Liberal Education

Starting in School...

Through its signature initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is promoting a vision for learning that begins in school:

Starting in School . . .

  • Rigorous and rich curriculum focused on the essential learning outcomes
  • Comprehensive, individualized, and learning-centered advising
  • Participation in service learning and civic engagement activities
  • Substantive culminating projects assessed for achievement of essential learning outcomes1

The LEAP initiative is devoted to the well-being of colleges and universities—but not in isolation. It also advances a fundamentally democratic vision for school-to-college alignment. The concept is grounded in the belief that all students—no matter their socioeconomic position, no matter their race or ethnicity, no matter what grounds for difference—should benefit from the best that a liberal education can provide. The future well-being of our democracy demands no less.

Now, a period of crisis in public education, is a critical time to renew and develop that commitment—not despite the crisis, but through and because of it. As funding for public education declines and the need for higher-quality learning makes ever stronger claims on our attention, AAC&U sees renewed investment in P16 (pre-kindergarten through college alignment) as a matter of urgency. Amid the rush to increase productivity—outputs such as numbers of degrees and certificates—we know we must provide robust leadership for high-quality learning for everyone. As the learning outcomes movement continues to gain strength in postsecondary education, it is high time to think again about continuity and collaboration with schools.

A new perspective on school to college alignment

In 2009 AAC&U invited Achieve, Inc., a bipartisan nonprofit organization devoted to school reform, to join an experimental convening on P16 issues. Invited participants came together to discuss school-to-college alignment, focusing attention on student learning outcomes and student work. The leaders of the project were thinking of grades nine to sixteen as a continuum.2 By imagining continuity across that span of grade levels, we supposed it might be easier to think of shared assessment of learning across what has persisted as a big divide between grades twelve and thirteen. 

In 2009, this approach—focusing on aligned student work, assessment of that work, and shared expectations for achievement—was not the typical way to address the topic of school-to-college alignment. The effects of the No Child Left Behind Act have not been conducive to such an approach. No Child Left Behind brought long-overdue attention to an ideal of educational opportunity for students from all racial/ethnic and socio-economic groups. But it also ushered in a new era of standardized high-stakes testing. It focused this testing on skills along a narrow band of learning within the much broader expanse of human cognition. As any parent of public school children can attest, standardized testing in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics now dominates the school experience, eclipsing much that school used to do. Children now spend not days but weeks on preparation and testing. They “bubble in” answers to multiple-choice questions, and they produce endless BCRs (brief constructed responses). The seventh grader in my family cheerfully reported this spring that he knew why: “We take tests to make sure the school has money. We take tests to earn money for the schools.” My fifth grader: “This is our year to take the science test. They told us to learn science from the test. It isn’t the same as the MSAs [the Maryland School Assessments], but really, I think it is about math. They gave us compasses and protractors.”

The focus on testing in ELA and mathematics likewise makes meaningful shared attention to classroom-based student work much more difficult to achieve when school and college faculty get together. It makes shared attention to out-of-classroom learning—in the library, in the arts, and on the playing field—more difficult to value. It prevents teachers from fostering creativity and innovation—the very characteristics of American education that educators and employers around the world now want to emulate. These long-valued priorities for education in the United States have been relentlessly and effectively pushed aside. The attention to testing overshadows discussions of the curriculum and classroom-based assessment. It disrupts what could be a continuum of learning across the curriculum between school and college, a continuum that a modern democracy ought to provide for all students.

AAC&U and Achieve agreed to talk about alignment from a new perspective in 2009 because they thought new insights might emerge. They hoped to foster new connections and find new collaborative pathways that might be brought to scale. The idea to focus on learning outcomes flowed naturally from work both organizations had been doing separately for years.

In 2005, the American Diploma Project (ADP), an initiative sponsored by Achieve, opened work in a number of states. The project produced a set of benchmarks in ELA and mathematics, which cross-functional teams of school and college educators reviewed together. The goal was to reach agreement on a set of college-ready high-school completion benchmarks that could be made available nationally, and that could be used to guide schools in individual states to work with expectations for performance that colleges and universities in those states could endorse. The ADP also produced a set of cross-disciplinary proficiencies that emerged through the combined work in the states (see fig. 1). Achieve published these proficiencies in 2008. The proficiencies had a much wider curricular reach than did the specific work in ELA and math from which they arose. They were related to the more discipline-specific work in ELA and mathematics, but also identified broad and integrative goals across all disciplines. 

