Researchers See Little New Knowledge From ‘New Schools’

By Robert Rothman & Lynn Olson — August 05, 1992 6 min read

But researchers last month expressed dismay that the 11 designs selected by the private, nonprofit entity are unlikely to add much to the knowledge base about education.

NASDC was created last year by American businessmen at the behest of President Bush to help spawn a new generation of “break the mold schools.’'

But researchers note that most of the proposed designs, though laudable, do not represent new ideas. And, they add, evaluations of their effectiveness will be hampered by the lack of control groups and other experimental provisions that would enable researchers to draw conclusions from them.

“You might think of this as the space shuttle of educational R & D,’' said Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and the project director of one of the winning design teams. “It’s not all that scientifically valuable, but it’s so visible to the average person that it justifies a lot of research.’'

Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association, noted that NASDC has from the start downplayed the research implications of the effort, and, in fact, preferred to call the winning grantees “design teams,’' rather than research teams.

But the effect of its action, he said, is to limit what can be learned from the multimillion-dollar investment.

“Every one of the proposals is really a hypothesis, but [NASDC] is not looking at them that way,’' Mr. Sroufe said. “That’s unfortunate.’'

“There will be an evaluation of the models,’' he added. “That’s important. But all it does is tell you whether the model worked. It doesn’t tell you why it worked.’'

Officials from NASDC and others close to the project responded, however, that the effort would generate knowledge about improving schools by demonstrating ways in which different types of schools can operate in practice.

The endeavor was intended to produce better schools, not to support laboratory-type experimentation, said Diane S. Ravitch, the U.S. Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

“No one ever called this an experiment,’' she said. “It’s not R & D so much as it is D. But you need both R and D.’'

‘Logic and Argumentation’

As Mr. Slavin noted, most of the winning proposals came from individuals and groups outside the education-research establishment.

“In terms of people who are routine members of A.E.R.A., you’re talking me and Lauren,’' he said, referring to Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, a former president of the research association, and a member of a winning design team.

Some of the proposals will attempt to carry out ideas that have already been tested by research, noted Howard Gardner, the co-director of Project Zero at the Harvard University graduate school of education and the co-leader of another winning proposal.

But Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, who reviewed many of the proposals, said few of them planned to test out knowledge directly gleaned from research. Instead, he said, many bidders attempted to bolster their proposals by citing research that justified their aims.

“It’s not the kind of thing where they did a careful linking to reasoning: ‘Here is the research, here is where it applies, here’s what we will do,’'' Mr. Kirst said. “Instead, they said, ‘We want to do an Outward Bound kind of thing; here is some research that backs it up.’''

Herbert J. Walberg, a research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who also reviewed many of the proposals, said some were based “more on logic or argumentation or reasoning’’ than on A.E.R.A. research.

“But if you look at state reforms in the last 10 years,’' he added, “a lot of that has not been based on educational research’’ either.

Reconfigured Ideas

Mr. Sroufe of the A.E.R.A. suggested that many of the proposals represent a repackaging of old ideas, rather than new ones.

In fact, he said, many of their conceptions can be traced to John Dewey. “Mostly, it seemed to me, they rediscovered Education and Experience,’' he said.

But Ms. Ravitch said the lack of novelty is unsurprising and does not reflect badly on the proposals.

“It’s rare in any field of endeavor to get an idea that’s totally new,’' she said. “If there were a totally new idea, I’m not sure that in itself would validate it. There is nothing in newness that means effectiveness.’'

“The purpose here was never innovation for its own sake,’' added Chester E. Finn Jr., an adviser to one of the winning design teams and one of the architects of the Bush Administration’s education strategy. “The purpose was to get schools to work better.’'

Mr. Finn, a member of the core design team for the Edison Project, the Whittle Communications’s effort to create a chain of for-profit schools, added that the novelty in the designs was their reconfiguration of existing ideas. Such reconfigurations could add a great deal to an understanding of how schools work, he said.

“You can have a lot of components of a radio, but the radio doesn’t play,’' he said. “The trick is assembling them in new ways so that it functions well.’'

In addition, said Richard Elmore, a professor of education at the Harvard University graduate school of education, the proposals could shed light on ways to implement on a large scale methods of instruction that researchers generally agree are effective.

“I don’t think there are going to be any research breakthroughs in these schools,’' he said. “The breakthroughs, if there are any, will be in the connection between strategies for teaching high-level content to diverse kids and actually doing it.’'

“That’s more on the development end than the research end of the continuum,’' Mr. Elmore said.

‘Great Stories’

But while researchers acknowledge that new ideas could come out of the project, many caution that what is learned from them will be limited.

The fact that NASDC has not provided for control groups to test the effects of the new designs, according to Mr. Slavin, is “reprehensible.’'

“All they’ll have is stories--and great stories and very interesting stories--but stories,’' he said.

Paul T. Hill, a senior scientist with the RAND Corporation, which has consulted on the project and is developing a plan to evaluate the winners’ work, acknowledged that a true experimental design is “not in the cards.’'

But, he said, project officials are committed to learning as much as they can about whether the designs can be fleshed out and implemented, and, if implemented, whether they are effective for the students who attend schools based on them.

“From the time of [former president] Frank Blount to now, NASDC has never expected to [simply] toss out the designs,’' Mr. Hill said. “They intend to monitor progress and provide some accountability to the public.’'

RAND’s involvement could ensure that something is learned from the project, Mr. Kirst of Stanford said.

“Often, evaluators are brought in after the fact,’' he said. “They have to get up to speed, and it’s hard to frame an evaluation. RAND was in on this from day one.’'

Ms. Ravitch also noted that the designs are likely to remain in place for years, and could spawn studies by other researchers. By contrast, she said, previous attempts to design new schools--such as the Nixon Administration’s Experimental Schools Project--failed to generate much knowledge because the projects were not all that radical, and they died soon after they began.

“Here, the idea was to think fresh and start with a clean slate,’' she said. “Nobody in the Experimental Schools Project started with a clean slate. Nobody. They tinkered, and when the money stopped, they stopped tinkering. Nothing today survives from that.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Researchers See Little New Knowledge From ‘New Schools’