Fast Company: November/December 1994

By Jo Anna Natale — April 01, 2000 6 min read

No one is more surprised than Henry Levin at how quickly an idea can turn into a movement—or a university professor into a guru. When Teacher Magazine wrote about Levin in 1994, the popularity of his Accelerated Schools Project was already considerable: Back then, 700 schools in 34 states subscribed to his view that the best way to improve achievement for disadvantaged children was to speed up their instruction—in essence, to teach them like gifted and talented kids.

Six years later, Levin’s ideas have far greater reach. The project has spread to 1,300 schools in 41 states, with several copycat efforts under way in countries such as Spain, Austria, and Australia. “It’s gone beyond anything that I ever would’ve expected,” says Levin, who quietly launched his model in 1986 at two California schools.

Growth, however, inevitably brings change, and the Accelerated Schools Project is in the midst of major renovations. Most significant, Levin, who has heart problems, is distancing himself from the project’s day-to-day operations, assuming instead what he calls an ambassador’s role. “It’s time to sit back and do some accounting,” says the 61-year-old Levin, who retired last spring from his post as professor of economics and education at Stanford University to help create the National Center for the Study of Privatization, a research group at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I want to look at where we’ve done well and where we could do better, and I’d like to do some writing about it.”

In addition to leadership changes, the project has a new home. Long based at Stanford with Levin, the national headquarters has moved east—to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where it is affiliated with the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Levin says the association is a natural one. “Our premise is that the best way to work with at-risk students is to provide them enrichment rather than remediation. Here, our partners will be the premier center for dealing with research on gifted and talented education.”

When Levin first introduced the acceleration concept, it was a real eyebrow-raiser. Schools then were heavily into tracking children, offering academically troubled kids slower-paced instruction. To test his polar-opposite theory, Levin signed up two San Francisco Bay-area elementary schools brimming with low-performing pupils. The schools accelerated the children’s lessons and worked through what is perhaps the most onerous part of Levin’s model: giving staff, parents, and students a voice in key decisions. In time, students at both schools made impressive gains, and other schools began to inquire and sign up.

Still, as popular as the Accelerated Schools Project has become, it is not an unqualified success. One problem that has dogged the program, Levin says, is the way districts reassign principals without regard to their training or philosophy and with no respect for their influence over schools. Both San Francisco-area schools that pioneered Levin’s ideas, for example, lost the principals who had championed the approach and consequently abandoned the model.

Such was also the case with Thomas Edison Elementary, the Sacramento accelerated school Teacher Magazine visited for its story on Levin. In the early 1990s, Edison became Levin’s showcase school—and for good reason. By 1994, just three years after adopting the accelerated-schools approach, Edison was charting remarkable gains. Student test scores were up, suspensions were down, and Edison—once a school people tried to avoid—boasted a waiting list for every grade.

“The major shift that I saw was the degree of ownership that came into that building among staff, community, and students,” says Gene Chasin, Edison’s principal back then. “For students, there were tremendous changes in their feelings about school. Overall, they were more excited about learning.”

At the time, Edison teachers praised Chasin, both as a principal and as a reform partner. Privately, however, they voiced concern that the accelerated- schools program would crumble at the school should Chasin leave. They were right to worry. When Chasin left for another job a short time later, the school dropped out of the project.

Although Levin regrets what happened at Edison and his first two project schools, he says the experiences taught him to pay attention to how districts pick principals. “Now, if we hear that a principal is leaving,” he says, “we try to get to the district to talk about maintaining the reform efforts that are under way. Sustained leadership is very important.”

As for Chasin, he didn’t stray far from the accelerated-schools camp. After leaving Edison, he became head of elementary instruction in Durham, North Carolina, where he oversaw several schools following the Levin model. He later signed on as superintendent of the Nashoba Regional School District in Bolton, Massachusetts, which not only operates an accelerated elementary school but applies accelerated concepts at the middle- and high- school levels, as well.

Chasin recently changed positions again. His new job: He’s taken over from Levin as director of the Accelerated Schools Project. “I’m passionate about it,” he says. “For me, it’s been the driving force in my career ever since I first became familiar with the model.”

Both Chasin and Levin see challenges ahead, some of them involving the project’s rapid expansion. A critical concern is quality control. “We’ve actually tried to restrict growth a bit,” Levin says. “We want to be sure we have the capacity to work with schools, and we want to be sure this is something they really want to do.”

Chasin believes the national project needs to expand its network of regional centers to ensure that school’s adopting the model have proper training and support. He’s also convinced that the project needs to further develop the accelerated model—originally an elementary program—for middle and high schools. “There’s pressure to grow up as we have students leaving one school and moving to another,” Chasin says.

Meanwhile, outside observers are pressuring project leaders to provide convincing evidence that the accelerated-school model works. Three years ago, the project got what amounted to a federal endorsement when Congress placed it on a list of 17 school-improvement programs that districts could adopt to qualify for reform money. But last year, a national study of 25 popular reform models gave it something of a black eye, claiming there was no real evidence that accelerated schools are more effective than others. The report, issued by the American Institutes for Research, said too few studies had compared standardized test scores of accelerated schools with those of similar schools not involved in the project.

Levin offers two comments about the report: First, he doesn’t believe that test scores should be the primary criterion for judging the success of schools, particularly accelerated schools, which encourage creativity and independent student work. And second, while he concedes that few studies have compared accelerated schools with others, he insists there is plenty of evidence showing that his schools have a strong pattern of achievement. “If you look at the year-to-year gains within a school,” he says, “we have loads of research that show improvement.”

That said, Levin points to a recent University of Memphis study examining how students in that city’s schools fared on state-mandated standardized tests between 1995 and 1998. A number of the schools were aligned with specific reform strategies, with several following the accelerated model.

Steve Ross, the professor who conducted the study, confirms that “it did benefit schools to have chosen [the project] rather than to have done nothing.” He adds, however, that schools using Levin’s approach weren’t the only ones to show improvement, nor were they the ones posting the greatest gains.

The real test, Levin believes, is yet to come. “Our greatest success,” he says, “will be if no one has ever heard of ‘accelerated schools’ 15 years from now. I hope it’s so accepted as a way of educating students that there’s no reason to call it ‘accelerated schools'—it’ll be just the way of doing things.”