Figure 1. ADP cross-disciplinary proficiencies

Research and Evidence Gathering

  • Conduct research and utilize the research process to describe, summarize, and synthesize information or to solve problems.

Critical Thinking and Decision Making

  • Employ abstract and concrete reasoning to make and assess logical inferences, conclusions, and predictions.

Communication and Teamwork

  • Articulate and translate ideas and information with precision and coherence.
  • Understand different perspectives and approaches, and work productively in teams.

Media and Technology

  • Utilize technology efficiently and effectively.
  • Assess and employ a variety of media and formats to evaluate, create, and distribute information.

The cross-disciplinary proficiencies have not had much staying power or impact on school reform. But it is worth noting that the proficiencies share characteristics with the desirable outcomes of undergraduate education, which, coincidentally, AAC&U had been gathering since the late 1990s from faculty and other educational leaders across the country. AAC&U’s work culminated in the identification of the LEAP essential learning outcomes (see fig. 2).

Figure 2. LEAP essential learning outcomes

Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first-century challenges by gaining:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

  • Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

Intellectual and Practical Skills, including

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem solving

Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

Personal and Social Responsibility, including

  • Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges

Integrative Learning, including

  • Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies

Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems

Reprinted from Association of American Colleges and Universities, College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007), 12.

The convening sought possibility, beginning with the convergence of LEAP and the ADP. Participants imagined ways they could use learning outcomes and attention to classroom-based student work as the basis for collaboration. If the outcomes and proficiencies could be aligned, then it would be possible to construct assignments and assessments that would also be aligned. Imagine an inquiry assignment—an assignment that “conducts research and utilizes the research process,” as the ADP proficiencies recommend. Such an assignment could be designed for grades eleven and twelve, and could be portable to grade thirteen for placement and assessment—or for further development of learning. If such work were done in states or other localities, then it would be possible to design purposeful pathways for students and faculty.

Promising developments

Since that meeting in the spring of 2009, the world of education has changed dramatically. Secondary and postsecondary education still face enormous challenges to collaboration. But opportunities now exist that were not in place two years ago.

As a society, we appear to be reaching a moment of doubt as to the value of standardized testing in ELA and mathematics as the major emphasis and driver of school reform. No Child Left Behind is not producing the intended results. 

The current development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (see www.core thus presents us with an opportunity not to be missed. The Common Core is a step forward as a matter of articulation. It is aspirational, detailed, complex, and explicit. Its expectations for student performance are developed beyond one-dimensional approaches to skills or content. It may not do all that many of us in postsecondary education would like to see it do—in science, humanities, or the arts, for example—but it reaches for higher levels of proficiency for all students in ELA, communication, and quantitative reasoning.

Further potential exists in the Race to the Top initiative. As part of the Race to the Top reforms, two multi-state assessment projects are in progress to support the implementation of the Common Core. The consortia, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, do include development of traditional high-stakes tests. But these projects place a heavy emphasis on examining the work of students in a formative process encompassing many of the components of portfolios. The attention to student work means assessment of learning may be grounded in the classroom.

P16 or P20 councils have soldiered on over the years. Perhaps their moment has come. There is, in fact, significant activity going on right now in locales around the nation. Alignment is happening on the ground when faculty come together to discuss student work. Research conducted to support this claim is finding continuous or continual activity for school-college partnership in California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington State—to mention but a few easily identified examples.3 The activities are more numerous and varied than I can describe here, but a few examples make the point. The National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership Program has been supporting P16 partnerships since 2002. Achieve’s American Diploma Project is actively under way in thirty-five states. Early college high schools and faculty development programs sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation have brought school and college educators together to share assessment of student work and to promote faculty development in many locations across the country. For many years, the National Writing Project has brought school and college faculty and students together for richly interconnected work. A promising initiative sponsored by the League for Innovation in Community Colleges, titled Significant Discussions, offers a blueprint and tools for creating collaboration anchored in community colleges and reaching back to schools and ahead to four-year institutions.

Relationships prompted by these projects do not dissolve as quickly as external funding, in its two- or three-year cycles, will typically disappear. The human side of the work, the satisfaction and reward of collective endeavor for the benefit of all students, tends to endure. Now is an especially good time to take advantage of large-scale national projects and the diverse local activities that already exist in order to build durable structures and pathways on these foundations.

