'Small Fish' Crafting Reform Ideas in Hopes Of Making Big Splash

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ARLINGTON, VA.--To Thomas E. Wallenmaier, the New American Schools Development Corporation is offering "small fish like myself' a perfect way to make big waves in the education pond.

The nonprofit firm's plans for a research and-development competition call for awarding 20 to 30 relatively small--from $500,000 to $3-million--contracts to develop designs for a "new generation of American schools."

That proposal, a shift from the corporation's previous plan to award a handful of large contracts, opens the door for small entrepreneurs with bold ideas, says Mr. Wallenmaier, who runs a five-person science-education consulting firm in New Carrollton, Md.

"A small group can come up with plans," Mr. Wallenmaier says. "You don't need 50 people to come up with radical change."

By contrast, he suggests, large awards would most likely be won by major universities, which would propose "the same old thing, called new."

Last week, Mr. Wallenmaier was one of many small fish at a conference here, the first of three planned by the corporation to discuss a draft request for proposals. ('See related story, page 1 .) The "usual suspects" who populate most of the education meetings in Washington and elsewhere, such as representatives of national education groups and leading university researchers, were vastly outnumbered or absent.

Many of the 420 participants here came to find out more details about what the corporation might be looking for as it reviews contract proposals. Others treated the conference as, in one observer's words, a "singles' bar," in which they could link up with other potential bidders and form teams.

Nearly all of the overflow crowd came in hopes of capturing a piece of the $150 million to $200 million the corporation plans to give away in perhaps the largest education-research competition in history.

"The interest is greater than any of us would have thought," David T. Kearns, deputy U.S. secretary of education, told the conference participants. "But I guess money does attract people."

Casting a Wide Net

In their remarks to the conference, officials made clear that they were casting a wide net to find ideas for new schools.

"We're taking the best minds in America-in business, education, universities, think tanks, politicians--having them come together and think about what should the learning environment be in the next decade," Mr. Kearns said. "They'll stitch ideas together to think completely outside the envelope."

Responding to that call, representatives from a diverse range of fields came to the meeting here. Participants included education consultants, software developers, test publishers, corporate executives, and architects, as well as school superintendents and teachers'-union officials.

Pat L. Tornillo Jr., president of United Teachers of Dade County, Fla., says he was disappointed that business people vastly outnumbered educators in the audience.

"Ninety percent appeared to me to be entrepreneurs, people looking to crash the education scene," he says. "There weren't enough people, in my opinion, from the ranks. That bothered me."

One group that was in short supply here were university researchers.

To a certain extent, notes Peter Smith, the incoming dean of the school of education and human development at George Washington University, universities were not made welcome in the new-schools endeavor. Comments by the corporation officials suggested that the mold the new schools are intended to break would be one that was fashioned by education researchers, he says.

"Given the challenge posed by this process, universities can be seen as part of the problem," Mr. Smith says.

Cecil Miskel, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, acknowledges that there is a "foundation of truth" in the argument that universities are part of the status quo, and he notes that many academic researchers are cynical about the process.

But Mr. Miskel predicts that university researchers will ultimately contribute to the new-schools effort.

"Universities have to have a role in providing the research base and the theoretical foundation for the changes proposed by this group," he says. "Whether people like it or not, universities are the research-and-development engine of the country."

David A. Goslin, president of the American Institutes of Research, a Washington-based firm, points out, however, that basic research is unlikely to play much of a part in the new-schools endeavor.

"I don't think they are saying that fundamental research into learning shouldn't go on," Mr. Geslin says. "But that's not this game. That's a different game."

'Form Follows Function'

As in many similar conferences with government agencies, participants at the meeting here spent much of their time trying to scope out what kinds of proposals the new-schools corporation might view as acceptable.

Mr. Wallenmaier says he was pleased to learn that the bidders could propose building on innovations that are already in place, such as Maryland's new performance-based assessment system.

"If you had to start from scratch, there's no way in a month and a half you could design a proposal," he says.

Others point out that, to their surprise and delight, the firm plans to place few restrictions on the proposals. In response to many questions, officials from the new schools corporation and the RAND Corporation, which sponsored last week's conference, said that bidders would have to say how they intend to structure schools, assess student progress, and use materials and technology, among other items.

Mr. Smith of George Washington University warns, though, that the project officials might come under pressure to define what they want to see. He urges them to resist such pressure.

"Being inventors [is a] very stressful way to spend time, because you want to know the answers," he says. "if they are comfortable living with the questions they posed, they have an opportunity to be, at the design level, successful."

John Henry Martin, the well-known developer of computer-literacy programs, such as "Writing to Read," predicts that the corporation's flexibility will lead to a better set of proposals. The bidders should indicate, he says, how school structure, teacher preparation, and other factors would contribute to the outcomes they seek.

"Form follows function," Mr. Martin says. "Function determines teacher education. Function determines space."

In addition to learning about the bidding process, participants at the meeting here also spent many of their after-conference hours hooking up with other potential bidders in hopes of forming consortia.

Schools' Role

Although many large concerns could submit bids on their own, some of the smaller companies must form links with other firms in order to come up with a design, Mr. Martin notes.

"It's going to take at least a half-dozen specialists"to put together a proposal, he says.

Floretta D. McKenzie, a Washington-based education consultant and a former superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools, adds that school districts could be vital partners in the consortia. Although few districts were represented here, she notes, those who did attend were offering to be parts of design teams.

"It's difficult for school people to see how they fit into a design team," Ms. McKenzie says. "But they are ready to be test sites for models that are developed."

Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, points out that the request for proposals emphasizes that the designs must be adaptable to different settings.

"They are not looking for models no consumer is going to buy," he says.

Because of their freedom from regulations, private schools offer ready-made laboratories for innovative ideas, argues Joyce McCray, executive director of the Council for American Private Education.

"Without question," she says, "private schools have fewer of the impediments to change that exist in such rigid ways in the public sector."

Mr. Smith warns that such impediments may be the biggest roadblocks the project faces. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Smith last year sponsored legislation that would have allowed schools some freedom from regulation in exchange for assurances of performance.

"When you get done with all the grand design, all the budgeting, and all the education thought,"he says, "the issues of being able to negotiate regulatory change and change with faculties in schools are the two most ticklish and important hurdles any major change proposals have to overcome."

"I hasten to add," he continues, "I think it can be done."

Mr. Husk says that union contracts and regulations may not be as restrictive as some reformers fear. Several districts, notably Pittsburgh, Dade County, Fla., San Diego, and others, have "broken the mold" in union contracts, he notes, while federal programs permit more innovations than some policymakers are aware of.

"Maybe what will come out of this is exploding myths regarding regulations, and finding out they are not as inhibiting as they are made out to be," Mr. Husk says.

But the project's greatest benefit, Ms. McCray suggests, would be to unleash some of the creative ideas that have not yet made their way into schools.

"This provides a place for ideas to go," she says. "They've been out there. People have them."

"We absolutely have to do something dramatic," Ms. McCray adds. "This is a new kind of way to get different people thinking about it."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 6

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as 'Small Fish' Crafting Reform Ideas in Hopes Of Making Big Splash
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