Eastman: Learning from Each Other in K-12 and College-University Teaching

by The Village Green
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The following is an opinion piece by Wayne Eastman, who is running for re-election to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on a ticket with Madhu Pai and Peggy Freedson. The positions expressed in this piece are personal and do not reflect the positions of Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick, or of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.

I teach business law and business ethics to graduate students and undergraduates at Rutgers Business School in Newark and New Brunswick, and I’ve served as a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education since 2006, and President since January 2015.

As much as I hope that on Tuesday you will be voting for Pai, Freedson, and Eastman (lines 5, 7, and 9!) to support me and my running mates Madhu Pai—my First Vice President on the Board, who has led with me in choosing a new Superintendent, and in advancing our new access and equity policy—and Peggy Freedson—a professor at Montclair State University who works with teachers-to-be and is wonderfully qualified to make the new district vision of choice a success—my objective here is not to make arguments for Madhu, Peggy, and me.

This is a reflective piece. It draws on my experiences over the years at Rutgers, and on what I’ve learned from my wife, who has been a high school English teacher for over ten years, and from other people. My aim is suggest ways in which those of us in elementary and secondary education and those of us in colleges and universities can fruitfully learn from one another. In the first part, I’ll discuss opportunities for us and other districts based on a contemporary vision of business education, and in the second part I’ll discuss more broadly how those of us who teach in K-12 systems like ours in South Orange and Maplewood and those who teach in colleges and universities like Peggy’s and mine can learn from each other.

Business Education for Our Towns and Our Times

Once, my job at Rutgers involved teaching only graduate students. But over the last twenty years there has been a major expansion of undergraduate business programs at Rutgers in both Newark and New Brunswick. Now, I mostly teach undergraduates. I believe that the great expansion of undergraduate business education at my school and elsewhere over the last decades offers a promising path forward for high schools, such as our own Columbia High School.

We have the chance over time, I believe, to create a new culture at Columbia and elsewhere that is different from, and better than, either the old-style, 1950s “college prep on top, secretarial and vocational tracks below” high school model or the current “academic skill is all there is” high school model. The old model was flawed—but the new model does not work well for many of our students.   We need to do better.

What might new era business education in a school like Columbia look like?

In contrast to the old-style idea of a business track for non-college students, many and very likely most of the students in new-era high school business education would be going on to college, and some of them would be academic stars, just as some of my undergraduate business students are at Rutgers.

In the new era, a ninth-grade Steve Jobs of 2025 with strong artistic and leadership skills as well as good academic skills might well want to concentrate in what we could call Business Prep, even as a ninth-grade Bill Gates of 2025 with his narrower excellence in logical reasoning would likely choose what might be called Professional Prep.

My undergraduate business students at Rutgers Business School benefit from taking a mix of liberal arts courses and business courses, with some of the business courses taught by academic faculty like me and some taught by industry faculty. We can envision a future in which a substantial number of students in high schools like Columbia do something similar.

My belief that business education in American high schools can enjoy a much higher role and status than it now does is based centrally on what I’ve seen happen at Rutgers over the last twenty years.   The world of paid work, of which business is the central though not the only component, has always been at the heart of what my MBA students care about. With the expansion of undergraduate business education and the role of clinical or industry faculty in both our graduate and undergraduate programs, I believe that Rutgers is doing a much better job than we used to do in giving a good proportion of our undergraduate student body a keen sense of the world of work.   The combination of avidity for learning and avidity for the working world that I see in a good number of my undergraduate business students is one that I find very appealing. I think it can be brought to life for high school students who want it with a broad portfolio of courses that includes the traditional liberal arts subjects, with more on psychology and economics as the foundational disciplines of business, and with practical courses covering both the psychological, human relations skills and the getting the job done, operational skills that are central to business.

Some of what I see as needing to happen is already happening. In our district, we already have a practical arts requirement, under which students take subjects like computer assisted design and programming. Business faculty at Columbia are doing good work placing students with local employers and connecting with my school and other colleges and universities. What we have not done yet, and what I believe we can and should do over time, involves foregrounding and lifting up business education as a highly valued choice for our high school students. If we as a leading-edge American school district move over the coming years–with the buy-in and close collaboration of our teachers, parents, and other key stakeholders–to focus on business education as a valued path, I’m optimistic that many of our students will come to what we build.

On Being a Teacher

Here, I want to start with three ways in which I think teachers in colleges and universities can learn from teachers in primary and secondary education, and then turn to three ways in which I think teachers in the K-12 system can learn from teachers in our college and university system.

First: The K-12 system does well in inculcating in teachers a sense of responsibility for how well one’s students learn. We in colleges and universities could learn from that.

If we are going to get college graduation rates in the U.S. to the top in the world again internationally, I believe that professors will have to embrace our identity as teachers more than we have traditionally done. I, no less than my wife teaching literature to her high school students, need to see myself as a teacher serving my students, not simply as an academic writing articles for other academics.