What now is different in higher education that makes such an endeavor imaginable? Faculty are taking seriously and engaging with learning outcomes and assessment. A 2009 AAC&U member survey found that about 80 percent of campuses have identified learning outcomes for their students. Nearly all colleges and universities are working to improve their assessment of those outcomes. It is possible to align school and college benchmark expectations and to share assessments—and to attract faculty use and engagement of them, especially by general education leaders. Many willing partners on college campuses can now enter a conversation about learning outcomes and assessments, and find common ground with colleagues in schools. New information technology tools can connect learning activities and analyze student information from school to college in ways that protect individual rights to privacy and provide valuable information about learning. Think of this: we no longer need to rely only on high-stakes standardized tests to assess learning and set expectations for the smooth transition between school and college. If we share expectations—share benchmarks and learning goals or outcomes—and can document performance through valid and reliable assessment, we can embed assessments in the curriculum in ways that will improve learning at the same time as providing data about student progress.

The sheer popularity of the rubrics developed through AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project makes the point.4 More than two thousand institutions, including high schools, have downloaded one or more of the fifteen VALUE rubrics. Faculty across the country—and in a number of other countries—are now developing robust practices using rubrics.

E-portfolios are likewise proliferating; many e-portfolio installations use the VALUE rubrics for sampling assessments, for classroom-based assessment, for continuous assessment. It is easy now to share assignments and assessments electronically, through e-portfolios. We have the means to work together, using these tools and learning-centered practices across the divide between school and college.

And there is more. Recent experiments in disciplinary “tuning” converge readily with the work of the Common Core and LEAP, and can connect within multifaceted and intentional plans to improve education for everyone. Prompted by the Bologna Process in Europe, tuning activities are bringing faculty together within their disciplines to align expectations for learning and performance at specified degree levels. This work to clarify expected reference points for learning in selected majors has begun to address both general education and the knowledge and skill bases of disciplines. The work of tuning flows naturally from work to transform the curriculum using learning outcomes. Just as the LEAP essential learning outcomes are to be sought in a developmental, progressive, and intentional way in the whole of liberal education—in general education, in major and minor programs, and in the cocurriculum—so tuning activities merge with learning expectations within disciplines.

AAC&U has, therefore, welcomed with enthusiasm the opportunity presented by the recent release of the Lumina Foundation for Education’s proposed Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). The DQP offers for reference and testing a set of expectations for learning at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels. Lumina is joining with the higher education community in experimental efforts to both strengthen and demonstrate students’ achievement of key learning outcomes or competencies, across all the many pathways today’s students follow to and through college. The work toward the goals of the DQP aligns with AAC&U’s LEAP initiative and is encouraging highly generative activity. Imagine the possibilities of connected learning prompted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative joined to the learning outcomes movement in the postsecondary sector, developing with reference to expected levels of knowledge and performance through the master’s degree.


The values and benefits of a liberal education are within everyone’s grasp and appropriate to no less than everyone, including members of all racial/ethnic and socio-economic groups. As educators, we can share the effort to focus on our own performance and lead for learning as a matter of policy and practice. We can do this by continuing to focus on values held in common—which is to say, our shared belief that mass education can achieve its democratic goals; it can be more coherent and more effective, and student success and student learning can be far more robust than they are now. If we listen, we hear that faculty believe it is possible to design more efficient and effective learning for all students in our nation’s hugely diverse population. To address these realities, educators and educational leadership should consider ways to work top down and bottom up on policy, top down and bottom up on practice. The educational community, from pre-kindergarten through college, has the means to do that work now, beyond any opportunity we have had before.       


1. Association of American Colleges and Universities, The LEAP Vision for Learning: Outcomes, Practices, Impact, and Employers’ Views (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2011), 2.

2. The author wishes to acknowledge her coleaders of the 2009 convening, “To Align Learning Outcomes,” held in Chicago on May 12: Nevin C. Brown, senior fellow at Siena Italian Studies and former senior fellow for postsecondary initiatives at Achieve, Inc.; and Terrel Rhodes, vice president for quality, curriculum, and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. We thank Carnegie Corporation of New York for helping to make the convening possible.

3. Su Jin Jez of Sacramento State University has produced an annotated bibliography, “P-20 Curricular Collaboration, Annotated Bibliography” (unpublished) that lists publications and websites reporting on faculty work across the divide between school and college. The goal was to find shared investigation of student work and student success and to discover projects that intended to make curricular changes as a result.

4. See

Susan Albertine is vice president for engagement, inclusion, and success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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