New-Schools Group Rethinks Its Strategy To Cast a Wider Net

By Jonathan Weisman — September 04, 1991 9 min read

ARLINGTON, VA.--Responding to concerns from educators and philanthropists, the New American Schools Development Corporation has decided to cast a wider net to snare more ideas on how to revamp the nation’s schools, but to commit far fewer initial dollars to the research effort.

Rather than offering three to seven research grants of up to $30 million each, the group now plans to award 20 to 30 contracts that would be much smaller than originally planned.

The new-schools corporation, a private, nonprofit organization proposed by the Bush Administration as part of its America 2000 education package, was launched this summer to raise $200 million from the private sector to spur the radical transformation of the country’s schools.

The corporation unveiled its preliminary request for proposals here last week, eliciting feedback from the 420 potential bidders who attended the first of three design conferences to be sponsored by the RAND Corporation for the new-schools corporation.

A second conference is scheduled for Sept. 13 in Los Angeles. A nationwide teleconference to be carried by Public Broadcasting Service affiliates is planned for Sept. 17, and a final design conference has been tentatively set for Sept. 30 in Washington.

The final R.F.P. will be issued on Oct. 15, with a bidders’ conference planned for November or December. Bids are due by Jan. 31.

The draft R.F.P. circulated last week represents a substantial departure from the proposal advanced by the Administration in April as part of America 2000.

The new-schools corporation, the brainchild of U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, envisioned up to seven gigantic research conglomerates working on an educational “Manhattan Project” with multimillion-dollar grants. The consortia were to develop model schools that would radically reconfigure American education.

But the plan was greeted skeptically by educators who said model schools would not translate into systemic change and by fund-raisers who worried that the $200 million President Bush wanted the business community to raise would either eat into existing reform projects or fail to materialize.

Moreover, the President disappointed some observers in July when he announced the membership of the corporation’s beard of directors. The board is made up of 16 white, male corporate chiefs; one affluent black businessman; and one woman.

The corporation’s working beard had previously stated that the permanent beard would represent more diverse interests. (See Education Week, May 8 and July 31, 1991.)

Changing Course

But after soliciting advice from educators, philanthropists, and business leaders on how it should proceed, the new-schools corporation changed its course.

W. Frank Blount, the organization’s president, said last week that the board would be expanded to bring in new voices. Also, a broad-based education advisory panel, headed by Saul Cooperman, a former commissioner of education in New Jersey, will be named this week or next to address concerns over minority representation.

The corporation now plans to award contracts of $500,000 to $3 million to 20 to 30 design teams.

The teams--composed of educators, university think tanks, or corporations, among others--would use the project’s first year to perfect their visions of “a new generation of American schools.”

The teams would have between April 30, 1992, and April 30, 1993, to fine-tune their visions, locate school sites for implementation, and draft proposals for development and testing. Half of the original teams would be granted two-year contracts of $2 million to $15 million to implement the next phase. In 1995, 7 to 10 final contracts of $2 million to $6 million would be awarded to facilitate the widespread implementation and re-creation of the best models nationwide. No team would be awarded more than $20 million.

In response to educator concerns, the request for proposals has moved away from model schools, stressing, instead, systemic applications for design proposals.

And the corporation addressed the concerns expressed by fund-raisers when it decided to cut back the initial outlay of funds. The $34 million already raised will cover much, if not all, of the first planning contracts.

While Mr. Blount stressed that he still hopes to receive pledges of up to $200 million by the beginning of next year, he said the pressure to drum up the cash immediately has been relieved by the new approach.

Mr. Blount also noted that the wider net cast last week should also encourage the participation of entrepreneurs and small education firms that may have been trampled in the scramble for the original three to seven grants.

“We’re willing to fund a little think-time on the front end to get a better product at the back end,” he said.

Intense Interest

The changes have won kudos from some of the corporation’s strongest critics.

Observers noted that the professionalism of last week’s conference, the enthusiasm of its participants, and the intentionally open-ended nature of the R.F.P. have moved the debate from whether the research effort should proceed to how it should proceed.

“The interest is greater than any of us would have thought,” David T. Kearns, the deputy U.S. secretary of education and the Bush Administration’s liaison with the project, said last week as he addressed the educators, university faculty members, corporate leaders, consultants, and entrepreneurs packed into the conference room here.

“But,” he added, alluding to what will be the largest educational research project in American history, “I guess money does attract.”

