Annenberg Institute Seeks To Find Voice in 1st Year
For Theodore R. Sizer, 1994 was the year of living dangerously. That was the year the Brown University professor agreed to help advise the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg on where to spend most of his $500 million gift to public education.
The clamor and publicity surrounding the "Annenberg Challenge" largely eclipsed the work of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform here, which Mr. Sizer heads. And for the past year, the institute has been struggling to find its voice.
"The institute is searching for where the silences are, where there's a vacuum," Mr. Sizer said recently. "There's no point just doing more of what very smart people have been doing."
Despite some common misperceptions, the institute does not make grants to outside organizations or programs. It does not select sites to participate in the Annenberg Challenge. And it is not responsible for monitoring their performance.
It is a champion of school reform for the long haul--particularly those reforms that take students and their work seriously.
'At Brown But Not of Brown'
Based here in Providence, the institute predates Mr. Annenberg's bequest to education by a few months.
It began in October 1993 as the National Institute for School Reform. Anonymous donors gave Brown University $5 million to create a permanent, nonpartisan unit that could promote and reflect upon efforts to rethink the nation's schools. Mr. Annenberg became the principal benefactor in December 1993, when he donated $50 million to the institute.
People here like to say that the institute is "at Brown but not of Brown." Housed on the second floor of Davol Square, a converted warehouse downhill from the campus, the institute strives for both a physical and a psychological distance.
A separate board of overseers, appointed by Vartan Gregorian, the university president, advises the institute on its work and reports back to Mr. Gregorian.
The semiautonomous unit makes its own appointments and sets its own salary scale. At the same time, many of its staff members teach part time at Brown and supervise undergraduate theses.
On the 'Fault Line'
Most describe their work as lying on the "fault line" between academia and the schools.
"It started on the assumption that there wasn't nearly enough work that involved people who moved easily on both sides of theory and practice," Mr. Sizer explained.
"We're looking not just to get the practitioners and researchers working together," he said. "We're interested in attracting people to work here who, in fact, are grounded in both worlds."
Two of the nation's best-known high school leaders serve as the institute's first senior fellows: Deborah Meier, the former principal of Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, and Dennis Littky, the former principal of Thayer High School in Winchester, N.H.
Its first full-time academic appointment is Susan F. Lusi, the co-director of policy for the institute and a visiting assistant professor at the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, here at Brown.
She is working on how to create a policy environment that supports school-site flexibility and high standards.
An Evolving Relationship
But the fault line between theory and practice is not the only one the institute straddles. It also is trying to define its relationship with the Annenberg Challenge sites and the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of restructured high schools that Mr. Sizer launched in 1984.
So far, both relationships are in flux.
After making substantial grants to groups in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chattanooga, Tenn.--as well as a small, initial grant to rural schools--the Annenberg Challenge has about $133 million left to distribute of the $500 million pledged nearly two years ago. (See Education Week, 6/14/95.)
Barbara Cervone, a special assistant to Mr. Gregorian, said most of the money should be pledged by this fall. At that point, Mr. Gregorian's pro bono work for the Annenberg Foundation--and by extension, Mr. Sizer's--would largely end.
The Annenberg Institute is not responsible for working with or monitoring the challenge sites. But it does have many personal and professional ties that are likely to continue. Ms. Meier, for example, is spending most of her time working with the New York group.
The institute's relationship to the Coalition of Essential Schools is even more complex. If the institute is a toddler learning to walk, the coalition is a growing, demanding adolescent. The 845 schools affiliated with it now dwarf the institute in size.
"In our little shop, the coalition is the colossus," Mr. Sizer said. "The evidence about the efficacy of its ideas is getting stronger by the day, and none of us are about to walk away from that."
Almost all of the institute's core staff members earned their reputations working with the coalition, from Ms. Meier to Joe McDonald, the director of research. And while the institute does not plan to work exclusively with coalition schools, it views them as exemplars.
Many of the institute's 15 research projects began under the auspices of the coalition, including some nearing completion.
The "change project" studied a few schools over five years as they attempted to implement coalition principles. The "exhibitions project" studied 10 high schools that required students to demonstrate their expertise to graduate.
One of the institute's most ambitious projects, "taking stock," will try to assess the impact of school reform on students and create a set of indicators that restructured schools could use with the public.
