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Next Generation of Effective Schools Looks to Districts

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Ninth in an occasional series.

St. Augustine, Fla.

"Ownership" is a word many people here in the oldest city in the United States use with pride.

They are not talking about a business or land or even a home, but the feeling they have about their schools.

A few years ago, the St. John's County school district--whose offices are here in the Spanish-style county seat--took research on "effective schools" as a foundation for its efforts to improve schools.

Superintendent Gary Mathews and others here argue that the approach is paying off: They say that the schools are better at serving the needs of all students and that the focus is on supporting change from the ground up.

The district is a recent convert to the effective-schools movement, which has gained a foothold in thousands of schools over the past two decades.

A recent national survey found effective-schools research used in more than 2,000 districts nationwide. The schools cut across the nation and, like this county school system, fit no particular mold.

In sheer numbers, the effective-schools model appears to be one of the most successful efforts at scaling up--spreading a reform idea or practice beyond a few schools. Its supporters say there is an obvious reason: It is a grassroots movement that builds a foundation that helps schools flourish under any conditions.

"I strongly believe that knowledge of effective schools is essential to restructuring," Mr. Mathews said. "It's a strong moral basis for what educators need to do: Teach all kids."

"It's not worth doing reform if you don't have that," he said.

'Second Generation'

The effective-schools movement gains its power from a deceptively simple idea: School practices that promote learning in one school can do the same in any school environment. (See Education Week special section, 1/15/86.)

There are a few characteristics associated with effective schools, based on the research of the late Ronald R. Edmonds, a Harvard University professor whom many consider a founder of the movement.

In the early 1970's, Mr. Edmonds and others set out to identify inner-city schools where children beat the odds, breaking the link between poverty and low achievement. They identified several features that these "effective schools" shared:

  • A well-articulated school mission or academic focus;
  • Frequent monitoring of student progress;
  • Strong instructional leadership from principals;
  • Teachers who exhibit expectations that all students can achieve at high levels;
  • A safe, orderly climate for learning; and
  • Positive relations between home and school.

Those principles have stood the test of time, said U.S. Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, who has written about the effective-schools idea. Educators, school reformers, and others continue to follow many of the principles--even if they do not associate them with the effective-schools movement.

The emphasis on believing that all children can learn, the central tenet that undergirds effective schools, has become the rallying cry for the current push to raise education standards.

And the approach has spread through urban, rural, and suburban schools alike.

These days, however, proponents of effective schools are talking more about looking beyond the school--to the district--for lasting change.

And they are taking the original research, once associated with improvements in basic skills and standardized-test scores, several steps further.

Ben A. Birdsell, the director of the Association for Effective Schools, based in Stuyvesant, N.Y., said schools or districts that have some experience with the concept are digging deeper and using the practices not just to fix what is wrong, but to fine tune and engage more members of the school community in their work.

The movement "continues to evolve, from my perspective, in its sophistication," Mr. Birdsell added.

Theorists refer to these developments as the "second generation" of effective schools.

Three Corners

Though several groups have assumed the mantle of effective schools, they are playing different roles in the movement, their leaders said. (See Education Week, 11/2/94.)

The Association for Effective Schools has carved out its niche by emphasizing the need to bring districts and other middlemen further into the process, Mr. Birdsell said.

The group is in its second year of a National Diffusion Network grant from the U.S. Education Department that is expected to help it reach its goal of working with about 200 more schools over the next two years.

It now trains educators in about 50 school systems.

Lawrence W. Lezotte, another pioneer in the movement, is the senior vice president of Effective Schools Products in Okemos, Mich. That for-profit company also has focused on training, particularly of state or regional officials responsible for school improvement and restructuring.

But observers say Mr. Lezotte is also the movement's best provocateur, traveling nationwide to get educators hooked on the concept.

Meanwhile, the foundation-funded National Center for Effective Schools Research and Development, located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has generated more research on effective schools. Mr. Lezotte helped found the center in the mid-1980's.

"When I look at the best part of what we all do, it fits," said Mr. Birdsell. "To me, that's a nice triangle."

Scaling Up the Center

The national center's role is changing, however.

It is moving away from being a think tank, and instead trying to establish itself as a place to train school leaders and others in the ways of effective schools, said Barbara O. Taylor, a founder of the center and now a consultant there.

The center's strategy hinges on two new pieces to the puzzle: a professional-development program for school leaders and a software program that keeps track of student portfolios and teaching strategies, among other things.

Ms. Taylor said she hopes that those new features--the School-Based Instructional Leadership program and the Management Information System for Effective Schools--help make the application of effective-schools research more consistent throughout the field.

