Current Events

September 01, 1992 15 min read

Designing New American Schools

One of the most closely watched grant competitions in American education came to a close this summer when the New American Schools Development Corp. selected 11 design teams out of 686 competitors to pursue their visions of radically different and more productive schools. The size of the individual awards is still being negotiated, as are the benchmarks that the design teams must meet.

The list of winners ranges from some of the biggest names in American education—James Comer, Theodore Sizer, Marc Tucker, to name a few—to grassroots community efforts, and from one side of the political spectrum to the other. William 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.

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.

Another striking feature of the award-winning designs is how many ideas they have in common. For example, most of the proposals stress the use of multiage classrooms that enable students to progress at their own pace. A number attempt to “personalize” education through the use of advisers, smaller groupings of students and teachers who stay together for 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.

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.

“From my point of view, what is at issue here is not break-the-mold schools, but break-the-mold systems,” says Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “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.”

American business leaders created the “new schools” corporation a year ago, at the request of the White House, to raise some $200 million for the design and implementation of a new generation of schools.

Despite its private, nonprofit status, the corporation has been widely regarded as a Bush initiative, an affiliation that may have hurt its fund-raising during an election year. (As of early August, it had only raised one-quarter of its goal.)

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

Sucker Savior

James Jemtrud, a kindergartner from Fargo, N.D., had a problem. He’d start a lollipop but then wouldn’t be able to finish it. No big deal except that it bugged James to throw out his half-sucked sucker. So, figuring he wasn’t the only person with this problem, James sat down and invented the “Sucker Tucker” (which he demonstrates above). It earned him local, state, and regional honors and a spot among the 45 finalists in the 1992 Invent America competition. Administered by the nonprofit U.S. Patent Model Foundation with corporate support, the contest is designed to encourage kids to create inventions to solve problems. Other finalists this year included Wall, N.J., 3rd grader Daniel Buckley, inventor of “The Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder,” and Lake Mills, Wis., 4th grader Clint Lenz for his “Glow in the Dark Toilet Seat.” Since the contest’s inception in 1987, more than 30,000 K8th grade students have participated. This year’s winners, one from each grade level, were announced at a Washington, D.C., award ceremony in July.

Residential School For Low Achievers

Residential schools have long been a fixture in American education. But the opportunity to attend such schools has rarely been extended to poor, low-performing students. The Paterson, N.J., school system is hoping to change that.

The district plans to open a voluntary, tuition-free residential program for high school students whose academic performance falls at or below grade level. Although the full Paterson Residential Program is not scheduled to begin until the fall of 1993, a pilot version was offered this past summer. Approximately 75 high school juniors spent four weeks at Upsala College in East Orange taking academic courses.

“We would like to change the lives of our students by providing a total environment conducive to academic success,” says Laval Wilson, the state-appointed district superintendent. State officials assumed control of the district last year under New Jersey’s academic-bankruptcy law.

The full-year program is expected to start with 75 of the district’s nearly 1,000 juniors in the 1993-94 school year and to expand to a four-grade high school of 300 students by the fall of 1995. Officials hope the students selected will represent a cross section of the district’s enrollment, which is 47 percent Hispanic, 42 percent black, and 9 percent white.

A location for the school has not yet been selected, but startup and initial operating costs are expected to run about $2.5 million. While Wilson will seek funds from foundations and corporations, he says he hopes to obtain “large grants” from the federal government to help pay for the program.

Teach For America Faces Cash Crunch

Teach For America, the nonprofit national teacher corps that began in 1989 as the brainchild of a Princeton University under- graduate, is facing the prospect of ending its fiscal year this month with a budget deficit of more than $3 million.

The high-profile organization, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in inner-city and rural public schools with shortages of credentialed teachers, has raised only $3.8 million of its $7 million budget for this year, TFA officials said in late July. Nevertheless, the group, which has grown rapidly from its inception and a first-year budget of $2.5 million, plans to expand its network this fall from 10 teaching sites to 12 by adding Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The cash crunch comes just as the program has graduated its charter group of corps members—60 percent of whom plan to stay in teaching—and redesigned its pre-service training institute and two-year course of professional development for corps members.

