Activist School Reform

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The Center for School Change, located at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis, recently completed an intensive internal-review process marking its first five years--and pointing to the next five. The center's primary mission is to "help teams of educators, parents, and students transform existing public schools or create new ones, including charter public schools." Though this work centers on Minnesota schools, the CSC's impact--in terms of school-reform research and policy formation--reaches well beyond that state's borders. With new funding from the Annenberg and Blandin foundations, and expansion to a second Center for School Change created by the Graustein Memorial Fund in Connecticut, the ideas of this forum for promoting choice in public education are advancing. Below is an adapted excerpt from the CSC report "Looking Back, Moving Forward," which is available from the center at (612) 626-1834.


The Center for School Change is part of a long, rich tradition in American life that blends the activist impulse with the rigors of research and participatory democracy. We have tried to combine the social-change strategies of reformers such as Susan B. Anthony, Saul Alinsky, and Martin Luther King Jr. with promising and proven school-reform ideas. Over the past five years, we've spent $3 million and worked with about 40 communities. We're convinced that the deepest, widest impact comes from working simultaneously at the school, community, and policy levels. Our experience may be useful to others. Here are seven major lessons we've learned:

(1) Schools can increase students' achievement, improve their attendance and their attitudes, even when the students come from troubled backgrounds. Some argue that schools can't do much to overcome problems of youngsters from troubled families. We disagree. It is critical to strengthen families and to develop a more just economy. But schools can do a great deal to help every youngster. Here are a few examples:

  • An elementary school-within-a-school in rural Minnesota called "Curiosity Castle" serves white and Native American young people. It was established by teachers who had dreamed for years of creating a multi-age, interdisciplinary program featuring study with senior citizens and other community members. They began with grades 1-3. Their clear, measurable success helped convince the local school board to establish a second school-within-a-school for grades 4-6.
  • An inner-city charter school in Minnesota recently became the nation's first such school to have its charter renewed, on a 7-0 vote. The school works with students between the ages of 15 and 21 who come from troubled backgrounds. Some of these students live with neither parent; some have been expelled from public schools for carrying weapons on campus. But the charter school's teachers build on strengths, rather than focusing on problems. They tap the idealism and energy that characterize the young. Students at the school have rehabilitated abandoned homes in the neighborhood, shoveled snow from senior citizens' sidewalks, and performed other services that give them not only a greater sense of self and possibility, but also of connection to the community.
  • An "exurban" high school in the state serves many single-parent homes, and families where the parents leave the house at 5 a.m. and don't return until after 7 p.m.--often from jobs that may be up to 50 miles away. Teachers at the school established a program called Connect 4, which is essentially a school-within-a-school for 11th and 12th graders. Every youngster in Connect 4 has to give three public presentations a year, culminating in a speech graded by a teacher, other students, a parent, and some other community member. "Connect" students wrote the town's first history, using their own research, and they provide other types of service in the community, like teaching elementary students the dangers of drugs. Parent and community leaders help the youngsters in the program explore such themes as power, politics, and decisionmaking.

These and many other schools whose innovative approaches to problem students have been nurtured by the Center for School Change have registered measurable improvements in student achievement. And they provide evidence that schools can make a difference.

(2) We encountered virtually no opposition from parents or community members, in great part because we insisted that families have a choice. Some parents and community members have been skeptical of, or even deeply opposed to, certain school-reform efforts. Education is subject to fads. Some excellent ideas are not well implemented. Parents have good reasons to ask questions.

Virtually all parents want students to develop basic and applied skills. But parents, like educators, disagree on the best ways for students to do this. Some parents strongly support traditional approaches. They are not impressed by outcomes-based education, whole language, or other innovations. Families should have options among various approaches. Parents with choices usually don't resist innovation.

(3) The public education system in most states does not reward schools, districts, or educators for outstanding work, or for improving student achievement. Our research found that three of the last 15 Minnesota state teachers of the year had been laid off due to low seniority. Imagine. Teachers judged among the state's finest were laid off, regardless of performance.

