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Reform Partnership Makes Bridging Gaps Its Business

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EAST LANSING, MICH.--In her cluttered, informal work space here at the Michigan Partnership for New Education, Joyce Grant chuckles as she recalls an encounter with several of the state's most influential business leaders.

On a visit to a nearby elementary school, she watched as A. Alfred Taubman, a commercial-real-estate magnate and member of the partnership's board of directors, joined a group of executives perched at tiny desks in the back of a classroom. They slipped effortlessly into this different world, Ms. Grant says, and participated in the lessons at every opportunity.

The image of executives and schoolchildren sharing a classroom in many ways tells the story of the Michigan Partnership.

A statewide reform effort launched by Mr. Taubman and Judith Lanier, a former dean of Michigan State University's school of education, the partnership has made a business out of bridging gaps.

In one of the nation's most ambitious voluntary reform efforts, corporate leaders, educators, and state government officials have pooled their ideas, money, and political clout to redefine the way teachers are prepared and schools operate.

Their aim is to make professional-development schools, which wed educational theory and practice, the cornerstone of what Ms. Lanier calls "the new education.''

The Michigan effort has not been without controversies and frustrations. But it seems to be avoiding the kind of endemic problems that other collaborative school-reform projects have encountered in trying to bring together the diverse worlds of education, business, and government.

"There have been pieces of this and similar kinds of strategies'' around the country, remarks David Imig, the executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. "But I don't think there has ever been a project with this kind of resource base.''

"It's the Cadillac of school-college partnership programs,'' Mr. Imig adds.

Politics of Reform

Although the reform project has been in place for several years, it was only this year that the pieces fell into place, according to Denise Betti, the director of external-education programs at the Ford Motor Company.

Ford, along with the other "Big Three'' automakers, has been active in the collaborative effort. The company's chief executive officer sits on the partnership's board.

The reform group "has a very broad systemic outlook--not just an educator's view,'' Ms. Betti observes. "But that can be a negative, because you're trying to do everything at once.''

"In the last year, they have really regrouped,'' looking to the private sector for help in defining their mission, she explains.

From the start, the partnership made a concerted effort to involve everyone interested in education.

While that meant disparate groups had to break down barriers between them, it also created a unique blend of leadership "capable of moving this thing through the political structure'' in Michigan, Mr. Imig points out.

The project started with the cooperation of business and higher education and then expanded to include state government and philanthropies.

In addition, project leaders enlisted the support of the 150,000-member Michigan Education Association. Two M.E.A. members currently sit on the partnership's board, and a union official serves as a troubleshooter in the school districts with professional-development sites.

As the head of the Holmes Group, a consortium of nearly 100 research universities dedicated to improving teacher education, Ms. Lanier has been associated with professional-development schools for several years.

When she and Mr. Taubman agreed in 1989 to collaborate on a five-year, statewide reform plan aimed at "changing pedagogy and the culture of schools,'' their ideas were based on the Holmes Group's 1990 report, "Tomorrow's Schools.''

With universities, businesses, and the governor's office each contributing a third of the $48 million funding for the five-year project, the partnership laid the groundwork in 1990 and 1991 and went into full operation last year.

Centers of Innovation

There are currently 26 professional-development schools operating or under development. They are working in cooperation with nine of the state's 15 public universities with teacher-education programs.

Under the new arrangements, which pair universities that prepare teachers with some of the schools they prepare them for, educators are asked to collaborate on both instruction and research, Ms. Grant, who directs the school-university alliance, says.

"We're asking people to allow the professional-development schools to be the centers of innovation, where educators, as risk-takers, can look at practice,'' she explains.

For professors, that often means shuttling between the university culture and K-12 schools. For teachers, it means adjusting to an environment where every classroom is not an island.

"The sociology of schools has not really encouraged collaborating,'' says Stephen S. Kaagan, the director of the partnership's Collaborative Leadership Center, which runs leadership academies for educators, school officials, and community members. "We're trying to invite people out of their corner to talk about their work.''

To move the partnership's ideas beyond the current network of schools and universities, an Educational Extension Service distributes newsletters, works to link schools via electronic highways, and shares research on curriculum and assessment culled from the innovation sites.

State Push

Coming at a time of fiscal austerity, state support for the project has created strains within the bureaucracy.

"I don't think we really recognized the totality of this effort'' at first, says Georgia Van Adestine, the education-policy adviser to Gov. John Engler, who sits on the partnership's board.

Because the scope of the reform effort was unknown, Ms. Van Adestine says, Mr. Engler and his predecessor had some difficulty selling the idea to the state education department.

As Governor Engler fulfilled his financial commitment to the partnership in its planning years, he was also downsizing state government. As a result, some education officials saw the project as a threat to both their power and funding.

But those tensions have diminished, Ms. Lanier suggests, as officials such as Robert E. Schiller, the new superintendent of public instruction, and Dorothy A. Beardmore, the president of the state board, have voiced support for the effort.

The project's leaders also have maintained a close but "pushing kind of relationship'' with the Governor's office, Ms. Van Adestine says.

"The partnership is definitely benefiting from the Governor's interest, and it's not just because of the recommended level of support,'' she says. "He's asking questions I think the general public or taxpayer would want.''

The current state school-aid bill includes $5.3 million for the partnership, up from $1.8 million the previous year. The jump is due in part to an agreement under which the private sector initially provided the bulk of funding, with the state assuming more of the burden in later years.

Ms. Adestine notes, however, that the Governor's continued support is based on "the engagement of the private sector and indicators that things are going well'' in the professional-development schools.

Corporate Interests

The partnership suffered a setback this year when a drop in private-sector contributions forced a 10 percent budget cut, says Harrison Blackmond, the partnership's chief executive officer.

The shortfall frustrated partnership leaders' plans to operate without a fund-raising staff, forcing them to hire two people to solicit new funds.

In addition, the partnership is attempting to wean some of its sites off funds from the central office and is working on guidelines for chartering some of the schools.

"The partnership will continue to provide resources, but to the extent that we can, we will actively seek local support,'' Mr. Blackmond says. "We want these innovation sites to be locally supported, because they will only survive if local areas own them.''

In several communities, businesses have stepped up efforts to support local sites. The Flint, Battle Creek, and Detroit schools, for example, have received unsolicited funds ranging from $100,000 to $3 million.

Still, reproducing strong local partnerships in poorer school districts may be difficult, says Tyrone Baines, the director of the youth-initiatives program at the Kellogg Foundation.

Most of the professional-development schools have been launched in areas "most ready to do it, with the most resources,'' Mr. Baines adds. Kellogg has provided money for several sites, including some in Battle Creek, where it is located.

"Each level after that, it gets more difficult'' to raise the roughly $400,000 needed to run a professional-development school, he says.

In an interim evaluation of the partnership published last fall, Thomas James, the chairman of the education department at Brown University, argued that the partnership will have to shift to more conventional sources of public funding if it is to break away from a project mentality and move toward systemic change.

On the other hand, getting businesses more involved in local alliances has given the private sector a sense of ownership, Ms. Betti says.

"Now we feel a lot more committed to it because they're asking for our opinion,'' she explains. "They've got egos involved now, not just money.''

Businesses also provide needed quality control for the project, participants suggest.

"People in schools form committees and work on minutiae,'' observes Jatrice M. Gaiter, the director of the partnership's program for fostering local relationships. "But businesses understand how to cut through to the hard issues.''

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