Beyond Model Schools
Eighth grader Amy DeGeest thumbs through a large manila folder, pausing at highlights. There are notes from her oral report on Rome, the text of a speech she gave to her class, a project on World War II, a poem.
"One thing that really improved over 7th grade was my writing," she comments. "You could really see that. The quality of my work got a lot better because I could look back and see what I didn't like and improve it. As we go through it, it becomes clearer what I was doing."
Amy's review of her 7th-grade portfolio reflects the goals of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education. The nonprofit group envisions a school system built around high standards for student work that are so clear that children can easily understand them. Its aim is to have all but the most severely disabled students earn a Certificate of Initial Mastery at about age 16 based on achievement of the standards.
The alliance is one of nine design teams funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation. Business leaders launched the corporation during the Bush Administration to underwrite the design of "break the mold" schools.
But from the beginning, the alliance differed from the other design teams. Its sheer size dwarfs the others. While most focus on a handful of schools, the alliance's partners include five states and four city school districts. Collectively, members of the alliance teach nearly five million students in more than 9,000 schools.
Where others promise to create break-the-mold schools, the alliance pledges to create break-the-mold school systems. Its participants rank among the most prominent sites of school reform, including Rochester, N.Y., San Diego, Pittsburgh, and the states of Kentucky and Vermont.
And where others focus primarily on changes in the classroom, the alliance has taken on a particularly ambitious agenda. Its five design tasks are meant to change nearly every facet of education simultaneously; from how schools are managed and governed to the delivery of health and social services. (See related story.)
"We never set out to build model schools," asserts Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center(See Education and the Economy and the founder of the alliance. "What we promised to produce are systems that can raise the whole level of schools out there."
But Tucker, who has the rumpled appearance and measured speech of an academician, is more a policy wonk than a practitioner. And the alliance has struggled to translate its vision into real changes in schools.
For the very things that make the alliance unusual are also its Achilles' heel: Namely, how to work in so many places and on so many fronts at once while still achieving depth.
A former associate director at the National Institutes of Education, Tucker often grappled with how to translate research on education policy into reality. In 1986, he directed the task force of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy that produced A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, which called for a complete restructuring of education along the lines of successful U.S. businesses. In late 1987, Tucker founded the National Center on Education and the Economy to implement the report's ideas. In 1988, he moved its headquarters to Rochester, N.Y., where he had been invited to work with the community on those efforts. But Tucker's small staff was spread too thin to accomplish its agenda.
A year later, he was on the phone to leaders in other districts and states that were also trying to implement the report's proposals. In late 1989, the alliance was born, with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts. "We had all come to the conclusion that we could make more progress on the agenda laid out in the [Carnegie] report together than we could separately," Tucker says today. In 1992, the group secured the largest of the grants from the newly formed New American Schools Development Corporation: $2.5 million.
But its proposal broke sharply with the primary contention of NASDC, which was that Americans needed new blueprints for model schools. Tucker thought there were good schools out there but that they inevitably were eaten alive by the system. His primary insight was that schools, districts, and states would have to change simultaneously to make good schools the norm, and that it would take a team of outside partners with a wide range of expertise to help them do it. At the N.I.E., Tucker had been responsible for pulling together teams of some of the best researchers in the country to tackle major issues in public policy. He used the same strategy now. He began to line up more than a dozen partners to work with the alliance sites, ranging from Apple Computer Inc. to the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. And the alliance crafted mechanisms to hook these experts up with the schools, districts, and states in an equal partnership.
Eisenhower Middle School, where Amy is a student, is located just north of Seattle, in Everett--one of four area districts that belong to the alliance.
Historically, the four districts of Edmonds, Everett, Northshore, and Shoreline have not had much in common except adjoining boundaries and a stellar view of the Cascade Mountains. Everett is a former mill town, 17 miles long by three miles wide, whose steep streets sweep down to the bay. Over the past decade, high-tech computer firms have edged out more traditional logging and maritime industries. Today, its student body ranges from the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers to the children of corporate executives.
The other three districts are suburban bedroom communities, whose student populations are increasingly diversified by income, race, and native language. Together, the school systems serve about 65,000 students, of whom about 15 percent are children of color.
Brian Benzel, the superintendent of the Edmonds school district, provided the link to the alliance. Benzel had chaired a statewide task force on "Schools for the 21st Century" under Gov. Booth Gardner. The grants competition provided seed money for innovative schools, with the hope that their ideas would be widely replicated.
In 1986, the year the Carnegie report was published, Gardner invited Tucker to Washington State for a meeting about the report and its implications for the state. When Tucker formed the alliance in 1989, Gardner signed on, and Benzel became the state's representative to the group.
Benzel had moved to Edmonds the year before, where he had begun meeting with his neighboring superintendents over breakfast. All of them were new to their jobs and discovered they were facing many of the same challenges. When the alliance applied for NASDC funding in 1991 and laid out its five design tasks, Benzel recalls, "the framework was highly aligned with what we were already doing. It subsequently has fit so well with all of our strategic efforts that it's fully integrated."
