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Two Districts Enlist Community To Prepare for Schools' Future

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During the first meeting this month of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's new network for schools on long-range curriculum planning, participants heard from officials in two districts that are well along in the planning process.

Their approaches differ, but their goals are similar: to make sure that their schools meet the needs of students at the turn of the century.

Both districts used an approach that participants agreed was an important element in planning: They enlisted community members with various kinds of expertise to study the goals of schooling as they relate to the needs of the community.

In the Princeton, N.J., district, the process of planning got under way several years ago, when, Superintendent of Schools Paul D. Houston said, "it occurred to me that something would have to give." The district's enrollment was declining and the budget was shrinking, but the community continued to have very high expectations of the schools.

'Market the Product'

Mr. Houston first commissioned a report from a business consultant, whose suggestion was that school officials agressively "market" their "product." But upon reflection, Mr. Houston said, he and others realized that they lacked a clear sense of what the schools' mission was, and hence could not really define how the report's recommendations fit in.

So, with the aid of the local newspaper, he sought volunteers from the community and selected a group he thought would be able to work well together. Many were faculty members at Princeton University, but Mr. Houston noted that districts that lack the resources of a major university can still use the Princeton model.

"The point is that we used the best of what our community represented," he said. "That part is transferable. Use the best of whatever you've got that reflects the values of the community."

The committee's task was not to develop specific recommendations, but rather to provide school officials with "considerations for the future." They sought "a clear concept of what tomorrow would be like," he said.

The considerations, Mr. Houston noted, ranged over a number of issues the panelists saw as related to student learning--the need to learn how to learn, the recognition and understanding of values, a "tolerance for ambiguity," an emphasis on symbolic learning, more cooperative learning, and a strong focus on "functional literacy," defined in broad terms to include "the knowledge and skills that enable a person to participate fully in society."

One message that came out of the report, Mr. Houston said, was that the "delivery of teaching" is at least as important as the material being taught.

For example, he said, the panelists felt that teachers need to help students understand that there will not always be a single "right" answer and that they must be patient in learning about the increasingly complex world.

Thus far, district personnel have introduced some new programs to address the issues raised by the committee. They have instituted cooperative learning in some classes, are teaching prose composition on computers, and have adopted a physical-education program that stresses risk-taking, Mr. Houston said.

The district is using the existing teacher-evaluation and supervision process to help teachers become aware of the need for change, he explained. For example, the district's teaching observers noted, he said, that teachers generally asked students questions that required them only to recall information, not to think for themselves. Once teachers are made aware of that practice, Mr. Houston suggested, they can revise their questioning strategy to foster thinking and reasoning skills.

'Project 2001'

Another approach to preparing for the future was taken in the Lake Washington, Wash., school district, where officials have established "Project 2001."

The strategy of the project is threefold, according to district officials. First, they gathered "the best information possible on what the world will look like in the year 2001," when children born in 1983 will graduate from high school. Second, they proposed to design an education program to meet the needs created by those changes; third, they decided to develop "a continuing partnership between education and the private sector."

To work on the plan, district officials chose a committee of 13 people from the community, most of whom were leaders of businesses or service organizations. The group, divided into subgroups of three, met weekly for six months.

Using $50,000 in district funds, the members also traveled to areas such as California's Silicon Valley and the Epcot Center in Florida to talk to high-technology employers. They commissioned major futurists to write reports on what skills schools should teach children in the year 2001. And they asked other members of the community for their views on what the schools should be doing.

The committee's final report, which was approved by the school board this month, divides its recommendations into four areas: curriculum, personnel planning, organizational structure, and accountability--defined as setting goals and establishing ways to monitor progress toward them. Unlike the Princeton committee, however, the Lake Washington panel listed specific elements that the district should include in its curriculum.

The curriculum for the future, the committee recommended, "should be flexible and organized to more nearly coincide with educational/life experiences."

The recommendations suggest that school officials focus on giving students the tools to cope with change--thinking skills, a good understanding of the interdependency of nations that is likely to increase in the future, "life skills" such as music appreciation and physical fitness, careers, and an interest in continuing to learn throughout their lives.--sw

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