A "writing seminar," in collaboration with the National Writing Project, will help teachers in changing schools give voice to their experiences. A working party co-sponsored by the Educational Testing Service is investigating new accountability designs for schools and school districts.
Meanwhile, the coalition is moving more of its efforts out into the field. A futures committee has spent the past year planning how to decentralize its structure so that schools will work more closely with regional centers.
'Hardest Nut To Crack'
Its previous experience with the coalition has strongly shaped the institute's approach to supporting schools in the midst of change.
One of its earliest initiatives is the National School Reform Faculty, which was started a few months ago. It will identify and nurture leaders from reforming schools and provide a common meeting ground for them.
The program provides innovative schools with an experienced coach and about $2,000 in spending money to promote a new model of professional development. In exchange, teams of teachers and administrators at the schools agree to meet regularly during the school day to critique each other's work and think through schoolwide reforms. (See Education Week, 2/15/95.)
Of about 70 teams that will work with the institute over the next year, the majority are coalition members. By next year, the institute plans to reach out to a broader audience.
"Our dream is that schools will see this as an effective way to provide ongoing professional development for their entire staff," said Paula Evans, the director of professional development for the institute, "and they will figure out ways to restructure their schedules so that more and more people can participate."
Next month, the institute will launch a yearlong leadership academy for about 45 principals drawn from both coalition and noncoalition schools. "We're hoping that they'll become spokespeople for different constructions of leadership within a school," Ms. Evans said.
"The thing that I think makes the institute different," she said, "is that it is clearly focused on the innards of schools and classrooms. This is what we know something about. And, in the end, this is the hardest nut to crack."
Images of Good Schools
Another of the institute's projects is the Lead Schools Initiative, directed by Robert McCarthy, the director of schools for the institute. It will identify schools across a range of school-reform networks that demonstrate a dramatically different and more effective approach to teaching and learning. The project will study how such schools arose and what sustains them--and provide the public with images of what they look like.
"We believe that the nation needs examples to concretize the vision of a good school," Mr. McCarthy argued. "Especially at the elementary and middle school levels, there are already a lot of strong, well-conceived school communities out there."
The institute will convene the schools to discuss common concerns and share their experiences and lessons with others. In doing so, it could help unite the work of a broad range of reform groups.
One of the institute's primary concerns is how to engage the public in reform and provide it with richer portraits of schooling.
"One of the puzzlements we've had is how to re-create an audience the size of which the movie 'A Town Torn Apart' got," Mr. Sizer said. The television movie about Mr. Littky's Thayer High School was watched by 27 million people.
"It's entertainment, but it's not only entertainment," Mr. Sizer added. "It puts in front of people something other than the hugely distorted and disrespectful view of schools, where the teachers are fools, and the principals are bureaucrats, and the kids are consumed merely by hormones and not by serious thinking about important things."
As a senior fellow, Mr. Littky is spending part of his time thinking about how to reach the public, particularly through multimedia.
He also is negotiating with an unidentified state in the Northeast to help launch a "career" school that would combine the best of vocational and academic education. The school would be tied to a teleconferencing network that would enable teachers throughout the state to view and discuss classroom practices and work through the implications for their own schools.
The idea builds on an earlier program, "Here, Thayer, and Everywhere," that began at Thayer High. That project, now relocated to Brown as the "Educators' Guild," uses live, interactive television workshops to enable schools to learn from each other. The two-hour broadcasts include tapes of actual classrooms and discussion and questions. This year, 850 sites registered to receive the program by satellite.
'A Virtual Visit'
The institute is trying to capitalize on technology in other ways. A digital-portfolio project, supported by the International Business Machines Corporation, is helping schools organize student portfolios on computer. A related project will develop school portfolios that provide the public with a richer, more multifaceted image of schools beyond just test scores.
"The idea," says David Niguidula, the technology-project manager for the institute, "is that you could have some kind of virtual visit to the school."
The institute also plans to produce an annual report to the nation on school reform--which it now envisions as a multimedia campaign, rather than a document that would sit on the shelf.
But the Annenberg Institute is moving cautiously: whether in defining its agenda, reaching out to others, or making inroads into the policy debate.
"You don't have to have a fast start, but the important thing is to have a sound start," Mr. Sizer argued. "And these are tough issues. It would be very easy to drift into the exceptionally conventional."
The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Vol. 14, Issue 39