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Stress on Local Control: How One Program Worked

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In 1965, a study of education in North Dakota, commissioned by the state legislature, called for a "retraining" program that would help the state's 1,834 teachers who did not have bachelor's degrees (59 percent of the elementary-school teaching force) complete their college education.

The result was a teacher-exchange program, called the New School for Behavioral Studies, established at the University of North Dakota in 1968.

North Dakota's experiment is one that suffered from--and to a large degree, overcame--the problems that often result from outside intervention in rural school districts, a researcher who has studied the project says.

According to Faith Dunne, a member of the Dartmouth College faculty and the author of a case study of the program contained in Rural Education: In Search of a Better Way, the program surmounted several obstacles to become "a substantial success."

The program allowed teachers to take a year's leave of absence while master's degree candidates from the university replaced them for the year.

Among the problems was suspicion in some communities about anything called "the New School," Ms. Dunne writes.

The New School's classes for teachers without degrees emphasized personal responsibility for shaping one's own instructional program, with an emphasis on inno-vative teaching methods.

"Teachers accustomed to courses such as Mathematics Methods were instead confronted with Creative Expression," Ms. Dunne writes, "for which they had to write poetry, create skits and plays, and draw and paint." One New School graduate, Ms. Dunne reports, commented: "They should never have called it the New School. It only made people nervous."

One participant, Babe Sampson, returned from the New School to her district to face an anti-communist harangue.

"A local woman ... declared that Sampson had been lured into cooperation with a Communist plot that was trying to take over the minds of young North Dakotans by consolidating schools into units so large that children would need to board away from home in order to attend high school, away from the moral influence of family and community," Ms. Dunne writes.

But because Ms. Sampson was a well-known, respected resident, she managed to quell the community's doubts. "I had done all the right things in Edmore for years and years--in church, 4-H--and never made a ripple," she said. "They watched me, but most of them trusted me."

'Open-Classroom' Movement

Because the press perceived an irony in the "open-classroom" movement hitting conservative North Dakota, the New School received national press attention that brought large numbers of students to the program from outside the state.

The first of the New School's students had the advantage of being native North Dakotans who understood community values, Ms. Dunne writes, but "the second-year interns in that turn-of-the-decade period included long-haired, bead-wearing people whose looks and manners startled and often offended local citizens."

There were additional problems about who was in charge of the university interns who replaced the teachers in local schools, Ms. Dunne writes. Many of the interns felt primarily responsible to the university and sometimes ignored existing local standards.

"In [one] school," she writes, "where the principal prided himself on orderly classrooms and empty, silent corridors, a pair of interns decided to use the hallway as a laboratory for demonstrations of aerodynamic concepts. The principal emerged from his office to find two young teachers and their classes flying paper airplanes in the hall."

Yet in spite of the difficulties, the New School--which has since become the Center for Teaching and Learning at the university--accomplished many of its goals.

The state wanted elementary-school teachers "upgraded," Ms. Dunne writes, and today more than 90 percent of North Dakota's teachers are certified "through programs influenced, if not mounted, by the New School."

She argues that the success of the New School was not due as much to its 1960's-style innovative content, but to its strategy.

First, the program was state-initiated and state-controlled from the start, and the recommendations for its goals were based on local information. "Thus, there was never a sense in North Dakota that the New School had been forced upon the state in response to outside pressures or distant mandates."

Second, the program was decentralized. Instead of change being imposed from administrators at the top, the teachers controlled most of what they did in their districts.

Finally, said Vito Perrone, the program's director, the New School succeeded because "there was more than enough time and less than enough money."

Mr. Perrone said that time constraints usually enforced by the federal government and foundation grants force an administrator to concentrate on quick, measurable results that may not last in the long run.

Also, he argued, less money can be better than more. If a program is too heavily endowed from the outside, the local institutions cannot possibly afford to carry it on when funding ends, he said.

The program survived, Ms. Dunne concludes, because it "tried to solve a problem that rural teachers and communities perceived as important, using a process that kept a considerable amount of power in the hands of the teacher and the district. The program did not push teachers out of rural education, nor did it send in teams of university experts to tell rural people how backward they were."

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