Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Designs for Learning

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All the designs have shown some progress in the majority of schools, and no school has withdrawn from the initiative.

"It seems inevitable to me that the first 34 schools in Memphis simply had much less information on what these designs were," says Johns Hopkins' Stringfield, who is participating in a study of the Memphis restructuring initiative along with colleagues at the University of Memphis. "It wouldn't surprise me or disappoint me if 10 or 15 of the original 34 schools opted out."

Implementation varies widely across the schools in Memphis. But all the designs have shown some progress in the majority of schools, and no school has withdrawn from the initiative. Nearly every design added schools in the 1996-97 school year. Not surprisingly, those schools that made the most progress in the first year had strong administrative leadership, designs that closely matched the school's existing beliefs and practices, and previous experience in carrying out reforms.

"Memphis," observes Stringfield, "is at mile three of a marathon."

In some jurisdictions, New American Schools continues to be a robust vehicle for promoting reform. In other places, it has been subsumed by local politics or overshadowed by the revolving door of urban superintendents and school board members.

"It's very uneven," contends Robert E. Slavin, the director of Roots and Wings and a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. "Frankly, of the 10 jurisdictions, maybe three have the remotest semblance of what New American Schools had in mind. School districts, at the outset, promised all kinds of things. And the best of them have not delivered."

'Guerilla Warfare'

San Diego's efforts have been stalled by a bitter teachers' strike and the school board's decision to search for a new superintendent. Thirty-two of Philadelphia's 257 schools have adopted a design. But the initiative remains barely visible, given the broader fights being waged about the future of the school district.

Cincinnati focused much of its energy on reorganizing the central office and creating a climate that would be conducive to change. But now, it, too, is engaged in a struggle with teachers over the direction that reform should take. And in Maryland, where New American Schools has partnered with the state education department, it must still win adherents at the district level.

One of the most promising sites is San Antonio, where Superintendent Diana Lam has assigned an instructional facilitator to each school to help guide schoolwide reform.

"School change is like guerilla warfare," argues Sally B. Kilgore, the director of the Modern Red Schoolhouse design. "You win the hearts and minds of teachers one by one."

She complains that school systems have a hard time advocating simultaneously for multiple designs. "When you're in a district with all seven designs, you risk becoming part of a charm on somebody's charm bracelet."

But other design teams say their work would have been even harder without the advocacy and intervention that New American Schools has provided.

"What it allows us to do is to concentrate our resources and energy on communities in which there is a climate of receptivity," says Janith Jordan, the vice president of Audrey Cohen College. "On assessments, on standards, on resource allocation, New American Schools is trying to make the environment receptive to doing things in new ways. This will save us a decade."

'Your Hand Was Held'

Once a highly centralized bureaucracy, Memphis is working diligently to rethink the way it does business.

It has divided the district into 12 clusters, each with a lead principal, to improve communication between schools and the central office. It has reduced the executive leadership team to six people, including an executive director for school redesign, training, and development.

Not all teachers are comfortable with their newfound authority.

The school system has assigned a central-office facilitator to each design team to provide schools with support, and it is in the process of giving schools more control over their budgets. Moreover, it is working with a pilot group of 48 schools to help teachers teach to the new standards.

But providing technical assistance to schools is a new role for many of the central-office staff who are learning about the designs at the same time as the schools. And not all teachers are comfortable with their newfound authority.

"We were a centralized district, and now we've gone into decentralization," says Alice Faye Duncan, the librarian at Manor Lake Elementary School. "I don't know yet which is best. I happened to like the fact that under centralization, your hand was held and you really couldn't make a lot of mistakes."

Adds Duncan, "I think in time we're going to have to look and see if all of these designs are really progressive, or if it's just another thing that failed."

Like many teachers, Duncan is willing to give the designs a chance. And the Memphis Education Association has supported the school system's efforts. The union agreed to an addendum to the teachers' contract that makes it easier for schools to adopt a design. Teachers at schools who do not agree with a design can request a transfer, either at the end of the first semester or at the end of the school year. Principals also can request to move resistant teachers. The addendum has been used only a handful of times, but principals say it has made their job easier.

"There's a new level of mutual respect," says Richard Potts, the principal of Idlewild Elementary School, which has adopted the Co-NECT design. "I'm not moving people because of a whim or a personality clash."

Across the jurisdictions, the RAND Corp. has found, teachers' unions are generally supportive of change. But it cautions that many provisions in union contracts, particularly those focused on working conditions, ultimately could inhibit the use of designs on a broad scale.

Potts, who spent 10 years in the central office as a curriculum coordinator, says the school system is finally placing schools on the front line, where the action should have been all along. But he adds: "It's required a level of expertise never called for by building-level administrators before. It used to be if you were a good disciplinarian, you could handle a school. Now, that's the least of your problems."

Getting at least 60 percent of the faculty and 90 percent of a school's leadership council to agree on a design, as Memphis requires, has proved especially difficult for turf-torn high schools. Across all the jurisdictions, far more elementary schools than high schools are participating, and progress has been slower at the secondary level. Of the initial 34 schools in Memphis, for instance, only five were high schools.

Memphis also is one of two districts designated a "break the mold district" by the state.

Teachers and principals in most jurisdictions also report a conflict between the designs--which typically emphasize long-term projects, interdisciplinary teaching, and multiage grouping--and traditional accountability measures.

That is especially true in Memphis, which must report scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, a high-stakes standardized test that is used to rate schools and teachers.

The school system plans to design its own performance assessments geared to its new standards. Memphis also is one of two districts designated a "break the mold district" by the state, theoretically freeing it from many state rules and regulations. But so far, it is unclear how much maneuverability it will have.

"There's a concern that the designs at many of the schools are working, but that won't be reflected" in the test, says Steven M. Ross, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Memphis, part of a team of researchers from Memphis and Johns Hopkins universities who are evaluating the restructuring initiative. The first-year evaluation, summarized in a forthcoming issue of the journal School Effectiveness and School Improvement, found that every school voiced concerns that the designs were not correlated more closely with the testing objectives.

Interviews with 20 New American Schools principals from around the country found similar results in 1995. More than half of them told researcher Karen J. Mitchell that state and district tests were driving schools to focus on basic skills and traditional teaching at the expense of the designs.

The reliance on state-devised tests also poses problems in evaluating the effects of the designs. Early on, the corporation realized it could not require all jurisdictions to administer the same test. So it has relied upon the information that districts already collect.

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