How Teachers, Staff, and Accreditors Can Break Down PreK–20 Silos

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on the educational pipeline authored by Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College. She has taught students from preschool through graduate school. The title of her next piece is “How College Admissions is Changing — For Better and Worse.”

For years, many of us in the education field have recognized that there are silos within our institutions, particularly in larger educational settings. While this is true from preschool through graduate school, silos become more pronounced as we progress along the preK–20 pipeline.
The silos run both vertically and horizontally, and they run deep. There are silos within disciplines: English, foreign languages, math, and art/music departments.
There are silos separating administrators from teachers who, in turn, are separated from support staff in all types of positions, whether they’re coaches, student life personnel, food service providers, or facilities managers. Consider, for example, that those who teach technology are separated from those who develop and maintain the technology.
Eliminating silos — an activity I and others call “silo busting” — offers considerable benefits. Experts have noted thevalue of interdisciplinary work, signaling to students that the subject areas they study in school are not cordoned off from one another in real life. Solving real-world problems often requires integrating subjects, drawing on different aspects of each. While I was president of Southern Vermont College, we implemented a roving professor program for several years. In one example, a pharmacology professor visited different courses and discussed how her field intersects with other disciplines, including criminal justice, social services, and healthcare.
Experts have suggested other ideas, too. Based on my work as an academic, I have called for a wholesale reform of the first-year courses in law school. The idea is to show students how legal problems present themselves: They don’t have labels.
In drawing on a wealth of research and experimentation in businesses, many experts along the education pipelinehave also recognized that student success requires all parts of an institution to work together. If there is no shared message or coordinated and cohesive approach to student-centeredness, it is easy for students to fall through the proverbial cracks. My own work on student success and others’ work here emphasize the importance of looking at the “whole” student. This requires collaboration among key players of an institution: teachers, psychologists, and coaches.

Expanding Silo Busting Across the Educational Pipeline

We need to find ways across the entire preK-20 educational pipeline for institutions and personnel to work together. Our shared students will benefit when each institution (silo) in the pipeline shares knowledge. This will help ease transitions and will create an understanding of faculty expectations and the skill sets students bring as they progress in their schooling.
I have fresh thoughts about undertaking silo busting on a broader scale based on my recent experiences. I was one of three school leaders across the educational pipeline who swapped places for a day, as previously described in anIndependent School magazine article. I led a high school, the high school head led an elementary school, and the elementary head led my college. We learned many lessons, and our experience confirmed the value of educators engaging in the field more broadly — without regard to salary level, grade level, or status within the educational and social hierarchy.
Other efforts are happening in the field as well. For example, college students volunteer as tutors for high school students. College professors work with high school teachers, especially in dual enrollment programs. College and high school students participate in projects with elementary school students.
At Southern Vermont College, we ran a speech contest for middle schoolers in the region. The college students established the prompts, judged the contestants’ speeches, and organized a celebratory event. We introduced acampus community dinner. For this project, college students were trained as dinner conversationalists and broke bread with area families to encourage interest in and familiarity with college life.
However, these activities are not systemic and systematic. We would all benefit if they were. What follows are concrete suggestions to bring about consistent and widespread change along the educational pipeline. The ideas are grounded in experience and reflect concerns and trends in education on a number of fronts:
  • faculty development;
  • faculty burnout;
  • college and career readiness;
  • the use of technology within and outside classroom;
  • the value of partnering and leveraging resources in times of fiscal challenge;
  • the demographics of America’s future students, particularly those who are low income; and
  • accreditation, including its effectiveness, quality, cost, and approach.

