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Searching for New American Schools

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Automobile manufacturers design and build new car models every few years. Most successful corporations review and restructure their operational models at least every few years. Yet, if you asked any group of American educators, you would likely hear that most of our schools haven't significantly changed their models since the era of the Model T Ford. That's why I was intrigued by the "request for proposals'' issued last fall by the New American Schools Development Corporation, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to underwrite the creation of new models for our schools--models whose radically new designs would create "break the mold'' schools and empower our students to reach "world class'' standards.

I must confess, I was skeptical. The New American Schools Development Corporation was created as part of President Bush's America 2000 program. And radically different new ideas have not been a hallmark of the Bush Administration.

Still, this one-of-a-kind competition for multi-million-dollar funding would surely inspire many creative minds to do some very serious thinking--and just might result in some truly inspiring proposals. The prospect of reading a proposal that would just knock my socks off (mixed with a certain patriotic sense of duty) prompted me to accept NASDC's invitation to be a nonpaid panelist at a four-day "proposal-reading marathon'' in Leesburg, Va.

It was a decision that I don't regret. While my socks were never quite knocked off, I did find proposals that rekindled my optimism for the future. Despite some shortcomings (which I'll outline later) the whole process was a valuable exercise with some of the excitement and exhaustion of a treasure hunt. Our "treasures'' were to be found among the 686 new-school design proposals NASDC received. And the treasures we found would share in their own treasures: a portion of the $200 million that the New American Schools Development Corporation has pledged to raise over the next five years. (It seemed a little incongruous to me that an organization that is aiming to give away up to $200 million would say it couldn't afford to pay the panelists, but the excitement of the whole process was enough to make me forget economic concerns.)

Panelists were recruited with specialties in education, business, management, technology, and community relations. (My specialty is educationl technology.) Our task was to read and render our best judgments on which proposed efforts "had the greatest probability of contributing to the improvement of American education''--and therefore should be considered for one of the up to 30 grants that NASDC would award in the Phase 1 Design Effort. (NASDC isn't funded by the federal government. Funds are being raised privately. To date, only about one-quarter of the $200-million goal has been met.)

For the proposal-reading process, the 180 panelists and 540 of the design proposals were divided among three sites: Leesburg, Denver, and Houston. (Another 146 proposals had been eliminated for being "unresponsive to the request for proposals'' during a pre-screening process conducted by the NASDC staff and consultants from the RAND Corporation.) The proposals were also divided so no panelists were asked to judge those that originated in their geographic home region--to limit the possibilities of conflicts of interest. (We were instructed to disqualify ourselves from judging any proposals where a possible conflict could be construed.)

Our instructions were to focus mainly on "criterion 1'' of the request for proposals: "the likelihood that the design will enable students to meet the national education goals and to attain world-class standards.'' In order to meet this criterion, a "break the mold'' design proposal should deal comprehensively with curriculum, achievement of world-class standards, teacher training, student motivation, parental and community involvement, the regulatory environment of the school, the school's or system's relationships to other systems, and the restructuring of the organization, finances, governance, and administration of the school. A key point driven home to us was that we were not to "grade on a curve''--our standards were to be high.

Our group of 60 panelists at Leesburg were divided into six panels of 10 each. Each panel was assigned a specific group of proposals. Every proposal was read separately by three or four panel members. Each reader filled out a form that recorded his or her impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal. It was then up to this sub-panel to meet and reach a consensus on each proposal. In most cases, this wasn't very difficult. Time and time again, we rejected proposals that gave only lip service to critical issues such as school-business-community collaboration, or that otherwise failed to be responsive to the proposal request. In fact, after the first day of reading, many of us wondered if we would ever see a proposal we could call "strong'' or "outstanding.'' The other panels seemed to be having similar experiences.

It wasn't until the second day, after reading almost 20 proposals, that we finally found one that raised our spirits: a well-rounded collaborative proposal that said to us (among other things), "We're organized, we understand the issues deeply, we've made some progress already, we've identified the right people, we've got a good handle on curriculum, training, costs, and replicability of our design.'' Over the next two days, whenever any of our sub-panels found a proposal they thought was "strong,'' we made sure all panelists read it prior to our discussing it. Most of us were so motivated to read good propsals that we also read ones that any of the other five panels considered "strong.'' (At first NASDC tried to limit our access to proposals assigned to some of the other panels; they later relented on this.)

Whenever a sub-panel couldn't reach consensus on a particular proposal, all members of the panel read it and discussed it. I had voluntered to be panel leader, and in that role , one of my duties was to moderate such group discussions. The strong and independent spirits of the panel members, combined with their varied backgrounds (they included state, district, and school-level educational administrators; business and foundation executives; educational consultants; and teachers) made for spirited, stimulating sessions. This exhange of ideas from such a wide variety of perspectives was beneficial to both the evaluation process and to each of us.

