group of Seattle-area industry and civic leaders.

In a yearlong study of technology in Washington state schools, the Technology Alliance found that school and school district leadership play a crucial role in development of good K-12 technology programs. The best programs exist where superintendents and principals are true believers and are knowledgeable about what technology can do.

Our new Smart Tools Academy is built on that finding. The academy has offered all school leaders in Washington -- 2,300 people in all from public and private schools -- an intensive four-day residential technology program with hands-on training and a laptop computer to take home to their school or school district. About 1,000 principals and superintendents have attended each summer session of the academy, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The idea is to ensure that all the state's educational leaders share a vision and an understanding of the ways technology can support and improve student learning so that every school in every school district will give its students access to these critical resources.

This former Seattle elementary school has been transformed into the technology-rich John Stanford International School, created in partnership with the University of Washington.

Credit: Kathy Sauber, University of Washington

Seattle's John Stanford International School

The brainchild of the late John Stanford, a charismatic Seattle schools superintendent, the John Stanford International School constitutes an original idea reflecting this region's international perspective. Stanford shared it with me at lunch one day and asked UW to be involved.

The mission of the school is to offer K-5 students an education shaped in all its dimensions by an international point of view and a strong emphasis on technology. Children begin serious foreign language study starting in kindergarten and learn from the mix of cultures and languages in the school itself, which is meant to attract both immigrant children and "natives."

UW's role in all this is manifold and exciting. Our people in a variety of fields helped design imaginative new curricula around the international focus. The school is also the first to be connected to the super-fast Internet2 Gigapop, the Northwest hub of the next-generation Internet. We also plan to help the school develop international partner schools.

Institute for K-12 Leadership

The critical role of strong principals and superintendents in building good schools and the lack of enough real training opportunities for producing those strong leaders led educators in this state to ask us for help.

The Institute for K-12 Leadership, led by nationally known and respected former schools superintendent Rudy Crew, is a deliberate effort to develop and support K-12 leaders. It offers training in the precise skills required for these positions and, as part of that training, a forum for actual or aspiring leaders to exchange ideas and build a supportive community.

The institute draws on the broadest possible range of resources and talents, from the UW and the K-12 system and from business, government, and foundations. From these beginnings, we hope eventually to make the institute not just a Northwest resource but also a national one.

There are enormous rewards in this work. University faculty who work with good K-12 teachers gain a whole new perspective on the art of teaching -- and tremendous respect and admiration for what teachers do under often difficult circumstances. Our faculty also gain new insight into the students who will soon be in their own classrooms -- particularly valuable as the demographic profile of these students changes.

But the big reward, of course, is the feeling at all levels that the university is involved in society's important work. Public schools have long been a cornerstone of our democracy. If they are to keep our children and our nation abreast of a changing and evolving world, schools must also evolve and change. Research universities have an important role to play in this process.

Miller Hall houses the School of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Credit: Mary Levin, University of Washington

Taking the Initiative

UW's College of Education is reaching across departments and instituting partnerships with local schools in its effort to improve education. Three interesting projects exemplify the forward-looking work of the school:

  • The Learning Disabilities Center, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the nation's first interdisciplinary effort to involve a major collaboration between colleges of education and medicine. Headed by Virginia Berninger (education) and Wendy Raskin (medicine), the center focuses on four major projects: treatment of reading disabilities, teacher education for dealing with children with learning disabilities, genetics of subtypes of learning disabilities, and brain metabolism. Findings from the center are groundbreaking.

  • Teaching, Learning, and Technology, an innovative online program designed for educators to learn to develop and facilitate successful student-centered learning environments that incorporate technologies and guide students to become information literate. Created by a curriculum-review board composed of K-12 educators from throughout the state and UW faculty, including Steven Kerr and Allen Glenn from the university's College of Education, TLT provides a flexible distance-learning alternative for educators. Offered through the UW Extension Division, the program focuses on Washington's Essential Learnings for students and is consistent with national technology guidelines.

  • Expanding the Community of Mathematics Learners, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a cross-university project that draws on faculty and staff from the Mathematics Department, the College of Education, the School of Business, and the Extension Division in providing inservice education from six school districts in the Seattle area. Working directly with K-6 teachers in each of these districts, the faculty leaders are enhancing teachers' understanding of mathematics and enriching their abilities to serve as leaders in professional development. Coordinated for the College of Education by Jack Beal, the project has been recognized as a model for collaborative efforts between units at the university level and the public schools.
Richard L. McCormick is president of the University of Washington.

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