Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Designs for Learning

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Memphis, Tenn.

New American Schools has helped districts from Everett, Wash., to Dade County, Fla., draw blueprints for rebuilding schools from top to bottom.

Educators from around the world descended on this Southern city last month for a field trip. Like the most obedient schoolchildren, they dutifully clambered onto buses and padded along behind their tour guides.

But the visitors--some from as far away as Hong Kong and Australia--had not come to see the usual Memphis landmarks: the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot; Graceland, where Elvis Presley lived; or Beale Street, the birthplace of the blues.

Instead, they came to see something rare in education: eight research-based designs for improving schools that are all being tried in one place. About one-third of Memphis' 161 public schools have adopted a design to change everything from the way they teach to how they relate to their community.

"The Memphis school district is the best example this country has to offer of a district embracing school reform," asserts Samuel Stringfield, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools who is studying the district's efforts.

What makes Memphis unique is the sheer number of schools and designs that are now on the ground. Forty-eight of the city's schools have adopted a design. And of those, 34 are using models that the New American Schools promotes. The district has also brought in two other national school reform models.

The organization, originally known as the New American Schools Development Corp., is the creation of a group of American business leaders who in 1991 decided that the best way to improve education was to underwrite the design of new models for what public schools might look like. After sifting through 650 proposals, the group selected 11 design teams led by some of the nation's most innovative and ambitious educators to draw blueprints that address every element of a school.

For two years, the teams refined and tested their ideas in about 150 schools nationwide. Settling on seven designs to market more broadly, the nonprofit corporation also decided to work primarily with a handful of districts and states, places with the commitment to make large numbers of innovative schools flourish.

By March 1995, leaders in 11 sites--including Memphis--had pledged to work with New American Schools to introduce the designs in at least 30 percent of their schools within five years. They also promised to revamp their policies and practices to support the work of transforming individual schools. Although Los Angeles and Vermont later withdrew from the initiative, San Antonio, Texas, subsequently came aboard.

In each site, the corporation has negotiated the initial terms of engagement with the district, helped introduce the designs to schools, plowed through barriers, and tried to sustain attention to the effort.

Since 1991, it has raised some $120 million, primarily to support the work of the design teams. It has also provided seed money, averaging about $200,000 to each of the original jurisdictions. The jurisdictions or their schools must pay a fee for the design teams' services.

Breaking the Cycle

Memphis is not a place that typically comes to mind when people talk about cutting-edge change. A conservative Southern city, it remains relatively suspicious of outsiders. And it is plagued by many of the problems common to poor urban communities.

Only 40 percent of the school system's 9th graders met the standards for the state's minimum-competency test.

John L. Anderson, the president of New American Schools, contends that if the designs can work here, on the banks of the Mississippi River, they can work anywhere. "Memphis is tough," he says. "It's the toughest kind of urban area."

Of the district's approximately 111,000 students, more than eight in 10 are African-American. More than six in 10 are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. In 1995, only 40 percent of the school system's 9th graders met the standards for the state's minimum-competency test. And the district's dropout rate is 28 percent.

What the city has going for it is Gerry House--a tough-minded, eloquent superintendent who is deeply committed to children rather than to politics.

"Our children are not born failures," says House. "It is our schools that have failed. In Memphis, we are determined to break this cycle of failure and to break it now."

Since House came to Memphis in July 1992, the district has adopted new standards for what students should know and be able to do. It has created site-based decisionmaking councils at each school. It has required schools to draft school-improvement plans focused on student achievement. And it has created an evaluation system for principals based, in part, on how their students perform. Last year, the city opened a Teaching and Learning Academy to provide professional development linked to whole-school change.

"Our final question dealt with what do schools look like when teaching and learning are standards-driven," recollects House. "We wanted to help schools restructure, so we went in pursuit of designs or models that were already out there."

The seeds of that effort are beginning to take root at Manor Lake Elementary School on the southwest side of the city. At 8:20 each morning, every teacher can be found reading aloud to her students, part of a concerted push to ensure that all children are reading at grade level.

The school displays many of the hallmarks of the Roots and Wings design it has adopted. Children are grouped for reading by ability rather than by age, and they are tested and regrouped every six weeks. Students spend large portions of each day working in teams or with a partner. A tutor provides individual help to the neediest 1st graders. And a family-support team addresses noneducational problems that might interfere with learning.

A few miles away at Graves Elementary School, which also serves a predominantly poor African-American community, teachers have decided that children will learn better if they can see some purpose to what they are studying. So they have adopted the Audrey Cohen College design, which organizes each grade around such themes as "we work for safety" or "we build a family-school partnership."

One demonstrable result of the changes at the school is a 1st grade class' successful request to the city for a new "no left turn" sign on a nearby street.

"Personally, I think all schools, even though they're in the same district, are different," says Principal Commodore C. Primous. "They have different personalities, and their neighborhoods are different. When you force something on a person, you don't get the kind of productivity you do when people go with change willingly," he says. "I think that's healthy for the whole district."

If nothing else, the large number of schools pursuing a design has sent a resounding message that Memphis is serious about reform. "It has engendered a lot of community recognition and support," maintains House. "The downside has been managing that much change."

That has been particularly true given the rapidity with which New American Schools launched its scale-up strategy. Jurisdictions such as Memphis had less than six months between March 1995, when they were selected, and the time classes began in the fall.

Several, Memphis among them, held design fairs to help match schools with designs. Groups of teachers, parents, and administrators from interested schools listened to design teams' presentations and could ask questions. Memphis also paid for some teachers and principals to visit schools that had already implemented a design. And it encouraged schools to submit formal proposals explaining how a specific design supported its school-improvement plan.

Mile Three of a Marathon

Even so, studies by the RAND Corp.--which is under contract to evaluate New American Schools--and by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Memphis suggest that many schools selected designs based on limited information.

Schools were unaccustomed to working in teams, lacked familiarity with new forms of assessment and pedagogy, and had not analyzed the problems at their site.

Some schools' staff thought that by choosing a design, they would get free computers or receive extra money and resources. Teachers at one school told researchers they had been sold on the design by trainers and school administrators only to discover that they would need to rewrite their entire curriculum, a task for which they felt unprepared.

In many jurisdictions, schools lacked the readiness to adopt a design. They were unaccustomed to working in teams, lacked familiarity with new forms of assessment and pedagogy, and had not analyzed the problems at their site.

The design teams, which were just beginning to market their services, struggled to explain their designs accurately and to clarify the cost of the technical assistance they would be providing.

An October 1995 survey of Memphis teachers who had participated in summer training sessions offered by the design teams found that about one-third were unsure how the design would affect their school; about one-fifth thought it would have a negative impact.

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