Despite the rhetoric, schools in most states receive dollars regardless of whether attendance and achievement are improving. Unlike the "new products" divisions of successful companies, most districts don't have formal policies allowing teachers to create and test new kinds of schools. Very few districts have emulated the Boston pilot-schools program, which permits educators to do precisely that. John I. Goodlad was right when he wrote, "The cards are stacked against innovation."

In several communities with which we have worked, innovative teachers encountered fierce opposition from colleagues, even when traditional teachers were not asked to change along with the innovators.

For example, teachers in one community established an optional elementary school-within-a-school. Parents and teachers agreed to meet once a month, at noon, to review student progress and discuss ways to help students at home.

The local teachers' union filed a grievance with the school board, protesting the educators' giving up their "duty free" lunch once a month. The board noted that these teachers had volunteered to meet at lunch time, and acknowledged this duty could not be imposed on other teachers. Not satisfied, the local asked a regional union official to confront the school's teachers. Noon meetings continued. The school's students showed substantial gains on academic tests. But with intense teacher opposition, the board has not enlarged the program to match parent requests.

While more work is needed to improve incentives, we're encouraged by the charter-public-school approach. This gives new opportunities to educators willing to be accountable for improving student achievement. Charter legislation also has helped encourage some districts to be more responsive to parents and teachers.

(4) Change requires emotional as well as intellectual support. Borrowing from the civil-rights movement, we have used skits and songs at training conferences. This helps increase morale and improve the spirit of people who often face tough opposition. We help folks celebrate victories and set priorities, to avoid "burnout."

(5) News media are key to school reform. CSC staff members have written literally hundreds of guest newspaper columns since 1990, and appeared on more than 150 radio talk shows, often with students and educators from "partner" schools. We learned from the women's suffrage movement, whose leaders communicated constantly through the mass media of their day. We regularly contact journalists to discuss nearby innovations, and to share research.

Sometimes we're disappointed. Television rarely covers schools unless there's a problem. Sometimes newspapers ignore our ideas. But generally we've found journalists eager to write about--or to let us write about--relevant research and schools that are making clear, measurable progress.

(6) Comprehensive K-12 school reform requires changes in higher education. The Center for School Change encourages cooperation between schools and families. But many educators are uneasy or uncertain about working with families. Our Rockefeller Foundation-supported research found that most states don't require prospective teachers or administrators to learn anything about working with families. This must change.

College-entrance requirements are another area where greater cooperation is in order. If high schools are to expand interdisciplinary courses and use new forms of assessment, higher education must show parents that it values well-designed innovations. Our colleagues at the Coalition of Essential Schools agreed at a recent conference that this is a national challenge.

(7) Making schoolwork "real" is central to engaging many students. Some teachers complain about teenagers' apathy or indifference. One key change the center promotes is helping young people study and attempt to improve their community. Teachers with whom we have worked have found that previously indifferent students may blossom when this approach is used. Examples from Minnesota schools include students who have:

  • Enrolled in a three-hour-per-day course on the Mississippi River, allowing them to explore the river and conduct water-quality tests for local and national groups.
  • Operated, as part of their schoolwork, the town's only grocery and hardware stores, attracting attention from national newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal.
  • Helped parents and educators gathered at CSC conferences plan changes in their schools.
  • Completed a local needs assessment that convinced their county to provide a $25,000 interest-free loan to help the students establish a new small business.
  • Gained statewide recognition for their discovery--part of a local river-valley study--that pollution of the river had produced deformities in frogs.
  • Completed research and produced brochures and videotapes for community groups to attract tourists or explain controversies.

We look forward to another five years of working with and learning from talented educators, parents, students, and others who are ready to seek from common endeavor school solutions that make common sense. Ready, as a civil-rights-era song urges, to "keep your eyes on the prize" of better schools for all. It's hard, important, and deeply rewarding work.

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis.

Vol. 15, Issue 22, Pages 40, 43

Published in Print: February 21, 1996, as Activist School Reform
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