Published Online:

Back To The Future

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Kesiah Poston recites the preamble to the U.S. Constitution from memory, in a small voice that barely carries across the room. Her 4th-grade classmates at Public School 106 in Indianapolis then stand up and recite it in unison.

Next, they burst into song, "Tell me the continents, tell me the continents, tell me if you can,'' followed by a listing of the major landmasses. Afterward, they spell each name aloud.

On a long ledge below the windows, dioramas depict scenes from the American Revolution. Pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hang from the walls. Student drawings of quilts evoke pioneer life. Another display highlights famous African-American inventors.

Welcome to the Modern Red Schoolhouse, a reform project that trumpets itself as reinventing "the virtues and values of the Little Red Schoolhouse in a modern context.''

Of all the design teams funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation in 1992, the Modern Red Schoolhouse was the one with the closest ties to the Republican Administration then in power and its ideological heart.

Its chief sponsor is the Hudson Institute, a public-policy center based in Indianapolis that made its reputation analyzing national-security issues. Hudson's board of trustees includes former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont 4th of Delaware and former Vice President Quayle.

William J. Bennett, a U.S. Secretary of Education under President Reagan, served as chairman of the design team. Bennett, an outspoken proponent of private school choice, left the project last year when he formed Empower America, a conservative think tank based in Washington. Bennett once described the Modern Red Schoolhouse to The Washington Times as a "conservative plan'' with the "three C's'' at its core: content, character, and choice.

Yet, in many ways, the Modern Red Schoolhouse defies political or ideological labels. Some of its instructional approaches, such as multi-age homerooms and self-paced learning, would be considered "radical'' by observers on both sides of the political aisle. In addition, labels don't reflect the compromises that have been struck as the theoretical design has run into the reality of the public schools.

"In the final analysis, I don't really see any partisan flavor to any of the NASDC proposals,'' Denis P. Doyle, a co-director of the project, asserts. "Individuals have party affiliations.''

The New American Schools Development Corporation was formed in 1991, at the request of then-President Bush, to underwrite the design and replication of a series of "break the mold'' schools. The approach was a novel one. It encouraged American businesspeople to finance the development of a range of high-quality blueprints from which schools could choose as they set about the hard work of reinventing themselves.

Many of the 11 design teams that NASDC selected for funding in 1992 shared common features. They ranged from a greater reliance on hands-on learning to the extensive use of technology. But what set the Modern Red Schoolhouse proposal apart was its unabashed focus on subject matter.

The essence of the Modern Red Schoolhouse is to promote the kind of "cultural literacy'' first written about by E.D. Hirsch Jr. and then built on by Bennett during his years with the Education Department.

"The Modern Red Schoolhouse will insist on subject mastery as the only acceptable goal for all children,'' its brochure proclaims. "All students should master a common curriculum that encompasses English, math, science, geography, and history; skills needed to be successful in the workplace; and cultural literacy--the traditions and histories of our pluralistic society and of other nations and peoples.''

Children in these schools will be expected to know things, not just possess skills. And high-stakes assessments will be integrated into the curriculum to insure that they do.

In the Modern Red Schoolhouse, students will proceed at their own pace, based on contracts that are negotiated between the teacher, student, and parents. Both the school day and year will be extended for at least some youngsters. Multi-age homerooms and thematic, interdisciplinary instruction will become common.

Computers, data bases, and electronic networks will help teachers manage children's learning, communicate with each other and with families, and "bring the world into the classroom.''

In addition, there are new governance and organizational arrangements. Both teachers and students will attend Modern Red Schoolhouses by choice. Each school will have greater control over its curriculum, staffing, and budget. Community organizations will provide families with a support system that gets children ready for school and keeps them there, with the school acting as a broker. But the Modern Red Schoolhouse's motto is that the school should "do what it can do best'' and not operate as a social-services agency.

"Though daring in many respects,'' the design team's proposal boasts, "the Hudson School, like its 19th-century forebears, is fundamentally a commonsensical institution. Its values will be those of the American mainstream. ... Its promises will be the kind that can be kept--provided everyone does what is expected of him.''

Laurel Hall, the home of the Hudson Institute, looks more like an elite, private boarding school than anything remotely affiliated with public education. The large Gothic manor house rests atop 5 acres of real estate in the northeast corner of Indianapolis. Wood-paneled walls and plastered ceilings are complemented by painted and stained-glass windows and an enormous Jacobean stairway.

