Under Simmons, the Annenberg Institute Seeks a New Direction

By Lynn Olson — March 01, 2000 4 min read

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform began in 1993 with $50 million and a mission: to serve as a “neutral gathering place” for all the groups working to redesign America’s schools.

As envisioned by its founder, Theodore R. Sizer, the institute would document, analyze, and publicize progress and issue periodic reports to the nation. But far from providing one big tent under which the nation’s school reformers could gather, the institute has often found itself sitting on the sidelines.

Warren S. Simmons

—John Abromowski

Now, under the guidance of Executive Director Warren S. Simmons, the organization is trying to remake itself with a new set of initiatives and an emphasis on urban education. That transition, which began last January when Mr. Simmons joined the institute, will continue over the next year.

Few observers think it will be an easy shift. From the start, the institute’s identity was shrouded in confusion.

“It really is a situation of lost opportunity,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education. “I think that the lack of leadership and the vacuum of clear direction has been an enormous problem for them.”

Finding a Voice

The institute, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I., was an early component of the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg’s pledge to give $500 million to public education in late 1993.

During its early years, Mr. Sizer, then a professor of education at Brown, both directed the institute and served as the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a consortium of high schools dedicated to reconfiguring themselves around nine common principles.

Many members of the coalition’s national staff became members of the institute’s staff, leading to a frequent perception that the two agendas were one and the same.

In addition, Mr. Sizer was trying to help Mr. Annenberg and Vartan Gregorian, who was then the president of Brown, design and launch the Annenberg Challenge, a series of large-scale grants to turn around education in big American cities. The multiple hats made it difficult for the fledgling institute to find its feet or to set itself apart from those other efforts.

At the same time, observers say, Mr. Sizer’s advocacy of school-by-school change and his criticism of the academic-standards movement as it unfolded around the country further moved the institute to the margins of the national debate.

When Mr. Sizer retired from Brown in mid-1996, Mr. Gregorian became the acting director of the institute, while continuing to serve as the chairman of its board of overseers, the president of the university, and Mr. Annenberg’s adviser to the Challenge project.

During that period, the coalition formally separated from the institute and Brown, moving its offices to Oakland, Calif.

Mr. Gregorian left Brown in 1997 to become the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation. His successor, E. Gordon Gee, appointed Ramon C. Cortines, a former schools chief in New York City and San Francisco, to serve as the institute’s interim director.

But the long period of drift continued, until Mr. Simmons arrived as executive director in January 1999.

“When I came on,” Mr. Simmons said last week, “the institute, in my judgment, contained a number of very significant initiatives, but the whole was less than the sum of its very important parts.”

According to observers, he inherited a demoralized organization in which almost all the senior staff members had left since 1996. The institute currently has some 40 professional and administrative employees.

Changing Focus

Mr. Simmons, a psychologist by training and a former director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, may be uniquely positioned to take on the challenge of turning the institute around. As the director of the nonprofit education fund, he had brought together district officials, local businesses, representatives from higher education, community members, and educators around efforts to revive Philadelphia’s troubled schools.

Described as a pragmatist, Mr. Simmons straddles a middle line between the proponents of more centralized, standards-based reform and school-based change. “I believe to move school reform forward, we have to talk about how top-down and bottom-up approaches can complement and reinforce each other, as opposed to thinking it’s an either-or proposition,” he said.

“I certainly support the standards movement,” he added, “but the more important question to me is how you use standards to improve achievement in urban communities.”

The institute has identified six initiatives to focus on in the coming years: rethinking the structures and functions of school districts; developing and supporting educational leadership; connecting schools to community assets that support learning; rethinking accountability; expanding research on, and models of, comprehensive school designs; and coordinating and evaluating work at the 18 local sites that make up the Annenberg Challenge.

While some existing programs will continue to find a home at the institute, others are relocating. That includes the National School Reform Faculty, a network of more than 5,000 teachers and principals committed to improving classroom practice, which is moving to the Harmony School Education Center in Bloomington, Ind., a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Indiana.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2000 edition of Education Week as Under Simmons, the Annenberg Institute Seeks a New Direction