11 Design Teams To Pursue Their Visions of ‘Break the Mold’ Schools

By Lynn Olson — August 05, 1992 9 min read

But several continued to wonder--in private--whether the new-schools corporation would be around to support them beyond the coming year. And some acknowledged that, even with the NASDC money, they would have to go elsewhere for funding to pull off their ambitious plans.

One of the most closely watched grant competitions in American education came to a close last month when the New American Schools Development Corporation selected 11 design teams out of 686 competitors to pursue their visions of radically different and more productive schools.

The small number of grant recipients has prompted some losers to express disappointment and disgruntlement and to question whether money problems were at the heart of the private, nonprofit corporation’s decision to scale back the scope of the project. (See related story, page 48.)

Responding to a request from the White House, American businessmen created the private foundation a year ago to raise some $200 million for the design and implementation of a new generation of “break the mold’’ schools. So far, it has raised only $50 million.

NASDC had originally anticipated underwriting 20 to 30 proposals. But officials said the final number had nothing to do with the organization’s fund-raising difficulties.

“It doesn’t reflect the slow pace of fund-raising,’' Ann D. McLaughlin, the president and chief executive officer of NASDC, said at last month’s press conference here to announce the winners. “These are the ones that met the criteria.’'

Ms. McLaughlin said the new-schools corporation decided to fund fewer proposals for a larger amount of money and, possibly, to stick with them over the next five years.

The size of the individual awards is still being negotiated, along with the benchmarks that the design teams must meet.

The list of winners ranges from some of the biggest names in American education to grassroots community efforts, and from one side of the political spectrum to the other. William J. Bennett, the former Secretary of Education under President Reagan, heads up one design team. Another includes the state of Arkansas, home to Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic contender for President.

The scope of the designs also varies widely. One group proposes to work with only two schools initially. Another pledges to create 243 newly designed schools in seven states by 1995.

‘A Lot More Complicated’

But most striking is the lack of educational outsiders in a competition intended to spark innovative ideas from a broad array of businesses, communities, and interest groups.

Although private corporations, civic groups, and others are all members of design teams, the lead players typically have a long and sustained involvement in education reform.

Even Bolt Beranek & Newman Inc., the one private, for-profit firm that put together an award-winning proposal, has a 25-year history of research and development in the field of education technology.

“I think it is a commentary on education being a lot more complicated than people think,’' said Denis P. Doyle, a senior fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute and a member of an award-winning team. “It’s rather an easy notion to assume that any enterprising defense contractor or management-consulting firm could just zip in there and transform the schools. I think it’s just a much tougher problem than that.’'

Indeed, many members of award-winning design teams, such as James P. Comer, the director of the School Development Program at the Yale Child Study Center, have been laboring in the field for years, often without recognition.

“For the first time, at a national level, we’ve been supported in that kind of commitment,’' said Christine Gutierrez, the assistant coordinator of the Humanitas Program at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles and a member of another winning team.

‘Gone for Solid’

Observers generally praised the mixture of award recipients and predicted that NASDC’s decision to focus on those with a track record would help its fund-raising efforts.

“My concern was that they’d go for flaky, and they’ve gone for solid,’' said Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and the project director of one of the award-winning teams. “They’re not leaning out as far as they might have.’'

Mary K. Leonard, the director of precollegiate-education programs at the Council on Foundations, said, “It makes tremendous sense for them to have a really good flagship set of grants, so that they can go to people, and they’re no longer buying a pig in a poke.’'

But why corporations would choose to give their money to NASDC rather than funding an award-winning proposal directly, she said, remains to be seen.

Despite its private, nonprofit status, the new-schools corporation has been widely regarded as a Bush initiative, an affiliation that has also hurt its fund-raising during an election year.

Members of the Administration were noticeably absent from the podium during the press conference to announce the award recipients. But President Bush released a statement extending his congratulations to the winners.

Whether a Clinton Administration would continue to support and encourage NASDC’s efforts, if only on a rhetorical level, is unknown.

‘New Conventional Wisdom’

Another striking feature of the award-winning designs is how many ideas they have in common, or what one observer jokingly referred to as the “new conventional wisdom.’'