Today, the four districts pool resources, share expertise, coordinate their work on the alliance tasks, and send teachers to each other's districts for training. "What I see happening with this regional piece is an incredible leveraging of thought," says Mary Ann Kendall Mitchell, the superintendent of the Shoreline school district. "Collaboration produces speed."
What the alliance has provided, she says, is a framework. "We decided to participate in the alliance because the five design tasks were so congruent with the goals that we had set in our district plan," says Mitchell. "They were probably a better explanation of what we were trying to do and took us more in depth. To me, it seemed like we would be looking a gift horse in the mouth if we didn't go for it."
You can get a sense of how the design tasks come together at Kellogg Middle School in the suburb of Shoreline, a four-by-five-mile-wide bedroom community where people move for the schools. Last year, with substantial involvement by the community, the school developed a vision statement based on the five design tasks. The document pledged to promote the highest academic achievement for every student and to specify what youngsters needed to know and be able to do before they left the school.
Kellogg worked with alliance partner Apple Computer to create a Teacher Development Center, where teachers from all four districts can come to immerse themselves in a technology-rich environment. About 120 students and four teachers work in the center at a time. On this particular day, two students are crouched on the sidewalk outside the classrooms, fiddling with a camcorder. In the back of one room, two more students are producing computer graphics for a book report. Next door, most of the class is filling out algebra worksheets. In another classroom, the teacher is reminding students about how to use the Internet. A pile of laptop computers sits at the front of the room.
Students here spend about 40 percent of their time learning basic academic skills, and the rest of the time on long-term projects, explains coordinator Mike McMann. Last year, they published Seattleite, a guide to northern Seattle for youngsters. This year, they spent three weeks creating a wetlands ecosystem using a virtual-reality computer system. As part of another laboratory project, they built a 200-gallon aquarium that mimics life in a nearby pond.
"You talk about authentic assessment," McMann smiles. "Grades don't matter. Plants or animals live or die. These guys talk about ecosystems in a way that I think will be lifelong."
The school hopes to expand the program to two more groups of classrooms next year. It's also starting to map the instructional units developed here with the emerging state, district, and national standards. Another alliance partner, the New Standards Project, is drafting performance standards in English, mathematics, science, and applied learning for initial release this summer. Teachers in the alliance schools--and in other New Standards states and school districts--are piloting performance tasks and portfolios in language arts and mathematics.
Kellogg's efforts are also in line with a 1993 state law that echoes the alliance's agenda. The Performance-Based Education Act created a commission on student learning to draft state standards in key academic subjects. It required a Certificate of Mastery by the end of the decade. And it authorized Readiness-to-Learn grants that school systems can use to link schools with health and social services.
The four alliance districts jointly received a $1 million state readiness-to-learn grant, which they have focused on 12 schools, of which Kellogg is one. Using a model developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, another alliance partner, a program council of parents, school employees, and community-service providers developed a set of outcomes for children's health and well-being. They surveyed the community to determine local needs, even holding a potluck supper to survey non-English-speaking parents. Kellogg has collaborated with the nearby Shorecrest High School to create a wellness clinic, launch an after-school program with the department of parks and recreation, and provide a mental-health case worker on site.
Kellogg has also reached out to its parent community. With a student-learning grant from the state, it hired a parent to coordinate a series of Friday afternoon enrichment programs for students, taught by parents and community volunteers. The "Friday Forums," which take place nine times a year, provide time for staff development while addressing parents' concerns that their children not be released early from school.
The district supports the school in its efforts. Last year, Superintendent Mitchell persuaded the school board to evaluate her performance based on the five design tasks, which she has reconfigured as her own goals. The district also plans to pilot a certificate of initial mastery with the 1996 freshman class.
"If you're a good superintendent, you know what the agenda should be," Mitchell contends. "But the big question is how fast should I move, and how can I get local folks to process it in a way that makes sense for them, so that they feel the work is happening from the inside out?"
In Shoreline, she asserts, "People talk about the alliance--yes--but they also talk more deeply about our own reform plans. And sometimes, perhaps to the frustration of the alliance, we don't play it as alliance work because it has blended in so well."
At Kellogg, the alliance's ideas are taking root. But Tucker admits that success has been uneven across the alliance sites. In many schools, only a handful of teachers have had direct exposure to the alliance through its national seminars. And the alliance has had to rely heavily on these lead teachers to spread the gospel back home. As a result, some schools do not yet look and feel substantially different.
Last year, to address such problems, the alliance asked each site to identify at least two point schools that would take on all five design tasks at once. These schools would receive greater attention and support from the national office. The four Washington State districts did so with great reluctance. They are interested in creating a districtwide infrastructure that would support reforms at all their schools, rather than singling out a few.
