Designs for Learning

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Memphis, Tenn.

New American Schools has helped districts from Everett, Wash., to Dade County, Fla., draw blueprints for rebuilding schools from top to bottom.

Educators from around the world descended on this Southern city last month for a field trip. Like the most obedient schoolchildren, they dutifully clambered onto buses and padded along behind their tour guides.

But the visitors--some from as far away as Hong Kong and Australia--had not come to see the usual Memphis landmarks: the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot; Graceland, where Elvis Presley lived; or Beale Street, the birthplace of the blues.

Instead, they came to see something rare in education: eight research-based designs for improving schools that are all being tried in one place. About one-third of Memphis' 161 public schools have adopted a design to change everything from the way they teach to how they relate to their community.

"The Memphis school district is the best example this country has to offer of a district embracing school reform," asserts Samuel Stringfield, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools who is studying the district's efforts.

What makes Memphis unique is the sheer number of schools and designs that are now on the ground. Forty-eight of the city's schools have adopted a design. And of those, 34 are using models that the New American Schools promotes. The district has also brought in two other national school reform models.

The organization, originally known as the New American Schools Development Corp., is the creation of a group of American business leaders who in 1991 decided that the best way to improve education was to underwrite the design of new models for what public schools might look like. After sifting through 650 proposals, the group selected 11 design teams led by some of the nation's most innovative and ambitious educators to draw blueprints that address every element of a school.

For two years, the teams refined and tested their ideas in about 150 schools nationwide. Settling on seven designs to market more broadly, the nonprofit corporation also decided to work primarily with a handful of districts and states, places with the commitment to make large numbers of innovative schools flourish.

By March 1995, leaders in 11 sites--including Memphis--had pledged to work with New American Schools to introduce the designs in at least 30 percent of their schools within five years. They also promised to revamp their policies and practices to support the work of transforming individual schools. Although Los Angeles and Vermont later withdrew from the initiative, San Antonio, Texas, subsequently came aboard.

In each site, the corporation has negotiated the initial terms of engagement with the district, helped introduce the designs to schools, plowed through barriers, and tried to sustain attention to the effort.

Since 1991, it has raised some $120 million, primarily to support the work of the design teams. It has also provided seed money, averaging about $200,000 to each of the original jurisdictions. The jurisdictions or their schools must pay a fee for the design teams' services.

Breaking the Cycle

Memphis is not a place that typically comes to mind when people talk about cutting-edge change. A conservative Southern city, it remains relatively suspicious of outsiders. And it is plagued by many of the problems common to poor urban communities.

Only 40 percent of the school system's 9th graders met the standards for the state's minimum-competency test.

John L. Anderson, the president of New American Schools, contends that if the designs can work here, on the banks of the Mississippi River, they can work anywhere. "Memphis is tough," he says. "It's the toughest kind of urban area."

Of the district's approximately 111,000 students, more than eight in 10 are African-American. More than six in 10 are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. In 1995, only 40 percent of the school system's 9th graders met the standards for the state's minimum-competency test. And the district's dropout rate is 28 percent.

What the city has going for it is Gerry House--a tough-minded, eloquent superintendent who is deeply committed to children rather than to politics.

"Our children are not born failures," says House. "It is our schools that have failed. In Memphis, we are determined to break this cycle of failure and to break it now."

Since House came to Memphis in July 1992, the district has adopted new standards for what students should know and be able to do. It has created site-based decisionmaking councils at each school. It has required schools to draft school-improvement plans focused on student achievement. And it has created an evaluation system for principals based, in part, on how their students perform. Last year, the city opened a Teaching and Learning Academy to provide professional development linked to whole-school change.

"Our final question dealt with what do schools look like when teaching and learning are standards-driven," recollects House. "We wanted to help schools restructure, so we went in pursuit of designs or models that were already out there."

The seeds of that effort are beginning to take root at Manor Lake Elementary School on the southwest side of the city. At 8:20 each morning, every teacher can be found reading aloud to her students, part of a concerted push to ensure that all children are reading at grade level.