Officials of the new-schools corporation said they originally planned to hold one design conference that they estimated would attract 200 participants.

Now, they said, in addition to the more than 400 who attended last week’s conference, they expect another 400 or so to attend the second conference in Los Angeles, and possibly 200 more to sign up for the final conference in Washington.

Up to 1,000 applications for the 20 to 30 initial contracts are now expected.

“They have done a masterful job avoiding the obvious pitfalls” of this project, said Sue E. Berryman, director of the Institute of Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and an early critic. “There really is a sense of hope and potential here.”

An Administration Stamp?

Ms. Berryman had characterized the corporation’s initial strategy this summer as a backhanded way for businesses to curry favor with the Bush Administration by channeling large contributions to his new-schools initiative. Now, she said, she is considering submitting a proposal herself.

Despite her newfound enthusiasm for the project, however, Ms. Berryman said she still sees an Administration stamp on the effort.

Paul Hill, a RAND researcher who is working on the project, asserted that the new strategy shows that the new-schools corporation is beginning to stand on its own feet and to distance itself from its political parentage.

Nonetheless, the Administration’s presence was very much in evidence at last week’s conference.

Mr. Kearns virtually dominated much of the first day’s discussion, and Mr. Blount readily admitted that he is in touch with Mr. Kearns’s office “almost weekly” to keep the deputy secretary apprised of the group’s direction.

At one point during the conference, Mr. Kearns halted an exposition on what proposals would be acceptable, saying, “but I shouldn’t be talking because I’ll have nothing to do with this.”

In turn, Ms. Berryman commented, “Methinks [Mr. Kearns] doth protest too much.”

Few Proposal Limits

Officials of the new-schools corporation repeatedly stressed last week that their organization would not be a vehicle to push for increased education funding. And, indeed, one of the few limitations that has been placed on proposals is that the envisioned schools or systems must cost about as much as existing ones.

Though many educators said they worried that the funding limitation was politically inspired, corporation officials insisted that the approach will ensure replication.

Generally, however, participants here were pleasantly surprised by what they learned.

Where other organizations have drafted narrow R.F.P.'S replete with stipulations and examples of what the funding agent would be looking for, the new-schools corporation produced a deliberately vague proposal request to allow the bidders’ imaginations to run free.

“All along people have been saying, ‘Wait until the bureaucrats get a hold of this and see what stipulations they slap on it,’ “one education consultant at the conference said.

“Well, last night, I ran to the phone and said, ‘My God, there really are no limits.’”

Aside from the funding constraints, the proposals are limited by only the most general stipulations. The plans must:

  • Focus on systemic change, not curriculum and pedagogy; . Be design-and-development efforts, not research projects;
  • Be benchmarked against demanding goals and “world class” achievement standards;
  • Enable corporations, educators, governors, and others to combine efforts;
  • Not be a model-school program, but from the beginning focus on implementation in many sites;
  • Focus on educational outputs, not inputs or the pedagogical process; and
  • Not target an elite student population.

‘Revolution, Not Evolution’

Despite the vagueness of the guidelines, some conference participants still worried that their proposals would have trouble meeting the standards.

But entrepreneurs were assured, for instance, that they could work alone and did not have to team up in some sort of consortium.

Some inventors with no education experience said they hoped they could submit proposals containing only their research qualifications and the most general outlines of their proposals.

Otherwise, they said, only large corporations and experienced educators would be able to get together a thorough proposal on time. In addition, they said, experienced educators would not likely develop truly radical visions.

Corporation officials pledged to consider the matter.

Larger groups complained that the smaller ones were seeking to bend the R.F.P. to their narrow interests. And still others wanted more guidance.

Though the purpose of the design conferences is to get feedback that could again change the corporation’s vision, Mr. Hill of RAND said that, given the group’s earlier rethinking, any further alterations of the R.F.P. would probably fall in the category of fine-tuning.

Mr. Blount said his first priority would be to set up a system in which the corporation will help potential bidders link up with others to form the strongest possible consortia.

But, he added, the corporation will resist any added stipulations that could clip the wings of those bidders who really can imagine an entirely new way of educating the nation’s youths.

“We really are talking about revolution here, not evolution,” he said. “What comes out of this may not be recognizable to those who have been inside an American school recently.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as New-Schools Group Rethinks Its Strategy To Cast a Wider Net