Concrete Suggestions for Teachers, Staff, and Accreditors

For teachers. Educators need to visit one another’s classrooms. College math professors should spend time in elementary school classrooms to see the ways young students are doing math on computers and with actual and virtual manipulatives. That would inform how colleges teach math and how best to engage their future students.
College English professors should visit elementary school classrooms to see how young children write and edit their own work and the work of their peers online.
College professors could share their syllabi with high school teachers so these teachers understand the expectations for first-year college students. The college professors could then show teachers and students how a syllabus resembles the assignments high school teachers give orally, on the board, or by the week — they are just aggregated. That would help demystify the first few weeks in college.
For staff. The college admissions process is fraught with tension and can be difficult to understand, particularly for low-income students. College admissions officers can pave the way for students. They should come to high schools to share the ins and outs of the application process. Representatives could pass around mock applications and describe how they evaluate them as well as help students with essays. It’s important that these sessions not be designed to match students to these schools but instead be open to all students.
Collegiate athletic directors and coaches should visit high schools to discuss the Division I, II, and III recruiting process and help students consider the pros and cons of participating in athletics in college.
College financial aid officers need to open their offices to families of students in the local high school to share information and provide assistance — including for students who won’t attend their institution.
Leaders across the educational pipeline need to discuss how to close the growing equity gap among high- and low-income students. They can also share challenges related to retention, student motivation, educational innovation, and the absence or presence of parental or guardian engagement.
For faculty, staff, and leaders. With the myriad of social concerns for young people today, we need to articulate the importance of establishing a healthy culture early and often across the educational pipeline. Issues such as sexual harassment and assault; micro-aggressions; and bullying, teasing, and discrimination arise for all ages.
When we find solutions, we must put them into practice from an early age onward. We need to discuss school andcampus cultures and consider what initiatives would be effective. Because we cannot solve these profound issues in isolation, cross-silo thinking can also be helpful in reexamining how incidents are reported and handled on campuses. If we don’t consider a coordinated effort, the problems will persist because they move along the pipeline with the students.
For professional development. We know that educators suffer from burnout. We also know that not all professional development is engaging and high quality. But PD is important.
We can invigorate the continuing education of teachers and professors by designing programs that allow educators across the pipeline to meet and discuss learning theory and new teaching technologies. College faculty could learn so much from K–12 educators who are trained in traditional and then more innovative grading approaches and test/quiz design. Given the rise in plagiarism, augmented by the Internet and the purchase of papers, sharing knowledge and flagging issues early would be beneficial.
Professors could also learn lots from K–12 teachers about the shift from being sages on stages to guides on the sides. College faculty could guest teach in elementary schools. Meanwhile, K–12 teachers could engage with college faculty and gain exposure to new developments in a variety of subjects — from technology to psychology to wellness to language learning. I think respect would grow and be reciprocal.
For accreditation. The entire accreditation process has come under fire, including the quality of the visits, the ways to measure the ongoing improvement of institutions, and the costs. Under the current process, we try to find “matches,” visitors who lead or teach at similar institutions and at similar grade levels. In short, elites accredit other elites.
We could improve accreditation at all levels by assembling teams of visitors from across the educational pipeline. For example, a middle school accreditation visit could benefit from the presence of both a high school and elementary school teacher. A college’s accreditation could benefit from high school teachers’ participation, too. It’s worth noting that priorities, finances, and development issues are not radically different among small colleges and independent boarding and day schools.

Conclusion: We Need Silo Ventilation

The term “silo busting” may be too violent an expression for some. Indeed, silos do have some benefits, such as grouping together same-aged children. Moreover, the benefits of educator expertise in given fields abound. As one business commentator stated, without apology, we don’t want or need silo busting; we need silo ventilation. This means we need academic institutions with porous walls where people and information can flow back and forth. If we use the phrase “increasing silo flow” as opposed to “silo busting,” perhaps we will generate greater interest and less territoriality.
In the absence of silo flow, I think we forget that today’s preK students will be tomorrow’s university students. We want professors to be prepared for the students they will teach. College faculty can get ready by engaging with K–12 educators who understand their students and are deeply informed about technology. After all, at the end of the day, we are all educators of the same children.

16-0222-KarenGross-bio.jpgKaren Gross has taught and continues to teach across the educational pipeline. In spring 2016, she will teach at Bennington College in Vermont. She writes, consults, and advises on how to improve student success and has a forthcoming book titled Shoulders to Learn On (2016) on this very topic. A former college president and senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, she currently serves as senior counsel toWidmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Company, and as an affiliate to the Penn Center for MSIs at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She writes for many education outlets, including The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, InsideHigherEd, Unplugged, DiverseEducation, Evollution, NAIS, and CollegeAD.
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