"The concept of the point school has been an issue for us," Mitchell says bluntly. "The question of having all these things happening at once at one school is almost overwhelming." She would rather spread the wealth--and the attention--around, letting each school forge ahead in the areas where it is most ready.
The alliance is rethinking its strategy in other ways as well. It has made the Certificate of Initial Mastery the centerpiece of its efforts--an idea that was relatively invisible within the alliance a year ago.
"It really requires the jurisdictions to come to grips with what they want students to know and be able to do," asserts Judy B. Codding, the director of the alliance. "We're looking at that to be a benchmark. If all elements of the system--from the time that a kid enters school to the time that the kid gets the certificate--were working together to see that all kids achieve this certificate, what a miracle that would be."
Alliance sites also have committed to a set of indicators that describe how they will look and feel different by this fall on each design task.
And the alliance has beefed up its own staff of practitioners, recruiting Codding, a former high school principal, as director.
Moreover, the alliance is rethinking the way it allocates resources. While it will continue its series of national seminars for teams of people from the state, district, and local levels, it will also build in more assistance on site.
"What we now know is the national conferences are a very powerful experience for the people who come," says Tucker, "but it's very limiting. To get to where we need to go, there has got to be a team of half a dozen alliance people locally, right there at the site, drawn from local practitioners. What we now see is that we need to have a balance between our national function and a local function, and they need to work hand in glove."
The most visible example of this is the Teacher Development Centers. There are now seven nationwide, of which four are in Washington State. Teams of teachers come to the centers for a week at a time to learn by doing. And center coordinators check in on the teachers over the coming year as they try to apply what they have learned.
Jackson Elementary School in Everett houses one such center. It's located on the second floor and includes five classrooms for grades 2-5.
On a recent day, the older students are sharing their projects with each other from a health unit on how to take care of themselves. One group is playing a board game called "Help the Heart," created by 4th grader Kristy DeVera. "So far, everybody who's played it has really liked it," she grins. Others have created papier-mache‚ sculptures, dioramas, and three-dimensional food pyramids. In the back of the room are rows of computers. All of the students also keep videotaped portfolios of their work. On the wall are scoring rubrics that tell youngsters what kind of work would deserve a 4 (the highest score) and what a 1.
"What we're really trying to do is create engaging questions that are of interest to kids," explains teacher Terry Chadsey. "The biggest change is rather than the teacher and the textbook controlling the pace and content of what is learned, it shifts control to the learner--to the child."
Teams of teachers from within the school and from the four Washington State districts visit the center for a week at a time. "The benefit of this is that they come and go as a team so there's that support when they get back home," says the school's development-center coordinator, Pat Moriarty.
Through an electronic network, created by the alliance and Apple Computer, Jackson can share its experiences with other centers, including two at elementary schools in Vermont and Kentucky.
But, so far, the success of the centers has been mixed. The one at Lynnwood High School in Edmonds got off to a shaky start this fall. Students there complain that the program is isolated from the rest of the school and has not given them as much access to technology as promised.
The alliance is now rethinking the role of the teacher centers, hoping to turn them into School Development Centers that will focus on all five design tasks at once, not just technology. Alliance members would have to commit to create at least one center each at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
The alliance also hopes to employ and train a team of local people--at least one in each design task--that could provide ongoing, on-site support to their jurisdictions.
One of the striking things about the alliance is its willingness to learn from experience. But after three years, Tucker admits, there is still a long way to go. "Neither Judy [Codding] nor I would present the alliance, in any sense, as finished," he says. "I think we've got a powerful framework, some pretty impressive partners, and we've learned a lot."
When it comes to NASDC's timetable--which calls for the designs to be fully implemented by this June--Tucker simply says: "We are marching to our own drummer."
But time is the one problem the alliance has been unable to surmount. In essence, it has been trying to rebuild school systems around high standards that do not yet exist. Standards in Washington State and its school districts are still under development, as are those of the New Standards Project.
That dilemma can be seen back at Amy DeGeest's school in Everett. Eisenhower Middle School already teaches language arts, reading, and social studies in an integrated block. Most teachers in the school are experimenting with new forms of assessment, like portfolios. And students are required to complete one long-term, interdisciplinary project each trimester that demonstrates what they know and can do in an area of interest to them. Teachers are also working on ways to develop instructional units that would help students meet high standards.
But, as teacher Barbara Haas worries, "When we say kids are O.K., what does that really mean? What is the standard here?"
The alliance is betting that the answer to that question lies just around the corner. But in an ideal world, it would have been the first question out of the box.
"Breaking the Mold: The Shape of Schools To Come" is an Education Week occasional series on the projects and progress of the New American Schools Development Corporation's nine design teams. Coming up in the series: A look at the Community Learning Centers. The "Breaking the Mold" series is being underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Vol. 14, Issue 20, Pages 30-34