The group’s founder, Wendy Kopp, readily acknowledges the organization’s shaky financial condition but says she is not alarmed. “Our financial situation has not really changed since day one,” she says. “It’s still hand to mouth.” But if TFA ends the fiscal year with a significant shortfall, the group will have to scale back its operations.

For an organization that has grown so rapidly, “this kind of problem should not be unexpected,” says Mary Leonard of the Council on Foundations. “They’re having growing pains.”

Recognizing the need to diversify their fund-raising and to ensure the source of long-term operating revenue, TFA officials are considering a number of different strategies. For example, the group has placed more emphasis on local and regional funders in the areas where corps members teach, and two specific funding ventures have already started to move forward.

At least eight individuals in the Los Angeles area have agreed to donate $5,000 to adopt a corps member, and negotiations are underway with an unnamed “high-volume consumer goods company” to develop a cause-related marketing campaign that would send a portion of the profits from sales to TFA. Other possible strategies include seeking out new or existing sources of federal funding and launching a direct-mail campaign.

New Credential Removes Barriers

More than 200 teachers in seven Northeastern states have used a regional credential introduced in 1989 to obtain certification expeditiously when they moved to another state within the area, according to a new study of the project.

The credential, which was put in place to remove some of the professional barriers educators face when they relocate to neighboring states, functions somewhat like a work permit. It allows teachers to become certified immediately provided that they agree to fulfill any additional requirements in their new state within two years.

The Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, a private, nonprofit organization that assists state education agencies, began issuing the credential in late 1989 after it was formally adopted by the seven participating states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

The study, which was conducted by the lab, found that 69 percent of 389 credential holders surveyed thought it increased their opportunities for employment. Sixty-eight percent of school officials in 35 districts employing credential holders said it enabled them to hire teachers from a wider pool of candidates.

The lab’s report also notes, however, that the credential is not universally accepted by districts in the region. About one-third of the teachers surveyed said the certificate did not expand their employment opportunities because district officials either were not familiar with it or preferred to hire educators already licensed to teach in the state.

The credential is one element of a broader initiative by the Northeast lab to create a “common market” that would give educators in the region greater professional mobility. Other components include pension portability and the development of a computer database on employment trends.

Graduation Rates On The Rise

Newly released data from the 1990 Census provide additional evidence that the high school graduation rate is rising, particularly among minorities.

Among all Americans age 25 and older, the data show, 75.2 percent had a high school diploma or its equivalent, compared with 66.5 percent in 1980. Among blacks, the attainment rate over the decade rose from 51.2 percent to 63.1 percent, more than double the 1970 level.

Previous reports have shown similar trends. But the new data—the first to provide state-by-state breakdowns by race—also show that the Hispanic high school attainment rate, which remained flat nationally in the 1980s, rose in many states. And they show for the first time that the attainment rate of American Indians increased sharply from 1980 to 1990.

“There has been fairly substantial improvement in high school completion among all groups,” says Robert Kominski, the chief of the education branch in the population division in the U.S. Census Bureau. However, he cautions, the graduation rate for minorities continues to lag behind whites and will continue to do so for many decades at the current pace. Over time, as the older, less-educated members of minority groups die, Kominski says, the minorities’ rates will equal that of whites. “But ‘over time’ here,” he says, “is a very long time—probably two generations.”

Geography Scores Are ‘Encouraging’

U.S. students, often ranked at the bottom on international assessments of geographical knowledge, scored only slightly below average on a small-scale geography test of 13-year-olds in nine nations.

The 24-question test was conducted by the Educational Testing Service as part of its 1991 Second International Assessment of Educational Progress. The assessment measured math and science skills of students from 20 countries. Nine of those nations also opted to have their students participate in the pilot geography test.

American 13-year-olds answered an average of 61.9 percent of the geography questions correctly. Students in Hungary, Slovenia, Canada, and the now-defunct Soviet Union, on average, did better. Students in Spain, Korea, Ireland, and Scotland scored lower. Only 11.5 percentage points, however, separated the average scores of the highest performing nation—Hungary—and the lowest, Scotland.

Many educators were eagerly awaiting the results. Geography is making a comeback in the curriculum of the nation’s schools, and educators were hoping the tests would provide evidence that this renewed emphasis on the subject is beginning to pay off.