Through its corridors, hushed men and women in business suits wend their way to a private dining room, discussing welfare reform, nuclear disarmament, and Bosnian peace agreements.

Yet, it was no surprise to many that the Hudson design team secured one of the NASDC grants. James K. Baker, the chairman and chief executive officer of Arvin Industries in Columbus, Ind., had phoned Hudson's president, Leslie Lenkowsky, the day after President Bush announced the formation of NASDC to urge Hudson to participate in the competition.

Baker sat on NASDC's board of directors. He was also one of the Indiana businessmen who had asked Hudson to help draft the "COMMIT program'' in 1991, a comprehensive education-reform plan that has yet to pass the state legislature. A centerpiece of the plan is the right of parents to choose among any public, private, or parochial school in the state at taxpayer expense.

Lenkowsky took little persuading. "Hudson has always been a hands-on place,'' he says. "For us, being client-oriented, being hands-on, taking ideas from theory to implementation and learning from them is something that we'd always done.'' Although not, he admits, in education.

In addition, the Cold War was ending, and Lenkowsky was busy repositioning Hudson to focus more on domestic policy and less on the suddenly less-lucrative defense-contracting field for its survival.

Seven school districts were recruited to join the design team, including five in Indiana; the Kayenta Unified School District in Arizona; and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, whose new superintendent, John A. Murphy, was himself a leader in school reform. Later, Community School District 12 in New York City was added to the project.

An old friend of Lenkowsky's, Bennett had joined the Hudson Institute shortly after leaving his post as White House drug-policy chief in 1990. Among those joining Bennett on the project team were former Governor du Pont; Barbara O. Taylor, the director of the National Center for Effective Schools; and Chester E. Finn Jr., Bennett's former assistant secretary of education for research and an adjunct fellow at Hudson. Finn and Lenkowsky had known each other since graduate school and had both worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York as his education and welfare experts, respectively. Doyle, a well-known pundit and education observer and another senior fellow at Hudson, directed the project.

From the start, Doyle says, "We were clearly like-minded. There was no significant disagreement about either what needed to be done or how to go about doing it.''

Many of the ideas in the proposal stemmed from work undertaken while both Bennett and Finn were at the Education Department, including the "What Works'' series on educational research. The team also drew heavily on Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan To Make Our Schools Competitive, which was written in 1988 by Doyle and David T. Kearns, the Xerox executive who later served as deputy secretary of education.

"But the thing that knit us all together,'' Doyle says, "was our conviction that standards really make all the difference. And by standards, we meant measures of what kids knew and were able to do.''

The day the NASDC award was announced, Lenkowsky says, Hudson got word back that the state teachers' union was out to kill the project.

Garrett Harbron, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, says that's an exaggeration. "They imagined that,'' he contends. "We have some very grave concerns. But we never had, as a goal, killing the project.''

Nonetheless, it was hardly love at first sight. Bennett had once called the National Education Association, to which the I.S.T.A. belongs, the "most entrenched and aggressive opponent of education reform'' in the nation. Much of the COMMIT plan, which Harbron describes as a "Reaganesque education agenda,'' was anathema to the union.

The Modern Red Schoolhouse proposal called for a "differentiated teaching staff from a wide variety of backgrounds,'' "principals who operate as C.E.O.'s,'' and schools that could contract out for services. Each phrase raised red flags for the union and fears that collective-bargaining rights would be cast aside.

To top it off, Hudson had never asked the union to join in drafting the design. "We made a tactical error,'' Lenkowsky now admits, "by not reaching out to them in the process of writing it. So that was our fault.''

Since then, Hudson has made it a point to meet with representatives of the I.S.T.A. and its local affiliates on a regular basis. There have been c

Nevertheless, it remains a wary collaboration. "We are suspending judgment,'' Harbron says. "We're trying to monitor it. It's been interesting that, as we've talked to the teachers that are involved, some of them--who a year ago were saying, 'Gee, maybe we were being alarmist about this,' and 'Maybe we ought to give Hudson a chance,' and so forth--are now saying to us, 'Hey, you were right all along.' And many of them are not as enamored of it as they were to begin with.''

If what Harbron says is true, it isn't immediately obvious in visits to two of the Modern Red Schoolhouse sites: I.P.S. 106 in Indianapolis and Central Elementary School in Beech Grove, just south of town.

