Published Online: February 12, 1997


Designs for Learning

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For the next four years, RAND plans to track test scores in 225 participating schools.

"It's very scattered and piecemeal," admits Anderson. "We will take the districts' measures, and we will look at incremental change and common data categories across sites, but disparities in the ways data are collected and analyzed remain. That's a built-in flaw." Even attendance, he notes ruefully, is calculated differently from one district to the next.

By 1996, the design teams had reported that many schools had experienced improvements in attendance and completion rates and a reduction in disciplinary incidents. Schools also were beginning to see glimpses of gains in student achievement. For the next four years, RAND plans to track test scores in 225 participating schools. It also will examine changes in the behavior and engagement of students, as reported by teachers and principals, as well as changes in teaching practices. But it still may be difficult to get a coherent picture of the improvements.

The more immediate question for Memphis--and for New American Schools--is how to expand its efforts while providing enough support for individual schools.

"Memphis has a tremendous challenge in terms of financing expansion," says Kilgore of the Modern Red Schoolhouse. "And that may be the disadvantage of the jurisdictional model, whether they can really finance so much scale-up."

The school system paid for the initial training provided by the design teams through a combination of funding provided by New American Schools, an allocation from the district's general fund, and a redeployment of federal Title I funds.

But in a system spending only about $4,900 per pupil this school year, many schools lack the technology that some of the designs require. And the district, like most, does not have a permanent source of funding for school-level innovation.

The issue will become even more acute in the next few years when each school will be expected to identify a research-based design for raising student achievement.

Ironically, finding the money to bankroll school improvement may be easiest in high-poverty schools.

"In most jurisdictions, the initial resources for the first schools have been there," says Diana Nunnaley, the director of national program development for the Co-NECT school design. "But as the program is successful, and as new schools want to become Co-NECT schools, it's becoming more difficult for the districts to make that possible. And then it comes down to rethinking and reallocating how they're using their funds."

Allan R. Odden, a professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, insists that it is doable. He is working to figure out the costs of New American Schools designs and how districts can pay for them.

Odden calculates that in a 500-student school with one principal and 20 classroom teachers, the average cost for a design ranges from $200 to $700 extra in per-pupil spending. That amount includes professional development, materials, an instructional facilitator, and such design-specific features as a tutor or enhanced technology.

"These costs are well within the reach of any school that's funded at or above the national average," he asserts.

Ironically, finding the money to bankroll school improvement may be easiest in high-poverty schools, where federal Title I funds are available for whole-school change. Other schools may have a hard time halting existing programs or reconfiguring staffing to finance such designs. Odden suggests that educators have a hard time conceiving of these enterprises as whole-school designs and that other piecemeal initiatives within the school should cease.

In Memphis, it is unlikely that the first 34 schools will receive a large influx of new money anytime soon. And whether the district can sustain its current level of support for the reforms--a level above traditional norms--is uncertain.

"Even at the very best schools, teachers are saying, 'We've seen this before. When will it go away,'" observes Ross, the University of Memphis professor. Without the strong leadership provided by Superintendent House, he asserts, "I don't think you could do it at all."

"Some feel they are just going to wait it out until this restructuring ends," agrees Elsie Lewis Bailey, the principal of Booker T. Washington High School, which has adopted the ATLAS Communities design. "But they don't know Gerry House."

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