Second: Compared to the college-university system, the K-12 system has done well, especially in recent years, in creating structures under which tenured faculty are evaluated and are expected to be devoted to self-evaluation and self-improvement.

My wife submits annual personal improvement plans, is regularly observed by her department supervisor, and under the recently- passed Teach NJ law is subject to real accountability demands, given that she must have satisfactory evaluations or face removal for ineffectiveness.   As a tenured university faculty member, I am not subject to comparable structures of accountability. I believe that I should be.

Third: In K-12 education, elected local school boards like the one I serve on do a reasonably good job overall in my judgment in making difficult but necessary tradeoffs between educational need and taxpayer burden.   By comparison, the state and federal funders of higher education and parents and students who pay for the system have been much less able to stand up for economy in higher education spending.

The U.S. is in the upper-middle part of the pack among wealthy nations in the proportion of our national wealth we spend on K-12 education. In higher education spending, on the other hand, we are an outlier at the top end. Much as we who earn our livings in colleges and universities may be wary at the possibility of change, college and university faculty and administrators at schools like mine should be open to learning from the democratic governance systems of K-12 education, with their respect for tax stress.

Now, the other side of the coin.

First: The college-graduate school system does a very good job overall at involving faculty in governance.   It would be a very good thing if primary and secondary education could learn from tertiary education in that regard.

At Rutgers Business School, I and other faculty members play a central role in determining the curriculum and in running programs.   It would be desirable in my view if the same were the case in New Jersey K-12 school districts such as ours.

There are major and tricky issues over whether a major faculty governance role in a K-12 system would go along with typical administrative structures and with typical union contracts as they now exist in New Jersey. But whatever the answer to that and other questions, I believe that enhancing the governance responsibilities and the professional status of elementary school and secondary school teachers is a very important and very valuable project. In advancing that project, much can be learned from colleges and universities.

Second: American higher education does very well in valuing exceptional intellectual effort and skill in its faculty.   We in American K-12 education can learn from that.

Before she became a high school teacher, my wife published an article on teaching philosophy to children. We should aspire to a culture of elementary and secondary education that is structured so as to recognize and value that kind of activity on the part of some teachers.

I believe there are major opportunities for elementary and secondary education in hiring and promoting teachers who are committed to various forms of scholarship alongside their teaching.   Such teachers would for the most part not be Ph.D.’s oriented toward writing highly specialized articles for journal publication. Rather, they would be intellectually skilled and hard-working people without Ph.D.’s, as well as Ph.D.’s whose skills are not oriented toward specialized academic journals.   Even though such faculty would not likely be a large proportion of all secondary and elementary school teachers, having them become an important and valued part of the K-12 teacher workforce over time is a worthwhile and achievable goal.

Third: The college-graduate school system has done a good job at recognizing the value of a variety of different kinds of teachers and of letting them benefit students without a complex, bureaucratic process of certification. Relatedly, it has done a good job at recognizing the value of a very wide array of fields, including practical ones like those that predominate in business education and in many community college and graduate school programs. In K-12 education, we can benefit from a spirit of respect for the contributions that can be made by different kinds of faculty, and relatedly from a spirit of respect for “heart”/people skills and “hands”/technical skills as well as “head”/verbal-analytical skills.

In my department of Supply Chain Management and Marketing, I work closely with instructors and part-time lecturers whose close connections to business are critical in getting our undergraduates and MBA students jobs.   Primary and secondary schools could benefit from the example of higher education to move toward a more varied group of faculty than we have now, including part-timers with jobs in business and other sectors. Such a diverse faculty could help move the K-12 system away from an obsolete factory model toward a more flexible model that respects the reality that our students need to be prepared for jobs in which people skills and often technical skills, not simply verbal-analytical skills, are highly important.

As a Rutgers faculty member, a South Orange-Maplewood school board member, and the spouse of a public school teacher, I am very proud of both the public college-university sector and the K-12 public education sector in New Jersey.

At the same time, I believe that both sectors can benefit from reforms.   But for those reforms to work, they cannot simply be the brainchild of outsiders to education. We in the inside are the key to successful reform.

When people outside education tell us that we in education need to emulate the private sector, it leads too readily to a polarized, politicized debate in which teachers become defensive and close ranks against change.

By comparison, I’m optimistic about the prospects for teachers in the college-university sector and in the K-12 sector drawing on positive features of the other sector as a basis for reforming our own sector.

I believe it’s important for those of us who teach in primary and secondary schools and those of us who teach in colleges and universities to see ourselves as part of a single unified profession.

If we who are college and university faculty look down on K-12 faculty as lower and as apart from us, shame on us. If we who are K-12 faculty disdain college and university faculty as airy snobs who are alien to us, our bad.

Whether in relation to the specific areas discussed here or in other areas, teachers in K-12 education and in college-graduate school education have a great deal to offer one another.

Let’s get together.   Let’s start talking to each other and listening to each other. Let’s start seeing ourselves as part of a single great team and a single great profession.





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