‘New Schools': Can They Make A ‘Revolution’?

By Robert Rothman — May 08, 1991 9 min read

In describing their proposal to create “a new generation of American schools,” architects of President Bush’s America strategy invoked historical analogies to explain how it could create a “revolution” in American education.

To Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, the new schools would “invent the telegraph” and make the Pony Express obsolete, not find a way to make horses go faster to San Francisco.

Citing a more recent example, Denis P. Doyle, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who helped draw up the plan, compared it to the interstate-highway system.

Rather than widen existing roads, he said, the Eisenhower Administration proposed, “‘Let’s leave old Highway 40 in place and build I-80.”

In the process, Mr. Doyle added, “it created a social revolution that changed the face of America and knitted the country together.’'

Many educators agree that the plan has the potential to stir educators’ creative juices and spur a host of innovations. By opening the process to entities outside the existing school system, both governmental and nongovernmental, they note, the plan can draw on a wide range of ideas.

At the same time, some suggest, offering funds to schools in each Congressional district could make it easier to demonstrate how experiments could work in a range of social and economic settings.

But others caution that the plan may not meet the ambitious hopes of its sponsors.

Unless it includes some provision for ensuring that school systems L$change to accommodate the innovations, said Phillip C. Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., the plan would do little more than create isolated models of excellence.

“They’re trying to create schoo houses that work,” Mr. Schlechty said. “They’re not creating a school system. You’ve got to talk about the system of education.”

Moreover, said Henry M. Levin, the Stanford University economist whose “accelerated schools” program was cited as a model for the New American Schools, change can only occur if it can be demonstrated in a normal school setting. The schools plan, he suggested, would create exceptional schools.

“If you set any conditions, such as choice and/or a massive increase in spending,” Mr. Levin said, “you’re simply not talking seriously about massive changes in education.”

But State Senator Ember D. Reichgott of Minnesota, the sponsor of a similar plan that is currently moving through that state’s legislature, said the schools plan is a necessary first step to transforming the system.

“Innovation must be in place on a small scale before it is adopted on a large scale,” she said. “This does that.

” The New American Schools plan is perhaps the boldest initiative in the education strategy President Bush unveiled last month. (See Education Week, April 24, 1991.)

Under the plan, a new corporate funded New American Schools Development Corporation would fund from three to seven research-and-development teams that would advise in the creation of the new schools. (See related story, page 1.)

At the same time, communities-- not necessarily a town, a county, or a school district--could apply to the governor and the Secretary of Education to be designated an “America 2000 Community” to run a New American School.

After the Bush plan was unveiled, Bruno Manno, acting assistant secre tary for educational research and im provement, explained, “Any group of people who get together and think they can put together the resources to operate a New American School could be selected by a governor."3

To be eligible for such a designa tion, a community must adopt the six national education goals, establish a communitywide strategy for meeting them, develop a report card for mea suring progress, and demonstrate a commitment to operating a school.

At least the first 535 such schools--one in each Congressional district and two others in each state--could receive $1 million in federal start-up funds.

The plan states that the schools should “set aside all traditional as sumptions about schooling and all the constraints that conventional L schools work under."$

“A New American School does not necessarily mean new bricks and L mortar,” it states. “Nor does a New American School have to rely on L technology; the quality of learning is what matters."$


Opening Up Innovation '(

Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of ed ucation administration and policy at the Fordham University Graduate School of Education, said the plan represents an “interesting combina$8tion” of private-sector innovation Land public-sector authority.$.

“It allows individual action, not L held down by bureaucracy,” he said. “And it has public money, because L schooling is a public responsibility.”

Ted Kolderie, a Minnesota educa tion researcher who has backed the creation of “charter schools,” an idea currently moving through that state’s legislature, said public schools could benefit from the proposal as well.

“What it is,” he said, “is as much or more an opportunity for people presently running public schools to innovate, as it is for somebody com ing from outside.”

But, he noted, the existing school structure often frustrates would-be reformers.

“This will create real opportunities for people to try out different things without being locked into L getting permission from people who might be most upset to see change occur,” Mr. Kolderie said. “That’s L what we’ve got now."$ )

Mr. Kolderie noted that the Minne sota legislation is modeled in part on a program that has existed for more than 20 years in Minneapolis. Under that program, any organization can “contract” with the Minneapolis pub lic schools to operate a school.

