K-12 initiative extends reach across campus

Stanford's K-12 initiative seeks to combine the latest advances in pedagogy and practice with the university's academic and research strengths to find solutions that bridge traditional disciplinary boundaries. The effort aims to improve K-12 education as well as inform undergraduate teaching practices as Stanford takes on educational challenges of the 21st century.

"We've got to venture in new directions to have a stake in the future," said Helen Quinn, a theoretical physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and co-chair of the initiative. "The university of the future will have to be more outward looking than the ivory tower of the past."

Quinn and Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education, presented the university's $125 million campus-wide initiative at the Faculty Senate meeting Jan. 25. It is part of Stanford's $4.3 billion fundraising drive, The Stanford Challenge, which seeks to expand the university's role in addressing global challenges and educating the next generation of leaders.

Co-chair Hakuta, who recently returned to Stanford after spending three years helping to establish the University of California's new campus in Merced, discussed the problems facing K-12 education and how they must be fixed if the United States is to remain competitive in a global economy. For example, the average math and science scores of American students in 1999 showed a gradual decline from the fourth to eighth to 12th grades in comparison to students of comparable ages in other countries, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"If we want to have a future that is as good as the past, we have to pay attention to this," Quinn said after the senate meeting. "The rest of the world is getting ahead and we're not. The business world is focusing on it—for America to remain competitive, its students need an all-round education. If not, it costs businesses because they have to import people to work." Quinn, who first came to Stanford as a transfer student in 1962, compared the sense of national urgency about U.S. education today to the post-Sputnik era, when Soviet achievements in space launched a race between the two Cold War superpowers and drove a nationwide effort to improve U.S. science education.

America's ability to compete internationally is compounded by the ethnic disparity among U.S. students who pursue higher education, Hakuta said. He compared the ethnic distribution of students in California entering first grade in 1994 with those who matriculated 12 years later into the University of California system, citing state Department of Education and UC statistics. In first grade, Hakuta said, the ethnic distribution of students was 9 percent African American, 10 percent Asian (including Filipino), 39 percent Caucasian and 41 percent Latino. In 2006, the distribution of UC matriculants was 3 percent African American, 43 percent Asian (including Filipino), 37 percent Caucasian and 17 percent Latino. Hakuta said he was alarmed by the dramatic drop in Latinos and African Americans entering the UC system, in contrast to the over-representation of Asian students, dubbed "the Asian miracle." The K-12 initiative and the School of Education's mission to promote educational equity seek to address such disparities, he said.

After Hakuta returned to Stanford last fall, he held dozens of informal meetings with faculty to gauge interest in a K-12 initiative and to find out who shared a vision that transcended traditional departmental boundaries. "I was struck by how many people were interested in this," he said afterward. "In terms of breadth and engagement, there's more going on than you think."

The K-12 initiative steering committee includes the following faculty members: Pam Grossman (Education), Eric Hanushek (Hoover Institution), Craig Heller (Biological Sciences), Rosemary Knight (Earth Sciences), Bill Koski (Law), Andrea Lunsford (English), Paul Oyer (Business), Sheri Sheppard (Engineering), Guadalupe Valdes (Education), Marilyn Winkleby (Medicine), and Quinn and Hakuta.

The committee, which has just started meeting, initially plans to focus on K-12 curriculum and instruction, education policy, and school governance and leadership issues. Hakuta cautioned the initiative cannot solve all problems facing U.S. education, but its launch will enable Stanford to become a more active player on a national level.

Quinn said she would like the initiative's work to influence teaching at Stanford. "We hope by engaging in cross-disciplinary conversations about what really is important in K-12 education, we will also change the conversation about what's really important in undergraduate education," she said.

During the senate meeting, Steven Block, professor of applied physics and of biological sciences, questioned whether Stanford was spreading its resources too thin by taking on K-12 education in addition to its support of undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate education and its professional schools. He noted that funding for the initiative could instead be used to support more graduate students, particularly those from underrepresented minorities. "I think we probably all agree that education in America is absolutely paramount … but a very different question is what fraction of our resources should be going into that," Block said. "There are opportunity costs. If we do this, it means we are not going to be doing something else."

President John Hennessy said the K-12 initiative comprises about 3 percent of Stanford's five-year campaign and that some of the funds raised will support graduate students across campus. He also said the issue of ethnic diversity will not be resolved until K-12 science and math education is improved nationally. "When they get to the undergraduate program, particularly students from underprivileged communities don't even have the chance to major in science and math education," he said. "We can't solve the entire problem but we can make a contribution here that will make an important difference … to the national debate."

Quinn agreed that it is in Stanford's interest to be concerned with K-12 education because it affects who gets admitted to the university. The initiative will allow Stanford to compete more effectively for funding from sources such as the National Science Foundation, which requires educational outreach as part of its grant requirements, she said after the meeting.

"All of these initiatives face a certain amount of resistance because they move outside the normal boundaries of departments," Quinn said. "But change is happening because needs are driving it. They need champions to drive it."