The center has a pilot project under way in Cleveland, in which the district is learning to use the computer program with the help of consultants from a nearby university.

Those at the heart of the movement do not know how the center's shift toward a more practical role will play out, but they say they hope it will increase the movement's power.

'Silent' on Specifics

The leaders of the three national groups share a conviction: They all say their straightforward approach has not lost its luster in an era that emphasizes high standards and high-stakes testing.

Others, like Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, agreed. "If you think of education reform as having an 'ends' part and a 'means' part," Mr. Finn said, the effective-schools process is still valuable for forcing the question "'How do you produce the desired results?'"

In fact, the effective-schools movement "in a small way has contributed to the call for standards," Mr. Lezotte said, "because we were always asking people where they want to go."

Mr. Birdsell said the effective-schools process works for schools that want to get down to basics, as well as those at the other end of the continuum.

"One of the great things about the [effective-schools research], if you study it closely and carefully, was it was silent about the specifics of curriculum and content," Mr. Lezotte said. The process "will take you wherever you choose to go."

District's Moves

Ms. Taylor and others in St. Augustine say St. John's County is proof of that.

In 1992, the school board hired Mr. Mathews, who had had some success with the effective-schools process as an administrator in the Spring Branch, Tex., and Jackson, Miss., school systems.

At the time, the community here was clamoring for more input into the schools and believed that scrapping the system of elected superintendents in favor of an appointed schools chief would help.

As the first appointed superintendent, Mr. Mathews was expected to help with strategies for making that happen.

He used effective-schools research as a foundation for the shift, helping the district and schools set clear expectations and come up with tools to measure their progress. Observers say the changes have turned an average school system into one that gets noticed.

The 17,000-student district has adopted many practices favored by effective-schools researchers, including putting special-education students into regular classes and grouping children of varying abilities in the same classroom.

But the district's schools also have taken on aspects of some of those very up-to-date reforms that effective-schools researchers say fit comfortably into the process, such as interdisciplinary curricula and authentic assessments.

The schools also make sure their improvement plans are based on research and data about what works--another central theme of the movement. Otherwise, "it's fly by the seat of your pants," Mr. Mathews said.

The state's curriculum frameworks, or standards, help define what students here should be able to achieve.

And the state's annual school "report card" helps tell the district whether it is on track.

Leading the Way

Mr. Mathews said the district has the strong school leaders it takes to pull off the changes.

"If you structure a school system so people have a stake in it, they will act in an empowering way," the superintendent said, adding that the state's movement to site-based decisionmaking has made the district's model even more powerful.

At the Webster School in St. Augustine, the staff has moved head first into reform.

But Theresa Grady and Roger Coffee, the elementary school's two principals, remind visitors that their every move is "research-based and data-driven," as befits an effective school.

Like sleuths, the principals picked through research on cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and multi-age classrooms for strategies to meet the needs of every student. With the staff and community behind them, the principals took care to give every change the "the Webster look."

The school enrolls about 270 special-education students--once housed in a separate facility--and about 60 percent of its 800 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Yet it also serves many students defined by the state as gifted.

Alice B. Landrum Middle School, in the county's affluent Ponta Vedra community, operates much the same way.

Although the 700-student school had a good reputation for academics, Principal Robert Allten consulted his "customers" for new ideas, he said. He then extended the school day for extra reading time and beefed up the writing program.

Like others in the county, the school is using portfolios to evaluate students' work.

This year, the school's strategy paid off. It was the state's winner of the Exemplary Reading/Language Arts Program Award from the International Reading Association.

Mr. Mathews said both schools have gone beyond mere "effectiveness" and are knee-deep in restructuring.

Signs of Improvement

Other schools in the district may be a little behind, Mr. Mathews said, but they have all been successful at using effective-schools research to set the stage for change.

"I think we have all built [the research] into our thinking," Mr. Allten agreed. "And the quality countywide has increased markedly."

There are definite signs that the system is improving.

For instance, over the past two years, the district has increased its graduation rate from 70 percent to 74 percent and pulled up college-admissions-test scores. In addition, the dropout rate came down during that period.

"I think we've been able to address the needs of all school populations," Karen Stern, the school board president, said. "This process has really given each [school] a unique style."

Mr. Lezotte said superintendents like Mr. Mathews may be the key to spreading effective-schools practices.

"The biggest problem we run into--and one that is a problem of scaling up--is that [this] started as a school-based" movement, Mr. Lezotte said. "But you have to take on the system in place above the schools."

"The district has to be willing to buy into that mission and support it," he added.

The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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