NASDC To Roll Out Next Phase of Replication Plan
(Third in an occasional series.)
When John L. Anderson, the president of the New American Schools Development Corporation, flew into Miami this month, school officials there greeted him with open arms and the hope of promises to come.
Dade County, Fla., is vying to become one of a half-dozen or so sites Mr. Anderson's group will work with over the next three years to create large numbers of innovative schools. About 20 jurisdictions are now in the running; a final decision is expected in March.
Among the candidates are Cincinnati and the state of Ohio; a group of districts in Indiana; Washington State and the Seattle metropolitan area; the entire states of Maryland and Vermont; and individual local systems, including Austin, Los Angeles, Memphis, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and San Diego.
"I don't want to have a big national competition and choose six places," said Mr. Anderson. "That's kind of stupid. On the other hand, this isn't a closed list. If people are really interested in talking, we'd love to talk to them."
What the competitors hope to win is about $100,000 a year in financial support and help from some of the biggest names in school reform.
Business leaders formed NASDC in 1991 to bankroll the design and replication of "break the mold" schools. The private, nonprofit group began as part of President George Bush's America 2000 education-reform agenda, but has since been endorsed by the Clinton Administration.
For the past three years, the corporation has supported nine design teams as they created and tested new models. Now the project hopes to jump from about 150 schools using its designs to thousands within the next few years.
To do so, it will work with a handful of jurisdictions--ranging from school districts to whole states--that pledge to support and sustain reforms at the school site. Each jurisdiction must commit to having NASDC or other effective school designs in place in at least 30 percent of its schools within five years.
The goal, Mr. Anderson said, is to move beyond the creation of model schools to the transformation of whole systems into ones that support a high level of student learning.
"You can't create places where good schools are the norm without focusing on the systems issues," he argued. "We're still in the school-change business. But our next step is to look for places that cause a lot of school changes to occur."
The new-schools corporation is one of several reform projects that are aiming to create innovative schools that can be replicated on a large scale. Many educators say such "scaling up" of effective reform ideas is one of the biggest challenges in improving the nation's schools. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)
The NASDC design teams and the Education Commission of the States will help the corporation in its work. Last December, the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg gave $50 million to NASDC as part of his planned donation of $500 million for public school reform. He also pledged another $15 million to the E.C.S. to disseminate NASDC and other proven designs.
But NASDC's ambitious approach to scaling up reform rests on some untested assumptions.
One is that large numbers of schools will be willing to choose from a handful of designs based on research. A second is that NASDC can provide the technical and other support needed to transform thousands of schools and the systems around them.
"The idea of zeroing in on a few places where they can have a demonstrable impact I strongly support," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. But, he added, "Just to sustain what the design teams have already developed is going to require very hefty energy and resources."
Others question whether the designs, which are fully in place for the first time this year, have a track record worth emulating. Observers also wonder what NASDC will have proved by working only in states and districts that are ready for reform.
"I would love to think that maybe it's possible to find five to seven jurisdictions," said Joan Lipsitz, the program director for elementary and secondary education at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis. "I don't think those jurisdictions would be representative of the next five to seven that NASDC would find."
"To do it right would take a whole lot more than money," she added. "It would take vision. It would take amazing commitments and energy. It would take policy changes--meaning waivers from the state, changes in education programs, changes in union contracts."
The corporation will select jurisdictions based on five criteria. (See related story)
In particular, it seeks locations that offer a "supportive operating environment" in which the designs could flourish.
Nearly every NASDC school now has a waiver that exempts it from regulations of some kind, ranging from the number of hours teachers work to the mandated class size, Mr. Anderson said.
But waivers treat restructured schools as the exception. The idea of a supportive operating environment is to change the conditions under which all schools work.
The features of such an environment were drawn from the the design teams' experiences and operational needs. All of them, for example, require significant autonomy for individual schools. Other features include high standards for student achievement and new ways of measuring what students know and can do.
"I don't know any place that has all those features in place now," Mr. Anderson said. "What we're looking for is a relationship that includes the commitment to those kinds of things."
Each jurisdiction must also pledge "significant resources" to restructuring schools. The corporation has not attached a dollar figure to that requirement, which Mr. Anderson said will be negotiated with each site. But it might range from $100 to $300 per student per year over several years.
The money could come from the reallocation of existing resources, private foundations, state grants, federal Goals 2000 and Title I aid, and Mr. Annenberg's gift to the public schools, Mr. Anderson suggested. But NASDC should be viewed as a "catalyst" for work already under way, not as the primary source of money.
Its main contributions, Mr. Anderson argued, are research, technical assistance, and a strategy for accelerating change.
Last summer, the design teams helped identify about 40 potential sites. Most are already working with at least one design team.
After some initial fact-finding and site visits, NASDC this month asked 19 jurisdictions to continue in the selection process.
By January, the corporation hopes to rank the top five to seven jurisdictions, with the help of its design(See education-advisory panel, and the RAND Corporation, which is under contract with NASDC.
