Schools Stress Speeding Up, Not Slowing Down
PALO ALTO, CALIF.--When Debbie Emery, the principal of the Metcalf Elementary School in Houston, was casting about for ways to organize her school before it opened its doors this fall, she sought out Henry M. Levin, a professor of education at Stanford University here.
Ms. Emery had read Mr. Levin's articles on "accelerated schools," which lay out a model for educating disadvantaged children that turns the conventional wisdom on its head.
Instead of pulling children out of classrooms for remediation, which leaves them further behind, Mr. Levin argues, schools should "speed up" their instruction so that at-risk children can catch up to their more advantaged peers.
In addition, the Stanford researcher emphasizes, the entire school community must participate in the design and operation of a school.
"That really was what I wanted," Ms. Emery said. "It's based on the belief that all children can be successful, and offers a way to do that."
In opening her school on the accelerated model, Ms. Emery joined a rapidly growing national movement that has made Mr. Levin one of the "brand names" in school reform.
Less than five years after starting as a pilot program in two San Francisco Bay-area elementary schools, the project has spread to some 140 elementary and middle schools nationwide and has had to turn away more than that number that also expressed interest.
And it has won wide acclaim. The Bush Administration, for example, included accelerated schools as one of the models for the "new generation of American schools" proposed in its America 2000 education plan.
While the project has begun to show results-the first pilot site, Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco, registered the highest gains in standardized-test scores in the city last year--its effectiveness has yet to be proven in a scientifically designed experiment, cautioned Reberr E. Slavin, co-director of the elementary-schools program of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.
Nevertheless, Mr. Slavin said, the project shows tremendous promise.
"I'm a big fan of the idea," he said. "I think it will be effective."
Mr. Levin acknowledged that the project is still in its early phases. But he predicted that it would prove successful because it is based on "common sense."
"I'm not a genius," he said. "Common sense seems so uncommon in education."
Building on Strengths
An economist who directs Stanford's Center for Educational Research, Mr. Levin came up with the idea for accelerated schools in the early 1980's by combining findings from both disciplines.
In writing a book on worker cooperatives, Mr. Levin concluded that the most successful type of industrial organization is one in which all the employees work toward the same end and share responsibility for quality.
At the same time, he said, his research on the education of at-risk children convinced him that remediation for such youngsters placed them farther behind, rather than helped them.
"I don't like the term 'at risk,'" Mr. Levin said. "It kills them from the beginning."
"As soon as you think of kids as in need of repair," he said, "what you do is repair. That doesn't mean development, growth."
On the other hand, he added, "if you start off by looking at their strengths, and build on those strengths, you're now challenged to come up with enrichment for their gifts and talents."
Despite the years of research that went into the concept, Mr. Levin noted that he seldom talks about the origins of his ideas when he presents them to school officials.
"We ask them to appeal to their own intuition," he said. "If you want to turn them off, tell them that they ought to do something because research says they should."
'Give Me Your Tired...'
But while many academics would have stepped at developing the idea, Mr. Levin and his colleagues went on and tried to implement it in schools, beginning with the first two sites in 1987. ('See Education Week, June 10, 1987.)
"School change is 10 percent good ideas and 90 percent implementation," Mr. Levin said. "There is no shortage of good ideas out there. There is a shortage of success in implementing good ideas."
James McPartland, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins center, said the Stanford team deserves congratulations for putting their ideas into practice.
"Often, professor types do a lot of problem analysis and hortatory recommendations," he said. "They went further than that. They've done a lot more than that."
In seeking out implementation sites, Mr. Levin said the group "parrots Emma Lazarus," the poet who wrote the verse inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
'"We don't look for easy successes," he said. 'they don't prove anything."
Although most schools in the project are in inner cities, a few are in rural areas. But those pose essentially the same problems encountered in urban schools, said Joan Solomon, director of urban education for the Missouri Department of Education, which runs a statewide network of 10 accelerated schools.
"You're dealing with poor, disadvantaged kids," she said. "They're the same, whether you're in Poplar Bluff, Hannibal, or Kansas City."
But not all the accelerated schools are populated entirely by disadvantaged youths. The Metcalf school in Houston, for example, contains a mix of pupils from low-income families and from relatively affluent backgrounds.
Things That Matter'
Once a school elects to join the project--at least 75 percent of the school staff must agree to it--the Stafford team provides a one-week training session, usually in the summer, to orient staff members to the process.
Each school is asked to take stock of its own situation, to create a vision--a "dream" of what it would like to become--and to select a handful of priority areas to work on.
The trainers then outline a governance structure, consisting of committees, or cadres, to work on the priorities, and a steering committee, consisting of cadre representatives, administrators, students, and parents, that will guide the work of the cadres. Decisions about curriculum, instruction, and resource allocation are expected to be made by the school as a whole.
The Stanford group also proposes that schools use an "inquiry process" for decisionmaking. Under such a model, schools conduct research to test hypotheses in order to develop programs that truly match needs.
