Losers in Design Competition Grouse, But Many Pledge To Continue Projects

By Lynn Olson — August 05, 1992 7 min read

Mr. Peterkin also worried that there might be a backlash among corporate funders, who have complained in the past about having to reduce their own agendas to help fund the new-schools corporation.

And several complained that they might not have entered the labor-intensive competition if they had known how few proposals would be selected.

NASDC is the private, nonprofit corporation created by American businessmen last July, at the request of President Bush, to underwrite a new generation of “break the mold’’ schools.

Corporate officials had anticipated funding between 20 and 30 projects in their first round of awards this summer. Instead, they ended up choosing only 11 winners out of 686 competitors. (See story, page 1.)

“That totally violated the game rules,’' complained Timothy J. Dyer, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, whose organization had convened a design team of more than 65 partners from around the country.

“If I knew the odds were going to be as long,’' agreed Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University, which also put together an unsuccessful design team, “I might have been better off spending my time applying to a foundation or begging from Harvard.’'

Mr. Peterkin estimated that more than 25 percent of his time in the past nine months had been spent working on the proposal.

Applicants complained, in particular, about the secretive nature of the selection process.

“We’re not sure we’ll ever see how we were ranked, or where our proposal was weak or strong,’' Mr. Dyer said.

Others wondered at what stage their designs were dropped from the competition; the extent to which costs entered into the equation; and whether their intentions to focus on whole states--as opposed to schools or school districts--helped or hurt them.

Many speculated that the main reason the corporation funded so few proposals was fund-raising difficulties, despite assertions to the contrary by NASDC officials.

‘Most Confidential’

“It was one of the most confidential of processes,’' said Frank L. Schiraldi, the assistant director of curriculum, instruction, and professional development for the Ohio Department of Education, which submitted a statewide design initiative. “I mean, we understand what the structure was. But, at this point, we really don’t have a lot of indication of how decisions were made.’'

Saul Cooperman, the chairman of NASDC’s Education Advisory Panel and the president of educational programs for the Amelior Foundation, said he understands the frustrations of design-team members.

“We tried like heck to be sensitive,’' he said, “but the first thing that we wanted to be was thorough and fair.’'

He added that the advisory panel, in particular, never set out to select a finite number of winners.

“It had nothing to do with money,’' he stressed. “Most of us felt that our job was to pick those that were truly going to be good, that would truly make a difference. ... Let’s not put things in which are not really topnotch.’'

A ‘Rigorous Process’

According to NASDC officials, the selection process worked like this:

  • As a first step, NASDC staff members eliminated designs that were late or were clearly unresponsive to the proposal-writing criteria.

For example, some lacked a budget or proposed individual programs, rather than whole-school designs. These criteria eliminated 150 bids.

  • The remaining 536 bids were distributed among three panels of 60 readers each from education, business, and community organizations. The readers focused primarily on one criterion: the likelihood that a design would enable all students to reach the national education goals and attain world-class standards.

They also focused on the originality of the design, or what Mr. Cooperman called the “wow factor. Does it seem to have pizzaz?’'

At least five readers initially screened each application. Based on individual reviews and group discussions over a four-day period, the panelists then forwarded a slate of 120 nominees to the corporation’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.

  • There, 24 individuals--including 6 members of the NASDC staff, 16 members of the Education Advisory Panel, and 2 people from the RAND Corporation--reviewed the designs. Again, each proposal was read by a minimum of three people.

In addition to assessing whether a design would enable students to meet world-class standards, the readers considered three other criteria: how well the design’s performance would be assessed; its potential to be widely replicated; and the appropriateness and realism of its costs.

  • A slate of 16 candidates was then forwarded to the NASDC board, which first met to discuss them in May. Based on that meeting, board members requested additional information about many of the proposals.

As a result, face-to-face interviews were conducted with members of all 16 design teams. The three-hour interviews were led by C. Reid Rundell, NASDC’s vice president of operations, members of the advisory panel, and the education advisers to some of the chief executive officers who sit on the NASDC board.

On July 7, the board weighed the additional information in selecting the final group of 11 winners. Each of the proposals on the final slate had been read by at least 34 people.

This was a “careful and rigorous’’ selection process, Ann D. McLaughlin, the president of the corporation, stressed at last month’s press conference to announce the winners. “We had a lot of good proposals that just didn’t make it this far.’'

She urged all losing design teams to stay in touch with the corporation. And she said NASDC was seeking their permission to publish a compendium of unsuccessful design teams and what they had proposed.

Such a directory, Mr. Cooperman said, could help projects raise funds elsewhere and serve a brokering role by putting people in touch with others who share similar interests or ideas.

‘We’ll Move On’

But that promise has done little to quell the disappointment of many design-team members, who worked long and hard for the chance to win millions of dollars in relatively unfettered resources.

“We’ll move on,’' said Russell L. French, a professor of curriculum instruction at the University of Tennessee, which helped put together a large design group in the Southeast, “but it sure would have made things an awful lot easier’’ to have won a contract.

Mr. French said pieces of the group’s proposal have already been submitted elsewhere for funding.

Several other unsuccessful design groups acknowledged that they, too, have sought other funding to advance their projects.

Such plans have prompted foundation and corporate officials to predict that they could receive a deluge of requests for money within the next few months.

An Unlikely ‘Miracle’

But Mary K. Leonard, the director of precollegiate-education programs for the Council on Foundations, said, “I think it would be a miracle if all of the losers of unsuccessful proposals were funded by foundation or corporate money.’'

Each foundation has its own set of guidelines and priorities, she noted, which do not necessarily match those of NASDC. In addition, she said, many of the large national foundations “work proactively.’'

“They go out and they put together things of their own, rather than waiting for proposals to come in,’' Ms. Leonard added.

Mr. Peterkin also worried that there might be a backlash among corporate funders, who have complained in the past about having to reduce their own agendas to help fund the new-schools corporation.

‘Cutting Our Coat’

Many of the losing design teams are already revising their plans in light of their reduced budgets, or what Hugh Sockett, the president of the Institute for Educational Transformation Inc. at Virginia’s George Mason University, described as “cutting our coat to fit our cloth.’'

Mr. Sockett had helped convene a design team that spanned an entire economic region--encompassing Maryland, Virginia, and Washington. Now, he said, “I suspect that we will probably have to withdraw from our notion of the economic region and come back within Virginia.’'

Others said the appeal of the new-schools competition was its emphasis on ambitious, comprehensive change. Having to scale back to more piecemeal, modest initiatives may not be worth pursuing.

No Active Plans

For now, many are regrouping, picking up their bruised egos, and hoping--despite indications from NASDC to the contrary--that there will be another round of competition next year.

“I don’t have active plans at the moment,’' said Ann W. Lewin, the founder and president of the National Learning Center and the executive director of the Capital Children’s Museum in Washington, which submitted a proposal. “I’m really hoping that [NASDC] will just go right on raising funds and that they’ll come back and there’ll be a second round.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Losers in Design Competition Grouse, But Many Pledge To Continue Projects