Although such schools are free of many regulations, they must hire licensed teachers and administer the district’s “benchmark” tests.

The Detroit Board of Education is considering a similar plan. (See Ed ucation Week, Feb. 6, 1991.)

Barbara Schmidt, the founder and director of one such school in Minne apolis, known as the peace Acade my, said her school could only oper ate as it does outside the school L system. The 26-student school offers education and counseling for chemically dependent teenagers.

“There are so many levels of orga nization in a school system, when you ask, ‘Can I do it this way?’ you have to wait, wait, wait,” Ms. Schmidt said. “The contract system opens up immediately a broad spectrum of innovation you cannot get in a bureaucracy.”

Ms. Schmidt also noted that many of the people who want to open simi lar schools are former teachers who found that they “didn’t fit in the pub lic-school system."$

But Mr. Levin of Stanford argued that it is not necessary to go outside the school system for innovations. In fact, he said, such efforts would do lit tle to improve the schools that alL ready exist.$

“There are impediments in the sys tem,” he said. “That’s what we have to work on--getting rid of them.”

Mr. Cooper of Fordham also noted that opening the system to private interests might generate political opposition from groups, such as reachers’ unions, opposed to funneling federal aid to private schools. Such arguments have helped defeat the “charter schools” idea in the Minnesota legislature in the past.

But Theodore R. Sizer, the director of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of innovative high schools that was also cited as a model in the Bush plan, said he hoped the argument over public aid to private schools would not divert attention from the merits of the proposal.

“I would be disappointed if all the serious energy going into thinking up better ideas for designing schools gets derailed over a cat fight on the public-private issue,” said Mr. Sizer, the chairman of the education department at Brown University.

Coming Around Again?

But even if they acknowledge that the New Schools proposal might generate innovative ideas, many educators question whether it could transform the school system.

A similar program in England suggests that it could lead to major changes, Mr. Cooper said.

Under that program, newly created innovative city technical colleges have prompted surrounding schools to come up with innovations as well.

“It causes a ripple effect far greater than the school itself,” he added. “Schools think about what they are doing. It forces them to react.”

Mr. Cooper also said that the Bush plan is attractive because it spreads the new schools throughout the country. As a result, he said, the plan will spawn innovative schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

“I like the idea,” he said. “If you throw [money to states], big districts will grab it all.”

But Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said Congressional districts are poor laboratories for school demonstrations.

“California is extremely gerryL$mandered,” he said. “Our district runs from Palo Alto 30 miles east. There is no conceptual or scientific basis whatsoever [for that configuration], other than politics.”

Mr. Kirst also noted that earlier efforts to create model schools, such as the Nixon Administration’s Experimental Schools Program, failed to spawn a “new generation” of schools.

“I’m old enough to see the same stuff coming around [again],” he said. “That’s what has me worried.”

In part, that earlier effort failed because there was no research to de termine what made the model schools successful or not, he said.

“We didn’t learn a thing from that,” Mr. Kirst said.

Although the new plan will be backed by research-and-development teams, he added, such efforts appear to be “long on development and short on research.”

“I want to make sure what is dis seminated is based on research,” Mr. Kirst said.$. Sizer also suggested that the earlier model-schools programs L$ failed because the experiments ran into roadblocks that may limit what the reformers want to accomplish.$

“One of the things the Secretary should look at is the context in which the new schools are to be founded,” he said. “We learned in the coalition you can’t go far without running into regulations, union con tracts, and other things. There’s no point in starting it unless there is plenty of running room.”

To accomplish that, entire school systems, not just school buildings, need to be restructured, said Mr. Schlechty of the Center for Leadership in School Reform.

“We’ve got damn good ideas,” he said. But “we can’t get them translated from one schoolhouse to another.”

Moreover, Mr. Sizer suggested, it is impossible to mandate that sys tems change to accommodate new ideas. Such changes will only occur if there is a critical mass of public support demanding it, he added.

“You have to have kids so demon strably served [by innovative schools] that parents say, ‘We want them to spread,”’ Mr. Sizer said. “There is no way to have legislated, systematic expansion. It’s got to be driven by people.”

“That’s why it’s going to be slow,” he added. “It ought to be slow.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 1991 edition of Education Week as ‘New Schools': Can They Make A ‘Revolution’?