Four Ways Higher Education Can Change the K-12 Equation

Most Americans believe that the major problem with K-12 education today is a lack of quality standards. Schools aren't able to effectively impose higher standards, students aren't expected to meet higher standards, and the process of implementing standardized initiatives like Common Core seems more daunting every day.

This is a concept that needs to be reframed.

Today's biggest education problem is not that we suffer from a lack of standards, or that we can't meet the ones we have. Rather, it's that the standards we aim for are not necessarily the right ones. In other words, we have built a system designed to drive results against measures and ideals that are becoming less and less relevant -- not just to students, but to teachers, school districts, future employers and local communities themselves.

It's tempting to think that we could come up with a neat, one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum and learning that gives teachers a clearer sense of what to teach and when, and policy makers a better way to assess and optimize student performance. But unfortunately, "neat and linear" is not the way today's economy works. In reality, our job market and the skills required in order to thrive there are anything but uniform. The needs of local employers vary by region, as do the passions, interests and learning styles of individual students. So how do we solve for such diversity, embracing it as an opportunity rather than a challenge? My belief is that higher education can and should play a bigger role.

At our University campus in Aurora, Ill., we're acting on what we see as a shared responsibility to better prepare K-12 students for the careers of tomorrow. To do this, we are breaking down classroom walls, getting rid of textbooks and discarding traditional testing for what we believe will truly work to build a thriving local economy. At our newly opened John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, we're showcasing a relevant and interactive STEM curriculum that's designed to solve education challenges by changing standards in a positive direction.

We were proud to have welcomed 150 students this August, and look forward to openly communicating our results in the coming months and years. In the meantime, we believe our experiences to date will provide other local universities and communities with a model worth replicating.

Along these lines, here are the four most important lessons we've learned so far:

1. Embrace diversity: Our local communities -- consisting of parents, students, teachers and businesses -- understand the needs of their citizens better than anyone else. When national governments don't listen to these needs, it's our responsibility to lead the charge. That's why we created a process designed to gather input from key voices in our community (see point three below) and instituted a lottery system that gives equal opportunity to all students in our community to enroll in our school, regardless of economic background.

2. Leverage location as an asset: Aurora isn't a town that most people have heard of. And yet, it is one of America's fastest growing cities, quickly expanding on the intersection of rural agriculture, manufacturing and technology. Early on in the process of developing our new STEM school, we committed to using location as an advantage. We partnered with local corporations such as Caterpillar and Exelon, civic organizations such as the Dunham Fund, and policy makers such as Aurora mayor Tom Weisner. Over time, these community leaders have become our partners and strongest advocates, helping to shape a curriculum that serves as the perfect incubator for tomorrow's local talent pool.

3. Collaborate wisely: Collaboration can get out of hand when you don't approach it thoughtfully. The process must be efficient, as there is a tendency for stakeholders to want to deliberate endlessly or wait for others to act before making certain decisions. Because we gave ourselves a tight timeframe, clear parameters and a mutual set of objectives, we were able to effectively engage different stakeholder groups -- from business and government partners to public school districts and university faculty. Through the collaborative process, we managed to gain necessary buy-in and move more quickly than we would have on our own. We also uncovered a model that others may replicate, thereby scaling our impact.

4. Take necessary risks: One of the key pieces of learning we gleaned from listening to our stakeholders was that local students needed a better way to personalize and master academic material. While initially, the thought of foregoing textbooks or standardized tests for leading-edge, project-based learning techniques was an uncomfortable concept, over time we've found that an experimental attitude yields promising results. Thus far, students are excited, teachers are broadening their professional skills, and parents seem happy with the STEM school's methods. We're looking forward to seeing how our curriculum affects the lives of our students and community in the years to come.

We recognize that change doesn't happen overnight -- it happens step by step, community to community. Here in Aurora, Ill., we're taking that first step.