'Jury Still Out' on Re:Learning's Grassroots Reform Experiments

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Educators and policymakers in six states and more than 60 schools are trying to turn the traditional mode of school reform on its head.

Instead of mandating changes from above, they are encouraging schools to foster innovation from below--and then tell state and district officials what's wrong with the established way of doing business.

Known as "Re:Learning," the nationwide effort is aimed at refocusing school reform where educators say it ought to be: on improving the relationship between teachers and students in individual schools.

The project evolved from the work of Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University who has spent nearly a decade toiling to make high schools more productive and thoughtful places for teenagers.

But, like many endeavors of such far-reaching scope, Re:Learning is proving that real change is a slow and often elusive process.

"The jury is still out," says Mr. Sizer about the long-term success of the initiative, which is now one of the largest school-reform efforts in the country.

So far, officials in the participating states have tried to make it easier for schools to experiment with bottom-up reform by lifting state and district mandates on a case-by-case basis. But they have hesitated to make broader changes in policies and procedures that would affect the status of all schools.

Similarly, while schools are struggling to carry out Mr. Sizer's concepts, they have tended to adopt his ideas in a piecemeal fashion rather than as an integrated whole.

According to the Brown University scholar, the primary job of schools should be encouraging students to use their minds well. But for that to occur, people need to rethink some of the basic premises of education.

Schools, for example, should concentrate on teaching a few "essential" subjects well rather than covering the intellectual waterfront, Mr. Sizer asserts. Teachers should function as coaches, rather than lecturers. And students should be viewed as active learners, responsible for their own education, rather than as the passive recipients of knowledge.

In addition, Mr. Sizer maintains, no teacher should have direct responsibility for more than 80 students. Teachers should function as "generalists," rather than specialists. And diplomas should be awarded based on students' exhibition of knowledge and skills, rather than on accumulated course credits or "seat time."

In 1984, the former Harvard education-school dean created a network of 14 high schools that were willing to try out his ideas, known as the Coalition of Essential Schools.

But Mr. Sizer soon encountered a problem. "As coalition schools tried to do new things," he recalls, "they ran head-on into state and district regulations."

"While most schools were able to successfully argue for waivers," he continues, "it was clear that if a large number of schools were going to change the way they did business, ad hoc waivers weren't going to work."

At the same time, Mr. Sizer's financial backers were urging the coalition to expand. "Their view was that we were too small," he says. "No one pays any attention to a handful of schools."

The solution was "Re:Learning," born in the summer of 1988.

The project, which is run jointly by the coalition and the Education Commission of the States, involves six states that have agreed to promote Mr. Sizer's ideas in at least 10 schools apiece.

Equally important, they have promised to change the regulatory and policy climate in which schools operate to make it easier for reforms to thrive.

"Our system has built a structure that tends to support a piecemeal kind of education in the schools," explains Beverly Anderson, co-director of Re:Learning for the ecs, "one that's focused on teaching isolated skills and knowledge, rather than higher-order thinking, problem-solving, and communication."

The hope behind Re:Learning is that by encouraging changes in schools and statehouses simultaneously, education systems eventually will get the incentives right for both teachers and students.

In addition to the six current Re:Learning states--Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island--nine states are considering joining the effort.

Now known as "networking" sites, these states--Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri--are expected to make a final decision about their participation in Re:Learning this spring, Ms. Anderson said.

For most of the states involved, the project's attraction stems from two factors: a general disappointment in the levels of student performance and a recognition that current reform efforts have carried the education system only so far.

"What we found out," says Gov. Garrey E. Carruthers of New Mexico, "is that by sending mandates to school systems, nothing much happened."

With Re:Learning, he notes, "we're taking some risks, too. Not all of these programs will succeed." But the goal, he maintains, "is to make learning an active sport, rather than a passive one."

Already, the program has accomplished at least part of its mission by rapidly expanding the number of schools trying out Mr. Sizer's ideas.

Delaware alone, for example, has 14 Re:Learning schools, the same number as in the original coalition.

By the end of this year, participants expect that about 117 Re:Learning schools in the six member states will be involved in thinking through Mr. Sizer's premises and adapting them to their institutions.

Moreover, the range of schools and school districts involved varies widely--from an Indian reservation in New Mexico, to a state school for the deaf in Rhode Island, to an inner-city school in Chicago. If Mr. Sizer's ideas can work in that variety and number of schools, his backers maintain, it will lend the project widespread credibility.

What Re:Learning schools have received from the states thus far are primarily verbal support and money, sometimes in large quantities.