After spending a year closeted away in a planning phase that included few teachers and principals, the design team is now knee-deep in implementation in six elementary schools. Five are in Indiana; the sixth, in New York City. Charlotte-Mecklenburg also has 18 schools implementing pieces of the plan, but with less direct assistance from Hudson.

So far, the most notable difference in these schools is their curriculum, which is largely based on the "core knowledge'' series developed by E.D. Hirsch and his colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation in Virginia.

Hirsch argues that all Americans need to share a common foundation of cultural information and skills in order to communicate and function in a democracy. A sequenced curriculum for grades 1 through 6 describes that content in detail. Early in its planning process, the Hudson team alighted on Hirsch's work as the perfect vehicle for strengthening the academic substance of elementary schools. It was a surprise to Hirsch.

"The first we heard about this was through Education Week,'' John Holdren, the director of the Core Knowledge Foundation, chuckles. In 1992, the newspaper ran descriptions of each winning design team and its proposal. "I just remember Don Hirsch coming in and saying, 'John, do you know anything about this?''' Holdren recalls. "And I said, 'No. Do you?'''

Hudson officials called soon after, and staff members at the Core Knowledge Foundation agreed to act as informal consultants to the project.

Today, the influence of Hirsch's work is evident as you walk through the halls of I.P.S. 106, the Robert Lee Frost Elementary School, in northeast Indianapolis. A square, two-story building, it is plunked down in the middle of an affluent residential neighborhood once known as "Pill Hill,'' after the many doctors who lived there. Only a half-dozen of the school's 320 students, however, come from the immediate neighborhood. The rest are bused in under a "controlled choice'' plan.

Sixty-five percent of the children who roll through the doors each morning are black. Sixty-eight percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

In years past, these children would not have studied Babylonian civilization, the history of ancient Egypt, or the Great Wall of China. But that's all changed. On the door of Roberta McClendon's 5th-grade classroom is a large sign saying, "Welcome to Mount Olympus.'' Inside, several students eagerly explain some of the work they did to study the Trojan War. A large wooden horse, its legs unattached, sits forlornly against the wall.

As part of the unit, students drew scenes from Greek mythology, made shields for the battle, and fashioned masks of the Greek gods. Each student adopted a Greek god and described his or her attributes. They then invented a god of their own that combined some of those qualities. "My god was the god of the underworld,'' Erskine Black explains. "His nickname was Pluto.''

"I adopted Apollo,'' says Dewars White, "because he was Zeus's son.''

"It's more interesting,'' chimes in Brittany Keller, "because it's better than just reading out of a regular old book.'' Agrees Dewars: "And you learn things that you didn't know. We did activities more with partners.''

McClendon, who has taught 5th grade for the past 17 years at I.P.S. 106, says, "This curriculum reminds me of what those academically talented kids used to do back in the 70's.''

Down the hall, in Nicki Bowers's 2nd-grade classroom, students are beginning a unit on the ancient civilizations of China. They listen to a story about the Great Wall that describes it as being five men tall, six horses wide at the top and eight at the bottom.

Then Bowers--a second-year teacher--hands out Play-Doh, clay, toothpicks, coins, and plastic connecting cubes. She asks the children to work in groups and reconstruct a portion of the wall. "If there's anything else that you can think of in the room that you canuse for measurement, that's fine,'' she says. The 15-day unit will also cover such topics as the Han Dynasty, Confucius, ancestor worship, and major points of Chinese geography.

Hirsch expects schools to devote 50 percent of each day to the core-knowledge sequence. But he does not prescribe, or even recommend, particular teaching methods. Part of what should set Hudson Schools apart from others affiliated with the foundation are its standards, assessments, and pedagogy.

At the heart of the curriculum are something known as "Hudson units.'' These are written by teachers at each school, often in teams. In designing the curriculum units, teachers specify which pieces of the core-knowledge sequence will be addressed. They also incorporate state or local curriculum standards and what are known as "Hudson standards.''

The standards--in history, science, mathematics, English, and geography--establish what students should know and be able to do in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. They were developed by representatives of the participating districts, with help from outside experts. And they were designed to be beyond the current reach of most students. The Advanced Placement examinations served as the initial benchmark for the standards.

Compared with the core-knowledge sequence, the standards are generic and conceptual. They tend to focus on the practice of a discipline more than on specific content.

