President Bush was a man on a mission when he toured the Saturn School of Tomorrow here last week.
In scheduling the trip the day before his Administration’s education package was sent to Capitol Hill, the President hoped to ensure that the nation’s attention would be focused on education.
But he also used the trip--the first of what is expected to be many in the name of education reform--to highlight an example of a “new American school.”
The Saturn School--an unconventional, high-tech magnet school launched in 1989--would qualify, he said, as the kind of innovative, “break the mold” school the Administration hopes to support as part of its America 2000 education strategy. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991.)
“You may not believe this,” Mr. Bush told students in each of the three classrooms he visited, “but I learn from talking with you.”
But he also acknowledged the political and public-relations purposes of his visit.
“Good examples will inspire others,” Mr. Bush said. “I would like people across the country to see this and learn from it.”
“You’re on the cutting edge,” he continued. “You’re revolutionizing4education, and we have to do this across the country.”
The President, accompanied on his trip by Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, even made a direct reference to his desire to send a message via the news media.
“These guys,” he said, gesturing toward reporters gathered in the back of the classroom, “they won’t say it, but they’ll be impressed by what they see here, and that will help other schools.”
‘Exploring New Frontiers’
Later last Wednesday, in a speech delivered in front of the downtown branch of the St. Paul Public Library, Mr. Bush said he came to Minnesota because the state--which theoretically allows students to attend any of its public schools--is “a pioneer, leading the nation in educational choice,” and the Saturn School is “exploring new frontiers in American education.”
“Like any new idea, we don’t know what tomorrow holds for the Saturn School,” Mr. Bush said. “And there may be aspects of its approach that generate controversy.”
“But when we say ‘break the mold,”’ he added, “we’ve got to give communities the power to experiment, think anew, be daring.”
“I like what works. I’m confident about the prospect of new American schools in communities across this country,” he said. “With more accountability and choice in our schools, with a national commitment to lifelong learning, with the active engagement of our business community in the business of education, we will embark on a new voyage in the American experience.”
The school Mr. Bush and Mr. Alexander chose to highlight was inspired by a speech given by Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in which he urged schools to adopt educational models that emulate the General Motors Corporation’s Saturn automobile plant. (See Education Week, June 7, 1989.)
The plant, where workers and managers have collaborated to redesign the workplace, is often cited as a model by Mr. Alexander as well.
The Saturn School, which is located in downtown St. Paul, serves students who would be in grades 4 through 7 in a more traditional school. They are chosen by lottery and are a heterogenous group. Some of their teachers receive substantially higher pay than others in the district--a fact that has generated some controversy in the community.
Making Use of Technology
The school employs a variety of unusual instructional techniques and organizational principles.
The school uses individualized programs for each student, is orgael10lnized into classes that include students at multiple grade levels, de-emphasizes grades, uses cooperative-learning techniques, assigns independent student projects, has a longer-than-standard school year, and makes extensive use of educational technology.
The first classroom Mr. Bush visited, for example, contained computers recessed into desks with clear tops and lap-level keyboards that pull out like a drawer. The students were studying different topics at different levels on a system their teacher said automatically increases the difficulty of the work as a student progresses.
In another classroom, Mr. Bush was introduced to a computer system called Discourse, which consists of small computers for each student and a central terminal for their teacher.
Because the central computer is linked with the students’ computers and a television set above the teacher’s desk, the teacher can “broadcast” a question on the TV screen and have the students transmit answers, which can also be selectively displayed on the screen.
Jane Barton, the class’s teacher, said the system is used most often to conduct surveys of student knowledge, attitudes, and instructional preferences. Students said they also use the system for instructional purposes, such as writing exercises and math drills.
Mr. Bush used it to ask students whether they think they will go to college and where, and whether they prefer math or English.
‘A Big-Picture Thing’
Brandon Seeger, 11, who occupied the teacher’s chair during the demonstration, typed for the President: “Will you go to collage someday, and if so witch one.”
Mr. Bush then learned a lesson about the unpredictability of computers when an answer he typed in response to a student’s question stubbornly refused to appear on the television screen.
He fielded several questions orally, ranging from whether the Secret Service follows him to the bowling alley to why he wanted to be President.
He talked about “doing good things for the country,” and “contributing to world peace,” adding, “It’s a big-picture thing.”
In the final classroom Mr. Bush visited, two students demonstrated miniature robotic devices they had designed, including cranes and vehicles. The motile projects, which look like Lego toys, are controlled by computer.
“Frankly, I was a bit surprised by the place,” the President said after his tour. “Such high tech and such young kids.”
Asked by a reporter how schools in poor communities would pay for such innovations, he said they should redirect their existing resources by eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy.
A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 1991 edition of Education Week as President Hits the Road To Push America 2000 Plan