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It Takes a Team

Tisch Lecturer Priscilla Wohlstetter believes that partnerships are the road to improving educational outcomes
Tisch Lecturer Priscilla Wohlstetter believes that partnerships are the road to improving educational outcomes

By Suzanne Guillette

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

For Priscilla Wohlstetter, who this year delivered TC’s annual Tisch Lecture, that African proverb succinctly sums up the case for collaboration in education.

“Students are not excelling academically,” Wohlstetter, Professor of Educational Policy at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, told her audience in Milbank Chapel in late March. Educators cannot alone improve educational performance, she asserted in her lecture, which was titled “Sharing Responsibilities for Public Education – Where Public Meets Private: The New Education Landscape.”  “The question is, can public education be improved by collaboration?”

Wohlstetter argued that it can, offering several examples of alliances that bring together government, for-profit and non-profit entities with the goal of improving educational outcomes. Chief among these is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has served some 21,000 students since it opened as a one-block pilot project in the 1990s. It now serves a 100-square-block area, receiving about $12,500 in public funding per student and also relying upon support from companies such as American Express.

What’s the incentive for each of the players in such a collaboration? When groups share the risks and responsibilities of a joint effort, Wohlstetter said, they gain financial, organizational and political credibility that perhaps none might achieve working alone.

Even the most promising collaborations can fail, Wohlstetter acknowledged. In February 2010, with much fanfare, the California Community College system announced a partnership that would let students earn college credit at a discounted rate from online courses taken at for-profit Kaplan University. Within months, critics were calling the partnership a failure, and some University of California and California State University schools were refusing to accept coursework completed at Kaplan. The partnership was dissolved soon afterward.

Yet even in the face of such setbacks, Wohlstetter argues, interest in educational collaborations remains strong. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Obama administration has announced the establishment of Promise Neighborhoods, a federally funded program that provides “cradle-to-career” services to help further educational achievement of urban youth in low-income families.

And TC, too, is getting into the act. On the morning of her lecture, Wohlstettter noted, the College’s home page ran a story about the Teachers College Community School, a joint venture between the College and the New York City Department of Education that is scheduled to receive its first kindergarten class this coming fall. 

“Even though it’s a cloudy day, if we get up above the clouds, the stars are clearly aligned,” Wohlstetter said.

Published Thursday, May. 12, 2011