Most of the proposals stress the use of multi-age classrooms that enable students to progress at their own pace. A number of them attempt to “personalize’’ education through the use of advisers, smaller groupings of students and teachers that stay together over several years, and individual learning contracts.

Teaching methods that are widely recognized as effective--such as cooperative learning and hands-on, project-oriented activities--pop up in nearly every proposal. Similarly, most include a much stronger focus on character development and community service than is now present in schools. And many attempt to blur the line between in-school and out-of-school learning.

New forms of performance-based assessment, more extensive professional development for teachers, and a more flexible use of time--including longer school days and years--are also themes that run through most of the designs.

‘Frozen in Amber’

Many also focus on the development of a more integrated, articulated curriculum, including the use of interdisciplinary teaching.

And, partly in deference to the first of the national education goals--"All children in America will start school ready to learn’'--nearly every proposal talks about increasing coordination between education, health, and social-service providers.

This convergence around a common set of ideas has led some observers to complain that nothing really new emerges in the designs. But others note that all of the concepts together have not been put into practice in one school before--and, particularly, not in an entire school system.

“If we had to do it from scratch, I would say it’s hopeless,’' said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a member of a design team.

“From my point of view,’' he added, “what is at issue here is not break-the-mold schools, but break-the-mold systems. What none of us has yet succeeded in doing is breaking the back of the current system and creating in its place a new system.’'

Nonetheless, Mr. Slavin worried that the wording of the request for proposals “set into stone all the beliefs and biases of this particular point in history.’'

“They almost demanded that you put into your proposal all the things that were considered hot right now,’' he said. “What they’ve done is they’ve frozen 1992 in amber. And they’re going to learn from this.’'

‘Grab Bags of Ideas’

Interviews with members of NASDC’s Education Advisory Panel and with individual proposal readers suggest that the quality and the innovativeness of the 686 proposals submitted to the corporation varied widely.

“In the E.A.P., we didn’t feel that--maybe we could have gone to 20, but certainly not 30,’' said Herbert J. Walberg, a research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the advisory group.

“A lot of applications didn’t pass the test of being truly break the mold,’' agreed Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and another member of the advisory panel. “What we got were grab bags of ideas that are current and fashionable thrown all into one school.’'

Other readers said that many school districts and independent schools seemed to think that merely describing what they were already doing was adequate.

Other proposals failed to question some of the basic assumptions about schooling, such as its hierarchical organization or the isolation of teachers in classrooms.

“There were a number of earnest proposals,’' said Conrad D. Snowden, the executive director of the D.C. Committee on Public Education and a proposal reader, “and some were earnest and good, and some were earnest and naive.’'

‘Shot in the Arm’

For the winners, their designation as NASDC recipients means more than just money. It also provides an external validation of their efforts that could help them raise funds elsewhere, attract first-rate people to their projects, and smooth the political waters back home.

“This is a very large shot in the arm for us,’' Mr. Tucker said.

Others talked about the advantages of receiving money for planning and development--not just for implementation--and of the attraction to designing whole schools and school systems, rather than just pieces of them.

“All of us, working separately, had recognized areas of weakness and areas where we needed strengthening,’' Dr. Comer of Yale said. “We believe that the synergism of coming together will create something that is greater than the parts, and, in that sense, we will have something new.’'

But several continued to wonder--in private--whether the new-schools corporation would be around to support them beyond the coming year. And some acknowledged that, even with the NASDC money, they would have to go elsewhere for funding to pull off their ambitious plans.

Other observers questioned whether even the best demonstration projects could survive in the absence of more widespread changes in the system of education nationwide.

“All of these things have been tried, and, under the right circumstances, they’ll all be successful for a while,’' said Marshall S. Smith, the dean of the school of education at Stanford University. “The problem is sustaining any of this. You can plant a thousand flowers, and, if they’re not continuously watered and nurtured, they’re not going to continue blooming.’'

Marilyn Willis, the principal of Calloway County Middle School in Murray, Ky., expressed a similar concern during a meeting of the National Alliance design team that took place in Sagamore, N.Y., the week of the announcement. “The crucial thing is, once we leave Sagamore and go back to Calloway County, that we’re not killed by the system,’' she said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as 11 Design Teams To Pursue Their Visions of ‘Break the Mold’ Schools