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Alliance Aims for 'Break the Mold Systems,' Not Just Schools

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WATERVILLE VALLEY, N.H.--Excitement was evident in Marge des Groseilliers' voice as the principal of a K-12 school in rural Vermont recounted how students from her school raised money for a field trip to the rain forest of Costa Rica.

Thanks to Apple Computer Inc., Ms. des Groseilliers explained, the students were equipped with portable computers that could communicate with each other without wires. They used the equipment to compare environmental data from different elevations in the jungle.

Back home, the Cabot School students contrasted their findings with similar data gathered locally and presented them to the community.

"It's changed the learning and instruction,'' said Ms. des Groseilliers about the uses of technology at her school this year. "What you see is small groups of kids using technology as a tool to synthesize, analyze, and collect data.''

Ms. des Groseilliers was describing just one benefit of belonging to the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, a consortium of five states, four school districts, and ten non-site partners, including Apple, that held a conference at this White Mountain resort last month.

The alliance was one of nine design teams that won a second round of funding from the New American Schools Development Corporation this spring to create "break the mold'' schools. (See plan summaries.)

Break-the-Mold Systems

The alliance's planned effort is considerably broader in scope than those of the other eight design teams. While most of the other projects plan to carry out their ideas in a dozen or fewer sites this year, the alliance is aiming by 1995-96 to have launched 243 redesigned schools nationwide, in districts and states that are themselves rethinking the way they do business.

The alliance's proposal describes it as "one of the largest, most complex, and most expensive collaborative efforts to reinvent American education ever undertaken.''

Rather than talking about break-the-mold schools, alliance officials say they want to foster break-the-mold systems.

"We have to build a system in which ordinary, good people can do what's now considered extraordinary,'' explained Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the alliance partners. "That's the system problem. And that's why I think the alliance is the place to be.''

Most districts have at least one good school, alliance leaders suggest, and many great schools have been created over time. But such promising efforts often wither after finding themselves on hostile turf.

The alliance's goal is to create a system that will produce large numbers of good schools that last.

Cabot and 11 other pioneering schools in Kentucky, Vermont, and Rochester, N.Y., have spent the past year redesigning their programs and working on expanded blueprints for this fall. The design team's non-site partners have provided training and support to the schools and worked to develop strategies for rapidly expanding to a far larger number of schools and districts without sacrificing quality.

In addition to the $9.6 million provided by NASDC over the next two years, the coalition is supported by $1.9 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts over the same period.

Revised Expectations

The meeting here made clear, however, that alliance planners have already had to scale back their expectations for how quickly schools can change.

The original proposal to NASDC envisioned the 12 schools that dove into reform last year serving as models for 45 additional schools this fall. By 1994-95, it expected to raise that number to more than 200.

But progress among the schools has been uneven. Some spent their time planning for the future, while others experimented with a diverse array of reform-related activities. Virtually all the participating schools, districts, and states have had trouble knitting the various pieces of the design proposal into a coherent whole.

Those pieces include raising academic standards for all students and developing powerful new assessments to measure growth; connecting schools with the instructional, curricular, and technological resources needed for youngsters to meet the new goals, including a stronger school-to-work transition; strengthening the health and social services provided to children and families; fostering public support for change; and redesigning the governance, organization, and management of public education to accomplish these tasks.

"I believe that people thought that you can do this in one year, and you can't,'' said Keith Yocam, the manager of professional-development research for Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow.

"If anything, that's what we've learned,'' Mr. Yocam added. "What we've been investing in is, 'How do you get the transformation started?'''

'Network Leaders'

As a result, the alliance has slowed its plans for future expansion. Although it will work with more than 80 schools this fall, it will not expand to 243 schools until 1995-96.

Leaders have also rethought the means for supporting and fomenting school change, by creating an extensive network of school-based and district-based leaders intended to provide a new model of professional development.

Under the new reform strategy, each school will form teams to address specific reform issues, such as math instruction or the use of technology. The leaders of these teams will form a schoolwide group charged with integrating all the pieces.

Some of the team heads will become "network leaders,'' charged with supporting the reform work on a particular topic across a group of schools. Network leaders could also be drawn from the central office or the community.

These leaders, in turn, will be trained by the alliance's non-site partners. They will meet as a group several times a year, along with the alliance's principals and district and state leaders. Network leaders will also form the core of each district's leadership team.

In exchange, they will be expected to train and support others at the school site and to provide quality control. Similar roles and functions will be repeated at the state level.

Creating a Conversation

The alliance is also rethinking how to provide more support for schools from afar.

One vehicle for doing this will be called a "unit of study.'' Forms entered into a computer network will ask teachers to describe the learning outcomes expected for a particular group of lessons, the kinds of tasks and interactions they hope will take place, the tools students and teachers will use, and how they will measure progress.

Both the non-site partners and teachers from other schools can comment on the lessons over the computer lines or by telephone.

Such a "round-robin commentary'' is a "great leap forward conceptually,'' said David W. Hornbeck, the alliance's director.

"We really did come to the conclusion that top-down professional development wouldn't work, because of the degradation of quality,'' he said. "The object is not so much to take a great expert and lead non-experts to quantum leaps in short bursts, but to take teachers--lots of them--and find a way for them to have a conversation with one another.''

The teachers who chair individual subject-matter teams at each school will also be leaders for the New Standards Project, an ongoing effort by 18 states and six districts to develop an examination system based on high academic standards. The project is run by the L.R.D.C. and the National Center on Education and the Economy, which houses the alliance.

Core Commitments

If successful, advocates contend, the complex new model will constitute the alliance's major contribution to the New American Schools project and to school reform generally. To date, no one has come up with an effective scheme for greatly accelerating the pace of school change.

But the ultimate proof will rest with individual schools that look and feel different and produce students who can perform to the high levels set by New Standards.

This spring, the alliance identified a set of "core commitments''--21 steps that each site must take by 1995 to improve student learning.

Schoolpeople gathered here expressed concern that the large number of requirements might conflict with their efforts back home. But Mr. Hornbeck was firm. If the commitments are sufficiently different from what they are doing, he said, "It probably is the case that there's no fit between the alliance and your program.''

The commitments range from a pledge to pilot and administer the N.S.P. performance exams and portfolios to the launching of a school-to-work-transition plan in partnership with the business community.

The core commitments "have put the issues on the table for folks in a way we never have before, in terms of who we are and what we stand for,'' said Bob McNamara, an official with the Vermont education department.

Whether the alliance can realize its vision and create a critical mass of restructured schools and school systems remains to be seen. But the enthusiasm of people like Marilyn Willis, the principal of Calloway County Middle School in Murray, Ky., offers reason for optimism.

Ms. Willis said that when she attended a similar gathering last year, she was openly skeptical about how supportive district and state officials would be of her efforts.

"The crucial thing is, once we leave here and we go back to Calloway County, are we going to be killed by the system?'' she remarked.

Today, though, Ms. Willis and her teachers can barely wait to get back to work. "As on old-timer, there's a sense of, 'Oh, this is easy,''' she said with a laugh. "And really, it's because we understand so much more.''

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