The school displays many of the hallmarks of the Roots and Wings design it has adopted. Children are grouped for reading by ability rather than by age, and they are tested and regrouped every six weeks. Students spend large portions of each day working in teams or with a partner. A tutor provides individual help to the neediest 1st graders. And a family-support team addresses noneducational problems that might interfere with learning.

A few miles away at Graves Elementary School, which also serves a predominantly poor African-American community, teachers have decided that children will learn better if they can see some purpose to what they are studying. So they have adopted the Audrey Cohen College design, which organizes each grade around such themes as "we work for safety" or "we build a family-school partnership."

One demonstrable result of the changes at the school is a 1st grade class' successful request to the city for a new "no left turn" sign on a nearby street.

"Personally, I think all schools, even though they're in the same district, are different," says Principal Commodore C. Primous. "They have different personalities, and their neighborhoods are different. When you force something on a person, you don't get the kind of productivity you do when people go with change willingly," he says. "I think that's healthy for the whole district."

If nothing else, the large number of schools pursuing a design has sent a resounding message that Memphis is serious about reform. "It has engendered a lot of community recognition and support," maintains House. "The downside has been managing that much change."

That has been particularly true given the rapidity with which New American Schools launched its scale-up strategy. Jurisdictions such as Memphis had less than six months between March 1995, when they were selected, and the time classes began in the fall.

Several, Memphis among them, held design fairs to help match schools with designs. Groups of teachers, parents, and administrators from interested schools listened to design teams' presentations and could ask questions. Memphis also paid for some teachers and principals to visit schools that had already implemented a design. And it encouraged schools to submit formal proposals explaining how a specific design supported its school-improvement plan.

Mile Three of a Marathon

Even so, studies by the RAND Corp.--which is under contract to evaluate New American Schools--and by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Memphis suggest that many schools selected designs based on limited information.

Schools were unaccustomed to working in teams, lacked familiarity with new forms of assessment and pedagogy, and had not analyzed the problems at their site.

Some schools' staff thought that by choosing a design, they would get free computers or receive extra money and resources. Teachers at one school told researchers they had been sold on the design by trainers and school administrators only to discover that they would need to rewrite their entire curriculum, a task for which they felt unprepared.

In many jurisdictions, schools lacked the readiness to adopt a design. They were unaccustomed to working in teams, lacked familiarity with new forms of assessment and pedagogy, and had not analyzed the problems at their site.

The design teams, which were just beginning to market their services, struggled to explain their designs accurately and to clarify the cost of the technical assistance they would be providing.

An October 1995 survey of Memphis teachers who had participated in summer training sessions offered by the design teams found that about one-third were unsure how the design would affect their school; about one-fifth thought it would have a negative impact.

All the designs have shown some progress in the majority of schools, and no school has withdrawn from the initiative.

"It seems inevitable to me that the first 34 schools in Memphis simply had much less information on what these designs were," says Johns Hopkins' Stringfield, who is participating in a study of the Memphis restructuring initiative along with colleagues at the University of Memphis. "It wouldn't surprise me or disappoint me if 10 or 15 of the original 34 schools opted out."

Implementation varies widely across the schools in Memphis. But all the designs have shown some progress in the majority of schools, and no school has withdrawn from the initiative. Nearly every design added schools in the 1996-97 school year. Not surprisingly, those schools that made the most progress in the first year had strong administrative leadership, designs that closely matched the school's existing beliefs and practices, and previous experience in carrying out reforms.

"Memphis," observes Stringfield, "is at mile three of a marathon."

In some jurisdictions, New American Schools continues to be a robust vehicle for promoting reform. In other places, it has been subsumed by local politics or overshadowed by the revolving door of urban superintendents and school board members.

"It's very uneven," contends Robert E. Slavin, the director of Roots and Wings and a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. "Frankly, of the 10 jurisdictions, maybe three have the remotest semblance of what New American Schools had in mind. School districts, at the outset, promised all kinds of things. And the best of them have not delivered."

'Guerilla Warfare'

San Diego's efforts have been stalled by a bitter teachers' strike and the school board's decision to search for a new superintendent. Thirty-two of Philadelphia's 257 schools have adopted a design. But the initiative remains barely visible, given the broader fights being waged about the future of the school district.