For instance, a draft science standard for students at the upper level states: "Each student can illustrate the usefulness of scientific knowledge by choosing a technological design, explaining how it works, and predicting its beneficial consequences.''

A history standard, also for the upper grades, says: "Each student can identify significant features of government and political process in the United States and summarize the historical development of these features, including federalism; the rise of the party system; the electoral, legislative, and judicial processes; and the Presidency.''

Many of the Hudson units are interdisciplinary in nature. Each Hudson unit also includes activities for students to complete with their parents, as a way to bring families directly into the educational process.

Teachers are now using the units within the traditional, age-graded structure. Instructional methods also tend to be fairly traditional. But over time, the goal is to free the Hudson units from these moorings. Instead, students would progress through the units at their own pace. They could also learn in different ways--as long as they mastered the skills and knowledge described in each unit.

In essence, the units are designed to be measures of "accomplishment,'' rather than of time spent in class. And schools are attempting to sequence them into a series of building blocks that would prepare students to meet the standards.

At Central Elementary School in Beech Grove, the walls are festooned with the products of various Hudson units. There are computerized drawings of the U.S.S. Constitution. Examples of cuneiform writing from Babylonian days. Time lines for the Civil War. And lovingly made reproductions of Egyptian pyramids, cartouches, and mummies.

Beech Grove is a predominantly white, blue-collar community of 13,000 that abuts the southeast corner of Indianapolis. Its largest employers are an Amtrak repair factory and a local hospital. Central Elementary includes students in grades K-2. South Grove Elementary School, for grades 3-5, is also implementing the design.

Kit Collins, Central's round-faced and voluble principal, says the school has substituted content for pablum. Collins particularly remembers one day before the Modern Red Schoolhouse began when he decided to sit down with the basal reader that students were using in language arts. "There were stories about dandelions,'' he says, "a lot of cute little animals talking to each other. But there was nothing in there to remember.''

"Now,'' he says proudly, "there's something to remember.'' Mary Ann Melbert, a 1st-grade teacher and the president of the Beech Grove Classroom Teachers Association, puts it this way: "The children are just starved for something besides skills.''

Lisa LaFavers's 2nd-grade classroom is abuzz with activity. The walls are plastered with children's art and examples of their handiwork hang from the ceiling. A row of log cabins built of pretzel sticks, cardboard, and pint-sized milk cartons parades down one table.

This week, the children are finishing up a Hudson unit on American Indians. Their current assignment is to use traditional Indian hieroglyphics to write a story in pictures. LaFavers encourages them to create a legend or folktale that might have been told by a member of the Sioux or Apache nation. Some of the youngsters work in groups; others alone. One small boy sits under a table in the math center, surrounded by chairs.

LaFavers, who has been teaching for only two years, says the Hudson units are "easier for me, because I don't think I'm real set in a traditional form. It's not stifling.''

"At least my kids are more actively involved,'' she adds. "And they're much more inquisitive and excited. I think you see a lot more student-generated work.''

But the quality of the teacher-written units varies widely, schoolpeople admit. So does the extent to which teachers are adopting new teaching strategies or integrating the units with basic-skills instruction. Many teachers, for instance, still teach basic skills in the morning and core knowledge in the afternoon.

Sally B. Kilgore, who joined Hudson as the project's co-director last September and is responsible for much of its day-to-day operation, says, "We did not know how many more opportunities teachers needed to learn different pedagogies.''

Officials at the Core Knowledge Foundation, which typically works with individual schools, also worry that Hudson may be driving the reforms too heavily from above, and that all teachers may not have bought into the curriculum and standards.

Hanging over everyone's head is the state's standardized-testing system. Several teachers allege that the constant pressure for students to perform well on these tests has driven them to retain existing textbooks and worksheets and to keep a separate time for basic-skills instruction. In contrast, Hudson maintains that teaching skills cannot be divorced from subject-matter knowledge--and that content and process are inextricably linked.

Hudson is now working on an assessment system of its own. When completed, it will include two kinds of measurements.

"Capstone units'' will be built directly into the curriculum. They will look much like regular Hudson units. But, as part of the units, children might be required to conduct investigations, prepare reports, give speeches, or complete other activities that exhibit their mastery of a number of Hudson standards.

The products from these units will become part of a child's ongoing portfolio of accomplishments, which will be stored on a computer. Teachers will determine when students are ready to complete a capstone unit based on their mastery of certain prerequisite skills.