Mr. Levin said the process of developing a vision and an implementation plan should encompass all areas of schooling: curriculum, instruction, and school organization.
"We characterize [most school reforms] as an attempt to change an automobile with all kinds of defects by moving around the chrome," he said. "Maybe they'll change a math series this year."
"That doesn't mean any of those are wrong," he continued. "Maybe it is a better math series. But they never ask the question, 'Why aren't the students learning math?'"
Discussions of such fundamental issues make accelerated schools superior to other efforts at site-based management, according to Mr. Slavin of Johns Hopkins.
"Most times, teachers talk about different ways of organizing the ditto room," he said. "Accelerated schools are getting people te talk about things that matter."
No Step One, Two, Three
Participants in the project observe that it places much more of an emphasis on the process of coming up with solutions than it does on what the answers should be.
"What I liked was that it was not a prepared program; there's no step one, two, three," said Willie B. Santamaria, principal of Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco, the project's first pilot school. "Rather, it's a philosophy that we can take back here and develop on our own." (See related story on preceding page.)
Mr. McPartland of Johns Hopkins, however, said that the project must eventually provide more guidance about the content of acceleration.
"School reform requires a process te get people activated, and to help implement change," he said. "You also have te have content--new curriculum, assessments. There has te be some combination."
Gail R. Meister, a researcher at Research for Better Schools, a federally funded laboratory in Philadelphia, also noted that the project requires the understanding and support of school-district officials.
"They can't be isolated, break-the-mold, off-by-themselves schools," she said.
Mr. Levin said that schools have more flexibility under existing regulations than many believe they have. But, he acknowledged, several participating schools have had to go to extraordinary lengths to stay within guidelines.
For example, he said, a Texas school had planned to distribute outdated textbooks to parents to assist them in helping their children with homework.
But the school soon learned that, under a state law, since repealed, old textbooks had to be burned, not given away. So the school "lent" the books to parents, and claimed to state officials that they had been stolen.
"It's nasty, because they have to do those things," Mr. Levin said.
Beginning To Reap Results
In addition to administrative support, said Ms. Meister, who studied the project for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, accelerated schools demand a substantial time commitment from teachers.
Such time is costly, noted Hal J. Solin, an assistant superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. Although Mr. Levin often claims that his project requires only a small increment over existing per-pupil costs, the actual costs--including teachers' time---is considerable, according to Mr. Solin.
"Sure, they can say it doesn't cost much," he said, "if you can find teachers in the universe willing to work a lot of extra hours [without pay]. I haven't seen many like that."
Despite such difficulties, many in the project point out that it has begun to reap results.
In addition to the test-score increases at Daniel Webster Elementary, other schools that have been in the project only a few years have registered gains.
Fifth graders at the Hollibrook School in Houston, where nearly 90 percent of the pupils come from low-income, Spanish-speaking homes, for example, increased performance by two grade levels between 1988 and 1991. The students were performing at grade level in all subjects, and were a year ahead of grade level in math.
Mr. Levin stressed that test scores are a "byproduct" of the schools' improvement, not the end result, and he said other measures of progress--including attendance, morale, and number of disciplinary incidents-have also shown improvement.
Peggy Thompson, principal of the San Jacinto Elementary School in Amarillo, Tex., which joined the project this fall, said the number of parents visiting her school has already skyrocketed.
"Even in two months, my school is different," she said.
Continuing To Evolve
Such success stories have led to widespread interest in the project. Some 250 schools applied for the 1992 summer training workshop, Mr. Levin said, although the group could accommodate fewer than half of them.
As a result, the project expanded from 54 schools in 1990-91 to about 140 this year.
Mr. Levin said he would prefer to work with the existing schools, rather than bring new ones into the project. But he also noted that the project has set up mechanisms for expansion.
Using funds from Chevron U.S.A., the project has created "satellite centers" in Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle to provide training to schools in those regions. Other centers are starting up in Las Vegas, Nev., the New York City area, and South Carolina.
In addition, at least three states--Illinois, Massachusetts, and Missouri--have started their own networks of accelerated schools to provide support and training.
The national project also expanded into middle schools this year for the first time, with pilot programs in California and Washington State.
[email protected] Levin said the larger size and the departmental structure of middle schools pose special challenges for the project, but he reported that adolescents are receptive to the changes in instruction and organization.
But he said the group has no plans to start accelerated high schools. Other national reform efforts, particularly Theodore R. Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, are focused on improving secondary schools, Mr. Levin noted.
"We'd like to deliver kids to Ted Sizer's high schools," he said.
The Stanford professor also said that the accelerated-schools project is continuing to evolve. He added that he plans to stick with it until he retires.
'This is a 30-year project," Mr. Levin said. "This is not just a gimmick."
Vol. 11, Issue 09, Pages 1, 15Published in Print: October 30, 1991, as Schools Stress Speeding Up, Not Slowing Down