Cincinnati focused much of its energy on reorganizing the central office and creating a climate that would be conducive to change. But now, it, too, is engaged in a struggle with teachers over the direction that reform should take. And in Maryland, where New American Schools has partnered with the state education department, it must still win adherents at the district level.

One of the most promising sites is San Antonio, where Superintendent Diana Lam has assigned an instructional facilitator to each school to help guide schoolwide reform.

"School change is like guerilla warfare," argues Sally B. Kilgore, the director of the Modern Red Schoolhouse design. "You win the hearts and minds of teachers one by one."

She complains that school systems have a hard time advocating simultaneously for multiple designs. "When you're in a district with all seven designs, you risk becoming part of a charm on somebody's charm bracelet."

But other design teams say their work would have been even harder without the advocacy and intervention that New American Schools has provided.

"What it allows us to do is to concentrate our resources and energy on communities in which there is a climate of receptivity," says Janith Jordan, the vice president of Audrey Cohen College. "On assessments, on standards, on resource allocation, New American Schools is trying to make the environment receptive to doing things in new ways. This will save us a decade."

'Your Hand Was Held'

Once a highly centralized bureaucracy, Memphis is working diligently to rethink the way it does business.

It has divided the district into 12 clusters, each with a lead principal, to improve communication between schools and the central office. It has reduced the executive leadership team to six people, including an executive director for school redesign, training, and development.

Not all teachers are comfortable with their newfound authority.

The school system has assigned a central-office facilitator to each design team to provide schools with support, and it is in the process of giving schools more control over their budgets. Moreover, it is working with a pilot group of 48 schools to help teachers teach to the new standards.

But providing technical assistance to schools is a new role for many of the central-office staff who are learning about the designs at the same time as the schools. And not all teachers are comfortable with their newfound authority.

"We were a centralized district, and now we've gone into decentralization," says Alice Faye Duncan, the librarian at Manor Lake Elementary School. "I don't know yet which is best. I happened to like the fact that under centralization, your hand was held and you really couldn't make a lot of mistakes."

Adds Duncan, "I think in time we're going to have to look and see if all of these designs are really progressive, or if it's just another thing that failed."

Like many teachers, Duncan is willing to give the designs a chance. And the Memphis Education Association has supported the school system's efforts. The union agreed to an addendum to the teachers' contract that makes it easier for schools to adopt a design. Teachers at schools who do not agree with a design can request a transfer, either at the end of the first semester or at the end of the school year. Principals also can request to move resistant teachers. The addendum has been used only a handful of times, but principals say it has made their job easier.

"There's a new level of mutual respect," says Richard Potts, the principal of Idlewild Elementary School, which has adopted the Co-NECT design. "I'm not moving people because of a whim or a personality clash."

Across the jurisdictions, the RAND Corp. has found, teachers' unions are generally supportive of change. But it cautions that many provisions in union contracts, particularly those focused on working conditions, ultimately could inhibit the use of designs on a broad scale.

Potts, who spent 10 years in the central office as a curriculum coordinator, says the school system is finally placing schools on the front line, where the action should have been all along. But he adds: "It's required a level of expertise never called for by building-level administrators before. It used to be if you were a good disciplinarian, you could handle a school. Now, that's the least of your problems."

Getting at least 60 percent of the faculty and 90 percent of a school's leadership council to agree on a design, as Memphis requires, has proved especially difficult for turf-torn high schools. Across all the jurisdictions, far more elementary schools than high schools are participating, and progress has been slower at the secondary level. Of the initial 34 schools in Memphis, for instance, only five were high schools.

Memphis also is one of two districts designated a "break the mold district" by the state.

Teachers and principals in most jurisdictions also report a conflict between the designs--which typically emphasize long-term projects, interdisciplinary teaching, and multiage grouping--and traditional accountability measures.

That is especially true in Memphis, which must report scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, a high-stakes standardized test that is used to rate schools and teachers.

The school system plans to design its own performance assessments geared to its new standards. Memphis also is one of two districts designated a "break the mold district" by the state, theoretically freeing it from many state rules and regulations. But so far, it is unclear how much maneuverability it will have.