Once students complete a number of capstone units, they are ready to sit for the "watershed assessments.'' These subject-specific exams will include both traditional multiple-choice items and open-ended essay questions. They will be offered at least three times a year to students who have mastered the standards in one of the three instructional divisions into which Hudson Schools will be grouped--primary, intermediate, and upper. Students will have to pass the exams to move from one division to the next and to earn a diploma.

Theoretically, Kilgore says, "Students should not be failing these watershed exams, because they should be taking them when they are ready to take them.''

Both the capstone units and the watershed assessments are being prepared with the assistance of an outside assessment firm, Advanced Systems Inc. And they will be used in common across all Hudson Schools.

The design team's hope is that the assessments will provide students with a marketable credential, equivalent to an International Baccalaureate diploma. In theory, states and school districts would recognize the standards as so high and distinctive that they would allow Hudson Schools to waive existing testing requirements.

But the risks for Hudson are substantial, starting with whether it can develop high-quality assessments with limited funds. There's also the question of why the project would go through the expense and difficulty of developing its own exams, when so many others are doing so. The New Standards Project, for example, is spending upward of $30 million to develop a new series of high-quality assessments.

Kilgore says the design team had hoped to piggyback on existing measures but couldn't find any it liked. "Given that we were standards-driven,'' she says, "we couldn't go much further without making that investment.'' Advanced Systems--which also helped design the Kentucky and Maine assessments--is in the process of holding meetings with Hudson teachers to review sample test items and develop new ones.

But not every teacher is comfortable with the notion of such high-stakes tests. Claudia Hoone teaches at I.P.S. 58, the Ralph Waldo Emerson School, which is also implementing the Modern Red Schoolhouse design. "I'm truly concerned about a test that will cause kids not to go on,'' she says. "A high-stakes, test-focused curriculum is not what I want to teach.''

Amy Luker, who teaches 2nd grade at I.P.S. 106, this winter helped review some of the draft mathematics and science items for the primary level. "I was blown away by the math,'' she states. "There was so much reading. They kept saying, 'That's the type of child that we want.' But I just kept saying to myself, 'What about the poor reader?'''

Hudson's curriculum also remains controversial. Some think that Hirsch's lists are too constraining and specific; that they encourage "rote learning,'' rather than deep knowledge. Many African-Americans, in particular, have criticized both the core-knowledge sequence and the other curriculum sources that Hudson is drawing on as too "Eurocentric.''

Last year, a group of prominent African-Americans in Indianapolis met with Hudson to voice their concerns. Theresa Turner, an employee of the National Education Association who works with its Indianapolis affiliate, says, "There were some grave concerns that E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy was not consistent with African-American-centered information and also that the James Madison curriculum [which will form the basis of Hudson's work in the upper grades] reinforced the whole notion of a Western civilization being preserved, more so than teaching from a perspective that reinforced diversity and inclusion.'' That debate is still going on.

Yet, parents from diverse backgrounds seem to like what they see so far. Karen Brezik, whose son Danny attends 3rd grade at Central Elementary, says: "It's neat, because not only are the kids excited about what they learn, but they remember it. My son never came home before talking about what he does in school.''

Carmena Mackey, whose son Ian attends I.P.S. 106, says: "At first, I thought it was too hard; he'll never get it. I guess I'm speaking as an overprotective parent. But children learn. Ian, in the 5th grade, is getting exposed to a lot of literature ... a lot of geography ... that I was exposed to in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.''

Teachers also say that Hudson units are leading parents to become more involved in school activities. Hudson has developed a booklet for parents on getting their children ready for school. Each school is supposed to help form a preschool consortium to prepare at-risk children for kindergarten. In some cases, the districts also plan to offer public preschool programs.

At the middle and high school levels, Hudson plans to use as its starting point James Madison High School: A Curriculum for American Students, developed by the Education Department during Bennett's tenure. Like the core-knowledge sequence, it is based on the notion that all students should graduate from high school with a "shared body of knowledge and skills, a common language of ideas, [and] a common moral and intellectual discipline.''

The design team originally planned to begin work in a handful of middle and high schools last fall. But those aspirations were put on hold, in part because of funding. In part, too, observers say, because Hudson bit off more than it could chew. NASDC awarded the design team $1.8 million in 1992-93 for planning. This year, Hudson asked for approximately $6.5 million and received $4.7 million. Next year's figure has yet to be negotiated.