By the end of the third day, we were all exhausted and ready to go home. The fourth and last day's agenda was a full-group session of all 60 panelists. Representatives from each panel presented a synopsis of the proposals their panel had chosen to recommend as possible candidates for funding. The end of our grueling four-day experience was marked by a short discussion on the general strengths and weaknesses of all the proposals. When it was time to leave, I was struck by the feeling that we had just ended a season at summer camp. Though most of us were surprised by the small number of proposals we finally recommended (the exact number is considered confidential), we had learned much--from both the proposals and the process of evaluating them.

How good was the process? While far from perfect, it was a sincere effort. NASDC was conducting an unprecedented competition for which there was no track record. To a large extent, and to the nonprofit corporation's credit, the evaluation process itself was continuously evolving througout the four days we were there. Both the NASDC staff and their consultants from RAND were very receptive to suggestions. Yet there were some problems. Many panelists were surprised that NASDC shared with us its staff's general impressions of the proposals they had already screened--prior to our beginning our evaluations. This may have had the effect of unconsciouly prejudicing some of us toward those opinions. I was also disappointed that very few of the panelists at Leesburg were members of minority groups (though this apparently was not true of the Houston panelists).

The request for proposals itself also presented some problems. One of the biggest concerned the wording "world-class standards.'' What are world-class standards? It's difficult to ask someone to show how students can attain them if you can't define them! Therefore, rather than try to define these standards, most proposals paid no more than lip service to them. Of even more concern is that talking about attaining "world-class standards'' is inappropriate in many of our urban schools, plagued by drugs, violence, and high dropout rates. It will be a long and difficult road before we manage to just transform these schools from the "second class'' environments they have become. One would hope that NASDC will pay attention to "break the mold'' proposals that aim to help these schools make radical and fundamental changes without immediate concern to world-class standards. As the saying goes, you have to crawl before you walk.

Nonetheless, NASDC's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, was on target when he said, "We have sparked an unprecedented collaborative process all across the nation, on the part of American education's brightest people.'' The competition acted, in effect, as a giant national think tank on the design of new schools. It was truly refreshing to see proposals that included collaborations of partners from business and industry, K-12 education, higher education, state and/or local governments, high-technology companies, consulting firms, foundations, and community organizations. It seems likely that some of these design-team coalitions will pursue their goals with or without NASDC funding. If so, the New American Schools Development Corporation can look upon the establishment of such teams as part of its success.

Unfortunately, the general quality of the proposals left me disappointed. Not many of the designs really "broke the mold.'' The process of creating a design was very often emphasized more than providing any real substance. These numerous "plans to plan'' all require a great leap of faith on the part of a funding source. "Trust us to use this grant money to form a team which will then come up with a specific design'' was a refrain heard in a great number of proposals. Design teams whose ideas were too vague, and those which had not yet garnered community support, were seen as less likely to succeed.

Most proposals included many of today's leading-edge ideas in education. Unfortunately, many also seemed just to use these ideas as buzz-words, with little thought given to implementing them. The great majority of proposals paid little attention to instructional techniques, small, rural communities, drugs and violence, handicapped students, connections to other countries and cultures, and motivating the learner.

In its defense, the NASDC request for proposals didn't allow enough time for many groups to do the kind of preparation needed to put together a comprehensive plan. Despite this, almost every proposal had some good points in it. The best had done a good job of "packaging'' ideas, and showed superior planning in regard to implementation and replication of designs, and on maintaining community support. Some of the many positive ideas in the proposals included: learning as a community activity; mentoring programs; Total Quality Management--student and community viewed as "a customer''; redefining the role and elevating the status of the classroom teacher; intergenerational learning; and performance-based assessment.

There were quite a few proposals that contained some good ideas yet had other serious deficiencies. The possibility was raised that NASDC might approach teams with complementary good ideas, and suggest they cooperate on a single design.

The final awards are to be made by the end of this month. We should hope the business comunity will soon open its pockets so that NASDC can raise the $150 million more it needs to meet its funding plans. While many people might justifiably say that this money could be put to better use right now, that's not the point. At least something is happening in education with this process that has a good chance of producing some positive long-term results. And for the Bush Administration's education record, it's a step in the right direction.

Yet I share the concern of many of my fellow panelists that politics may rear its head in the final award process. The bottom line for selection must be the quality of the design proposal. It would be a shame if rewarding political allies and politically motivated geographic-distribution considerations left some excellent proposals without funding. When the NASDC board of directors makes its final decisions, let's hope the members put on their educator hats and leave their political baggage behind.

Mark Sherry is president of Microease Consulting Inc. and a member of the Mecklenburger Consultant Group.

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