"There's a concern that the designs at many of the schools are working, but that won't be reflected" in the test, says Steven M. Ross, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Memphis, part of a team of researchers from Memphis and Johns Hopkins universities who are evaluating the restructuring initiative. The first-year evaluation, summarized in a forthcoming issue of the journal School Effectiveness and School Improvement, found that every school voiced concerns that the designs were not correlated more closely with the testing objectives.

Interviews with 20 New American Schools principals from around the country found similar results in 1995. More than half of them told researcher Karen J. Mitchell that state and district tests were driving schools to focus on basic skills and traditional teaching at the expense of the designs.

The reliance on state-devised tests also poses problems in evaluating the effects of the designs. Early on, the corporation realized it could not require all jurisdictions to administer the same test. So it has relied upon the information that districts already collect.

For the next four years, RAND plans to track test scores in 225 participating schools.

"It's very scattered and piecemeal," admits Anderson. "We will take the districts' measures, and we will look at incremental change and common data categories across sites, but disparities in the ways data are collected and analyzed remain. That's a built-in flaw." Even attendance, he notes ruefully, is calculated differently from one district to the next.

By 1996, the design teams had reported that many schools had experienced improvements in attendance and completion rates and a reduction in disciplinary incidents. Schools also were beginning to see glimpses of gains in student achievement. For the next four years, RAND plans to track test scores in 225 participating schools. It also will examine changes in the behavior and engagement of students, as reported by teachers and principals, as well as changes in teaching practices. But it still may be difficult to get a coherent picture of the improvements.

The more immediate question for Memphis--and for New American Schools--is how to expand its efforts while providing enough support for individual schools.

"Memphis has a tremendous challenge in terms of financing expansion," says Kilgore of the Modern Red Schoolhouse. "And that may be the disadvantage of the jurisdictional model, whether they can really finance so much scale-up."

The school system paid for the initial training provided by the design teams through a combination of funding provided by New American Schools, an allocation from the district's general fund, and a redeployment of federal Title I funds.

But in a system spending only about $4,900 per pupil this school year, many schools lack the technology that some of the designs require. And the district, like most, does not have a permanent source of funding for school-level innovation.

The issue will become even more acute in the next few years when each school will be expected to identify a research-based design for raising student achievement.

Ironically, finding the money to bankroll school improvement may be easiest in high-poverty schools.

"In most jurisdictions, the initial resources for the first schools have been there," says Diana Nunnaley, the director of national program development for the Co-NECT school design. "But as the program is successful, and as new schools want to become Co-NECT schools, it's becoming more difficult for the districts to make that possible. And then it comes down to rethinking and reallocating how they're using their funds."

Allan R. Odden, a professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, insists that it is doable. He is working to figure out the costs of New American Schools designs and how districts can pay for them.

Odden calculates that in a 500-student school with one principal and 20 classroom teachers, the average cost for a design ranges from $200 to $700 extra in per-pupil spending. That amount includes professional development, materials, an instructional facilitator, and such design-specific features as a tutor or enhanced technology.

"These costs are well within the reach of any school that's funded at or above the national average," he asserts.

Ironically, finding the money to bankroll school improvement may be easiest in high-poverty schools, where federal Title I funds are available for whole-school change. Other schools may have a hard time halting existing programs or reconfiguring staffing to finance such designs. Odden suggests that educators have a hard time conceiving of these enterprises as whole-school designs and that other piecemeal initiatives within the school should cease.

In Memphis, it is unlikely that the first 34 schools will receive a large influx of new money anytime soon. And whether the district can sustain its current level of support for the reforms--a level above traditional norms--is uncertain.

"Even at the very best schools, teachers are saying, 'We've seen this before. When will it go away,'" observes Ross, the University of Memphis professor. Without the strong leadership provided by Superintendent House, he asserts, "I don't think you could do it at all."

"Some feel they are just going to wait it out until this restructuring ends," agrees Elsie Lewis Bailey, the principal of Booker T. Washington High School, which has adopted the ATLAS Communities design. "But they don't know Gerry House."

Vol. 16, Issue 20, Page 40-45

Published in Print: February 12, 1997, as Designs for Learning
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