New Mexico, for example, has provided $750,000 for the effort in its second year. Illinois has provided close to $700,000 for the project, more than two-thirds of which has gone directly to schools.

In addition, wealthier districts have supplemented such grants with their own funds. And in some states, such as Delaware, corporations and foundations have provided additional contributions.

The Brown-based effort, which began in a modest brick building on the university campus, expects to amass approximately $7 million this year in corporate and foundation support for both the coalition and Re:Learning. Of that, approximately $2 million will be spent out of the Denver-based ecs office on state and district activities.

The money also provides for research-and-development efforts, continued work with the original co8alition schools (now 45 in number), and training activities for principals and teachers.

All of which makes Re:Learning one of the better-funded school-reform efforts nationwide--and one with a lot at stake.

According to Mr. Sizer, such financial support, particularly when it goes directly to individual schools, has been invaluable. "If a group of teachers in a school decides they want to explore going in a certain direction," he explains, "there's money for them to get on a plane and go visit a school that has taken a similar direction."

"Teachers also have a chance to talk with each other," he adds, "for which there's very little time in the regular school day."

For instance, the money has enabled teams of teachers from many of the schools to attend summer institutes, regional workshops, and ongoing staff-development efforts sponsored by the ecs and the coalition.

Equally important, notes Charles Bowen, principal of Broadmoor Junior High School in Pekin, Ill., "the money is actually monitored and decisions are made about how it is used right here in the building." That is highly unusual, he points out, for a system in which most of the funds that come to schools are already earmarked for particular purposes.

Participants also point to a new spirit of cooperation and communication between schools, local districts, and state departments of education.

Each state, for example, has hired a Re:Learning coordinator to work directly with the schools and with the coalition staff in Providence, R.I. In addition, each state has created a cadre of high-ranking government officials, businessmen, and education leaders to coordinate policy changes.

In Illinois, the cadre includes representatives from the governor's office, the University of Illinois, the state education department, the legislature, the two state teachers' unions, the principals' association, the school administrators' group, andate board of education.

Getting such influential players together on a regular basis in any state, suggests Warren K. Chapman, coordinator for Illinois's Re:Learning effort, "would be very rare."

Equally rare is the opportunity for teachers to meet and converse with education policymakers. Parker McMullen, a science teacher at Wilmington High School in Wilmington, Del., for example, attended a workshop on the coalition in Providence.

"I can remember sitting there and thinking about how many times in my career I'd been down the road in reform," he says, "and how different this was, to be in a working session with a district superintendent, a member of the state department of education, a couple of other teachers, and a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools."

"It's a wonderful thing to know that the shakers and movers at the state level are interested and concerned about what you're doing," he adds, "but what it means long-term, I'm not sure."

So far, Re:Learning participants concede, there have been few concrete changes at the policy level.

They supply several reasons for that phenomenon. Because the project has emphasized the need for changes to rise up from below, they note, state leaders have been reluco jump in and provide too much direction for schools.

"We've wanted to let the schools lead the cadre, not vice versa," says Chris O'Neil, the Re:Learning coordinator for Rhode Island. "We want the problems that the cadre deals with to be real problems that bubble up below."

In addition, Ms. Anderson of the ecs observes, "this is all kind of new, and people at the district or state level aren't even sure what ideas to promote in the schools."

"We can't tell you to go to X state or Y district and talk to people at that level and see a difference yet," concedes Edwin W. Campbell, executive director of Re:Learning and the coalition at Brown University.

"The joint venture [with the ecs] only got started about two years ago," he explains. "On the coalition side, we've been toiling in the vineyards since the early 80's, and we're farther along."

To help states become more assertive, the ecs is developing a handbook on policy options for state legislators and members of school-boards. The book will suggest ways to change state assessment practices, shift more responsibility to the school site, provide for greater staff development, and initiate other activities supportive of Re:Learning.

Some of the waivers granted to schools thus far enable teachers to teach outside their area of certification, provide for additional days of inservice training during the school year, and allow schools to experiment with changes in scheduling.

New Mexico, for example, has passed two laws that encourage schools to seek waivers from requirements on class size, instructional time, assessment practices, and graduation standards, as long as they can explain how such changes would benefit students.

Eventually, Mr. Sizer hopes, states will attempt to devise assessment systems that enable students to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways; diploma requirements will ask students to exhibit their mastery of specific information and skills, rather than relying on course credits and age-based grade levels; and teacher certification will shift from an emphasis on what individual teachers know and can do to the knowledge that teams of teachers hold in concert.