In January and February, representatives from those groups will visit each site for a more in-depth evaluation. The elaborate courtship ritual will also give the sites another chance to assess NASDC's potential.
NASDC hopes to negotiate an agreement with each jurisdiction by March, once it is clear that enough schools are willing and able to use the designs.
'A Microscopic View'
To convince Mr. Anderson that Miami would be a hospitable site for NASDC's efforts, Dade County sponsored a daylong event that included presentations by school administrators and board members, union leaders, teachers and parents, community representatives, and local colleges and universities.
The corporation's designs appear replicable and address the needs of Miami's student population, said Phyllis L. Cohen, the district's deputy superintendent for instructional leadership.
"I don't believe in reinventing something," she said. "When something is successful, we ought to capitalize on it and adjust it to the specific, indigenous needs of our community."
But Miami is not the only site that thinks it has a lot to offer.
For instance, Ted Sanders, the state superintendent of education in Ohio, said his state has created a venture-capital fund that invests $25,000 a year in redesigning individual schools.
"What we need to connect with those schools with risk capital are powerful ideas that can help in that redesign process," he argued.
Cincinnati--Ohio's partner in the venture--has also encouraged neighborhood schools to adopt instructional models that have proved successful and to develop a theme or focus.
Hitting the Road
By March, each design team must submit a proposal to NASDC describing how it would like to operate in the jurisdictions. The proposal must also include the resources and additional personnel the team would need.
The teams vary widely in their readiness to take their models on the road.
"Some of them have been operating in a pretty small environment," said Arleen Arnsparger, the director of communications for the E.C.S.
Robert Slavin, the director of the design team Roots and Wings, estimates his team could work with an additional 100 schools next year. But Sally B. Kilgore, the director of another design team, the Modern Red Schoolhouse, said her project could work on actual implementation with only six to seven new schools come next fall, or as many as 50 schools that were in the planning stages.
"We're a relatively new design, so we're going to be fairly cautious," she said. "We want to succeed rather than have stuff we can't manage."
Mr. Anderson said the RAND Corporation has come up with a number of scenarios for scaling up from a small number of additional schools to a critical mass by the turn of the century. He estimated the design teams could work with as few as 30 to 50 new schools next year.
The teams have served as the primary advisers and advocates for selecting potential sites.
"We've been assured that our opinions will be taken into account," said Mr. Slavin.
NASDC is also trying to raise another $20 million to support the work of the design teams over the next few years. That would bring its total investment in the project to $125 million by the end of the replication phase.
The design teams are also free to work with other sites outside the selected jurisdictions. But they are expected to become self-sufficient at the end of the three-year period, in part by charging for their services.
For now, the greatest concern is that NASDC has made no provisions to continue funding for the original pilot schools. Yet many design teams expect to use them as models for others.
"To cut them off from money is kind of a statement that they're not important," Mr. Slavin contended. "And then to use them heavily as demonstration sites, and expect them to be friendly about that, and to continue to study them as research sites, is a little jarring."
Mr. Anderson said design teams could use some of their core funding to support the pilot sites. "The teams will continue to work in those locations," he noted, "and probably add schools from the bases they've already established." But most of the money must come from the districts themselves.
The Education Commission of the States has agreed to use its $15 million from Mr. Annenberg to focus on five areas: communications, support of the demonstration sites, grants to the selected jurisdictions, the creation of a supportive operating environment, and a dissemination effort of NASDC and other proven designs.
But how much money the E.C.S. will spend in each category and over what period is still being negotiated.
Meanwhile, at least a few observers are asking whether NASDC understands the audacity of what it is trying to accomplish.
"Do they have a sense of what really needs to be changed?" asked Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. "There are contractual union requirements and norms and bureaucratic procedures for everything from hiring to evaluation, to management to school-funding formulas, all which pile on to create the gridlock and decay that already exists in a lot of schools."
"Unless they're talking about really having people rethink and redo all of that and getting at those structural problems," she said, "adopting models won't make any difference."
Mr. Anderson of NASDC agreed. "That's why we've defined the 10 characteristics of a supportive operating environment. And that's why we are looking for jurisdictions who can do the best job of creating those environments."
"You bet it's a big challenge," he agreed. "But that's why we want to start with a few jurisdictions."
Finally, there are those who think NASDC has become too governmental and bureaucratic in its approach.
"It's NASDC beginning to act as if it were the government," complained Chester E. Finn Jr., the director of the Educational Excellence Network, about the decision to work with just seven sites.
Mr. Finn suggested the design teams compete with each other, and go wherever they are wanted. "Just as automobile companies and computer companies do with their new designs," he said.
In the end, Mr. Anderson predicted, the designs "are either going to win or lose based on their own merits."
But, he added, "We have only limited capacity, and the question is how can our limited capacity add up to the greatest good."
"And that is, we think, by focusing our efforts."
The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.