The money is less than Hudson had hoped for. And last summer, when NASDC was late in disbursing its funds, the design team scaled back on its summer training for teachers. "I think it substantially compromised where we are,'' Kilgore says.

Current plans are to conduct pilot tests of a few interdisciplinary Hudson units in two middle schools and one high school this spring, in Beech Grove and Columbus, Ind. A two-week workshop this summer will help teachers begin writing additional curriculum units for 6th and 9th graders in the participating schools. Each school will also be asked to design a three-year plan that will lead to the schoolwide adoption of the Hudson standards.

But progress has been slower and more controversial than in the elementary schools. Rebecca Rehbein teaches world history and economics at Columbus East High School, which will begin implementing the design next fall. "No one really has a clear, overall picture'' of how the design will work in the compartmentalized, regimented world of the high school, she says.

Even Kilgore is a little fuzzy. Hudson Schools, she says, will look like "inventive, academic high schools.'' But how much of the teaching will be interdisciplinary, and what the future holds for subjects like vocational education, is uncertain.

Moreover, many key features of the Modern Red Schoolhouse remain to be implemented.

The deployment of new technology, self-paced learning, multi-age homerooms, and preschool consortia are all scheduled to come on line this spring and fall.

Until recently, NASDC's precarious financial condition prevented most of the design teams from installing new technology in participating schools. The six elementary schools participating in phase one of Hudson's design are scheduled to begin installing their new computers and communications lines this spring. Over the life of the design, every teacher, administrator, and professional staff member is supposed to receive a computer and a telephone. And there should be one computer available for every six students.

The technology is central to one of the greatest challenges facing the design team: how to move from a graded structure, in which students progress on the basis of chronological age, to one where students progress at their own pace, based on mastery.

"The focus will be more on what students are learning than how teachers are teaching,'' says Alan Fraker, a curriculum consultant to the project, "because there's no single teaching mode that works for all kids. So, one student in a Modern Red Schoolhouse might be two or three years ahead of the student in the next seat in the study of history and might be cranking out an in-depth project, while another group of students is over in a corner listening to a mini-lecture on the Industrial Revolution. But the idea that each student has to be on the same page of the book at the same time ought to be an anachronism.''

Beginning next fall, teachers at the six elementary schools will negotiate "individual education compacts'' with students and their parents. The contracts will be entered into the same computer network that contains students' assessment portfolios. The length of the contracts will vary, based on a student's age and individual needs. But, in general, they will provide an educational road map: spelling out measurable cognitive and behavioral goals for students; identifying the responsibilities of students, parents, and teachers; setting milestones for mastery of the material; tracking a youngster's progress over time; and identifying any special assistance or services that a student needs.

The six schools are also scheduled to begin implementing multi-age homerooms next fall. Students and teachers in these homerooms will stay together for several years to provide greater support and stability for children.

Hudson has promised the changes will be made in small, incremental steps. But the anxiety level among teachers is running high.

"I still think it's important that a teacher is there to teach,'' says Nancy Wilson, a 3rd-grade teacher at South Grove Elementary, "and I do not think that it is feasible to have 20 children doing 20 different things and provide adequate instruction. Nor do I think putting 20 children in front of a computer can substitute for teaching.''

At I.P.S. 58, a few teachers forged ahead with some multi-age groupings in grades 3 through 5 this year. But the decision was a controversial one that was not particularly encouraged by Hudson. Teachers there are also worried about getting all parents to negotiate individual education compacts. Many parents there have not participated in the parental activities built into Hudson units.

Even Hudson has become more circumspect about the wisdom of multi-age groupings. "Research evidence just doesn't support it beyond the social values,'' Kilgore says. "We'll take that one slowly.''

One key to helping children meet Hudson's new, higher standards will be providing additional learning time for children who need it--either by extending the school day or year. Hudson will take its first crack at that this summer. Teachers will be asked to identify students who have progressed slowly through the Hudson units, and volunteer mentors will be trained to work with them over the summer. Ideally, the mentors could also work with children whose parents are unable or unwilling to negotiate individual education compacts.

But what has gotten the design team most discouraged are not instructional changes but changes in the governance and management of schools.

Hudson Schools are supposed to operate "autonomously from district control.'' That means that principals--and their faculties--would have more power to hire staff members, expend resources, and establish school schedules. Students would attend the schools by choice. And Hudson would establish parent-information centers to help families make such decisions.

