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Progress Report on NASDC Projects Finds Mixed Results

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You don't hear so much lately about the once-trendy notion of "break the mold" school designs. But the New American Schools Development Corporation quietly toils on as its seven design teams work to put their model schools into mass production.

A new study by the RAND Corp. suggests that the group's accomplishments so far are like the proverbial glass--half empty or half full.

"Pessimists might feel that school-level reform is difficult if not impossible, because several teams did not meet the NASDC goals," the report by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank says. "Optimists, on the other hand, might find the results encouraging by focusing on what teams were able to accomplish, given the ambitiousness of the goals when compared to past experience with school reform."

Business leaders formed the Arlington, Va.-based corporation, now known simply as New American Schools, in 1991 during the Bush administration's push for innovative school designs. The goal was to create models that could provide the basis for reform in thousands of schools nationwide.

The first phase of the corporation's three-step timetable focused on creating the designs. The second, from 1993-95, zeroed in on field-testing the designs at 147 schools in 19 states. Each team received grants ranging from $5.5 million to $10 million during this phase.

The third, "scaling up" phase is ongoing. The design teams have begun pitching their models to educators in two states--Maryland and Kentucky--and eight metropolitan areas: Cincinnati; Dade County, Fla.; Los Angeles; Memphis, Tenn.; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; San Diego; and Seattle and four nearby districts.

Each of those 10 regions has pledged to implement one or more of the designs in 30 percent of its schools within five years--and to pay the design teams for their help.

Off Drawing Board

The RAND study, which was paid for by New American Schools, looks at phase two. The researchers found mixed results as the nine teams--two have since been dropped--moved from the drawing board to working prototypes. Progress, they concluded, depended on these factors:

  • A team's readiness or capability at the outset;
  • The type of design and related factors, such as how many elements of schooling it sought to reform; and
  • The strategy used to put the reforms into place.

The researchers grouped the designs into three categories.

"Core" designs focused on the central dimensions of schooling: curriculum, instruction, standards, assessments, grouping of students, community involvement, and professional development.

"Comprehensive" designs included additional elements such as integrated social services and governance, but still aimed primarily at building-level reform.

Only one of the nine groups, the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, met RAND's definition of a "systemic" design: an effort to change the broader systems in which schools operate.

The researchers concluded that three of the four "core" teams--the Audrey Cohen College System of Education, Roots and Wings, and Co-Nect--had put in place more than half of their designs' elements. But only one of the five comprehensive or systemic designs, the Modern Red Schoolhouse, showed similar progress.

"That's logical when you look at it," said John L. Anderson, the president of New American Schools. "Those that deal more with curriculum and helping teachers adopt a new curriculum are going to show results quicker than those that are dealing with more systemic elements."

'Informed Obstinacy'

The evaluators attributed the faster progress of the three core teams and the Modern Red Schoolhouse in part to "informed obstinacy." Those projects required schools to adopt certain reforms immediately, rather than phase them in.

With those elements in place, the core designs gradually evolved into more systemic approaches.

"It's not that there are winners and losers here, there are just faster starters and slower starters," said Samuel C. Stringfield, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the author of an upcoming book on New American Schools. What each design does best, he suggested, is identify different problems and solutions.

"Aspirin, penicillin, and chemotherapy are all wonderful treatments. But chemotherapy is not a wonderful treatment for a headache and aspirin doesn't do anything for cancer," he said. "In the education world, we are increasingly talking about differential diagnoses and differential treatments."

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