Some participating states, such as New Mexico, are also beginning to examine their accreditation standards for schools to make them more outcome-based. The state is also working to reorganize its department of education so that it is more responsive to schools and districts that want to move beyond the status quo.

"What we're attempting to do," says Jeanne Knight, associate superintendent for learning services in the New Mexico department, "is get the decisionmaking authority in the department closer to the people who actually work with the client."

Nonetheless, Helen Foss, the education aide to Gov. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, cautions that "schools are still very uncertain about the level of support that we're going to give them as they get deeper and deeper into the process."

"I think right now, they're skeptical," Ms. Knight agrees.

In addition, participants note that the general public, school-board members, and nonparticipating4teachers often remain dubious, uned--and sometimes openly hostile--toward Re:Learning.

The Roswell, N.M., school board voted not to participate in the initiative, for example, after holding five public meetings. Parents objected to abolishing standard high-school credits for college entrance and to giving students so much responsibility for their own education. The board also cited a lack of evidence that Re:Learning would help elementary-school children learn.

"We're just downplaying the whole thing," says Pedro Atencio, coordinator of Re:Learning for the state. "I think what happened is that parents were just not aware of the terminology."

"It's going to take a long time for people to understand" what Re:Learning is about, he predicts.

Project coordinators also report uneven progress among schools in adapting Mr. Sizer's ideas.

"Some of the schools are taking off like crazy," says Jean B. diSabatino, the Re:Learning coordinator for Pennsylvania. "Other schools are still in this old paradigm: 'We don't know how creative we can be.'"

A number of schools have grouped students into smaller units that work with a team of teachers for more than one year. Within the teams, educators are trying to provide interdisciplinary classes that extend over longer blocks of time and to personalize instruction by getting to know individual students better.

A few schools have also begun to look at multi-age grouping and new forms of assessment that more accurately reflect the range and depth of students' knowledge.

At Wilmington High School in Delaware, for example, a team of teachers has been working with a group of 160 9th and 10th graders for two years. Within the team, instructors share a common planning period so they can discuss individual students' needs.

Instead of 50-minute class periods, students' days are broken up into longer blocks of time focused on one subject, such as mathematics or social studies. Individual teachers have also learned to become "generalists." For instance, one teacher certified in spe education is teaching English.

But members of the team still say they have a long way to go to provide more interdisciplinary, hands-on instruction for students and to winnow down the curriculum to its essential elements.

"When we look at what schools eventually might get into in terms of restructuring, they're still at the edges," says Ms. Foss of Delaware.

But educators remain confused about how to deepen the level of change going on at individual sites.

New Mexico, for example, has stressed providing a broad base of support for Re:Learning by including 51 schools in its initiative and providing training to some 600 educators statewide.

In contrast, other states, like Rhode Island, have kept the number of Re:Learning sites small in the hope that they can provide models for other schools nationwide.

"I think that we need to have a school that is different, and that the world can see is different," says Joseph L. FitzPatrick, Re:Learningcoordinator for Delaware. "We need to show what the promise is."

Results from some of the original coalition schools are, in fact, promising.

Data from the 1988-89 school year show attendance rates that often hover above 90 percent; dropout rates that fall well below their districts' averages; and strong showings on standardized tests.

In addition, educators report fewer referrals for disciplinary problems, and more students going on to pursue higher education.

Mr. Sizer cautions that such results are preliminary and fail to reflect many of the Coalition of Essential Schools' more sophisticated goals for student learning. But the findings appear encouraging.

The coalition is now planning a more comprehensive evaluation that includes several parts:

Data from the last academic year are being gathered from 45 schools that have spent several years trying to carry out the coalition's ideas.

An expert in assessment is trying to make such measures comparable across schools and to examine other evidence of success, such as changes in student and teacher morale.

Five years ago, the coalition hired two ethnographers to track its work in eight schools. A book on the results is forthcoming.

A small committee of outside experts will be appointed to review and interpret research about the coalition that has been undertaken by the Brown University staff and others, in order to prevent people from being misled by "crummy research," Mr. Sizer says.

Case studies will be conducted on regulatory and policy changes at the state and district levels to support Re:Learning.

A cohort of 14-year-olds entering coalition schools will be followed for nine years to track the students' success or failure.

Meanwhile, Re:Learning participants are urging patience with what most concede is an extremely ambitious endeavor.

"This is like the Normandy invasion," says Frank Newman, president of the ecs "We're on the beaches," but there's a long way to go.

Vol. 10, Issue 5

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