Archie Lapointe, director of the center for the assessment of educational programs at the ETS, called the geography test data “encouraging.”

“The results,” he says, “showed our students do know how to interpret maps, and they did have some understanding of cultural geography.”

But Lapointe cautions against drawing sweeping conclusions about what students know about geography from the study, which was conducted only to determine whether a valid international geography test could be undertaken in the future. A more thorough performance assessment, he says, would have three times as many questions.

NEA Attacks Bush And Backs Clinton

As one would expect during an election year, the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly meeting in Washington, D.C., this summer was peppered with fiery political rhetoric, much of it aimed at the Bush administration.

In his keynote speech to the 8,660 delegates, union president Keith Geiger gave President Bush an F for his failure to make children a national priority. As the convention opened, Geiger also predicted that the union would vote to endorse Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in his bid for the presidency.

The delegates were not scheduled to vote on the endorsement until the last day of the meeting. But Geiger asked the union’s political action committee to change the voting date to July 6, one day before Clinton was scheduled to address the group, so that the candidate could personally receive the NEA endorsement. The union’s politicos turned Geiger down, arguing that members should not be asked to make an endorsement until they had had a chance to question Clinton and hear his remarks.

The jockeying didn’t matter much; 88 percent of the assembled members voted to endorse the governor, the highest vote of approval the NEA has given a presidential hopeful since the union began endorsing candidates in 1976.

One of the questions asked of Clinton by the delegates was whether he would consider appointing a “public school educator” to be secretary of education. “You’re the first person who ever asked me,” he responded. “I don’t want to promise that, since I never thought about it.” As the candidate answered the question, the assembly broke into chants of “Mary, Mary, Mary,” a reminder of just how popular Mary Hatwood Futrell, the immediate past president of the NEA, remains.

The lovefest between the NEA and Clinton drew a quick and sharp rebuke from current Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. The usually low-key Cabinet member unloaded both barrels at the teachers’ union, charging that the NEA was backing Clinton because “they will support the candidate who promises them the most dollars for the least amount of change.” The NEA, he said, “only likes people it can control.” Clinton, he charged, passed up an opportunity to speak to the teachers about the need for “radical change,” talking instead about the union’s “agenda.”

Standardized testing proved almost as unpopular at the NEA convention as the Bush administration. The delegates adopted a resolution flatly opposing standardized testing mandated by a state or national authority. They also condemned using such tests to compare schools and school districts.

In addition, the delegates gave a mixed reception to a plan, backed by union’s board of directors, to restructure and “streamline” the organization, deleting or modifying several important recommendations. For example, the assembly rejected a plan to revise the union’s dues structure and modified a proposal to enable the national organization to assume control of troubled state affiliates.

The assembly also voted to allow NEA officials to continue studying the idea of merging the union with the rival American Federation of Teachers.

Downsized Military Limits Job Options

The drastic downsizing of the U.S. military, combined with higher absolute standards for recruits on tests and other measures, is curtailing job opportunities for thousands of high school graduates who had looked to the armed forces as an accessible route to advancement.

The decrease in openings, particularly in the Army, will have an especially profound impact on young blacks, many observers predict. They note that blacks have joined the military in disproportionate numbers, finding it a relatively color-blind employer to which they are more likely than whites to devote their careers. The military has also been an important source of educational aid for young people who cannot afford to enter college right after high school.

“An opportunity and a lack of stigma—that’s what the Army offered,” says Charlie Moskos, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University who has done extensive research on the armed forces. The shrinking pool of military jobs, he adds, “is catastrophic for the minority community especially.”

Because of the smaller number of total positions in the post-Cold War military, and a greater need for recruits who have the ability to handle increasingly sophisticated technology, the military is placing heavier emphasis on the educational qualifications of its applicants. While in years past the military was open to those without a high school diploma who may have been functionally illiterate or have had an arrest record, standards have become progressively tougher. “The quality is definitely going up,” says Lt. Col. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesperson. “Does that leave some people out on the other end? Yes, I’m afraid it does.”

Does the overall drop in demand for recruits mean that schools will be seeing fewer military recruiters? Not necessarily. Field recruiters say they have not changed their on-campus recruitment practices because of the continuing need to seek out high-quality candidates.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Current Events