Lenkowsky likes to refer to the design as "COMMIT writ small.'' Its purpose, he says, is to provide public schools with the "level playing field'' that would enable them to compete with each other and with private and parochial schools.

So far, however, autonomy has been slow in coming. Consultants from Arthur Andersen & Company, one of the design team's partners, have spent the last month helping schools develop plans for the kinds of autonomy they actually want. Each school will then negotiate those changes with its school district and union.

But as one Indianapolis teacher, Judy Carlile at I.P.S. 58, notes: "We are two schools out of 84 who are trying to become more autonomous than the others. Right now, it's a difficult struggle.''

"Autonomy makes me worried,'' agrees Sara Hindman, the young, energetic principal of I.P.S. 106, "because I just don't see it happening. We are a school that is part of a larger system. There are so many entrenched procedures, and I've hit my head up against the wall a couple of times and been slapped back a couple of times. I'm not disillusioned yet, but I'm becoming a little bit skeptical.''

Teachers at the school, for example, wanted to use their allocation for state-adopted textbooks to buy materials needed for Hudson units. But they were told they would be reimbursed only for items on the state-approved list. Hindman wanted to coordinate the schedule of specialists who come into the school, so that teachers would have common planning time. But she was told there wasn't the latitude. The school would also like to do something as simple as buy materials without going through the central office.

All of the participating districts are moving toward site-based management and school-based budgeting at different rates. But in Columbus, says Beth Stroh, the site coordinator for the school district, "Teachers by consensus said they were not comfortable with issues like the termination of staff, formal evaluation of their peers, and selecting people to be transferred.''

Kilgore worries that the project will be "most compromised'' on the autonomy issue, unless it can change state laws. In North Carolina, for example, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg wanted to reconfigure the use of teachers' aides in the primary grades, it required a legislative act.

Meanwhile, the unions have been watching and waiting to see if Hudson will push any changes that would threaten collective bargaining contracts. The biggest concern so far has been whether teachers are adequately reimbursed for the hours they've put into the project.

Like some of the other NASDC contractors, the Modern Red Schoolhouse is pinning some of its hopes on the passage of "charter schools'' legislation in states. Such laws enable some public schools to operate under contract, with substantial autonomy from state and district regulations.

It's also unclear whether all Hudson Schools will eventually become schools of choice. Beech Grove, for example, has only one school for every grade level, so choice isn't possible in practice. Other districts already have, or are moving toward, some form of public school choice.

Nor is it clear where Hudson Schools fit into the long-term plans of some of the participating districts. Michael Copper, the associate superintendent of the Bartholomew Consolidated School District in Columbus, says: "We have 11 elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools. Ten thousand students in a Midwestern community of 35,000. ... We have lots of programs going on. The Modern Red Schoolhouse is one of them.''

What that means about the prospects for replication is uncertain. Hudson plans to establish a permanent unit to assist schools and communities that are interested in replicating its design--creating, in effect, a network of Hudson Schools. But, so far, it has avoided taking on larger issues related to state policy.

What the project has done, most agree, is give teachers and principals the security to step out on a limb and try something new. It has also offered students what many view as a more challenging, demanding curriculum--with children rising to the occasion.

"What Hudson has done for our school,'' says Claudia Hoone of I.P.S. 58, "is blast everybody out of a rut. But saying that, there's a tremendous sense of unbalance. Nobody knows where we're going to land.''

The problem now is time. Time for teachers to make the changes that are required, without sacrificing an overwhelming slice of their personal lives. Time for the project to bring on line all of the changes that it has promised NASDC this spring and fall, without collapsing under its own weight.

Kilgore, a smooth-talking Texan who worked in the Education Department under Bennett, bears little resemblance to her often surly toned former boss. Where Bennett is combative, Kilgore is more pragmatic and open to compromise. A sociologist by training, her primary interest is in how schools function as social organizations.

Kilgore is well aware that many people have typecast the Modern Red Schoolhouse as the lone conservative representative among the NASDC design teams. But, she adds, "I feel like we're an important part of the menu. And, even if we fail, that's important for us to know and them to know.''

This winter, the Annenberg Foundation gave the New American Schools Development Corporation $50 million to support its ongoing efforts to create "break the mold'' schools. This article is the first in an occasional series that will track the work of the nine design teams whose plans are funded by NASDC.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented