Reform Effort Expects Wave of New Takers

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The America's Choice school reform design is at work in about 300 schools today. By September, that number could almost double--thanks to a new pot of federal money that's available to pay for such "whole school" improvements.

But about four months before some schools begin the 1998-99 academic year, the America's Choice designers don't know which new schools will be using their standards-based approach, or even how many. Those questions won't be answered at least until the money starts trickling to schools in July, leaving two months or less for the intensive instructional and community-outreach training needed to implement the approach properly.

Judy B. Codding

"We're all geared up for it," said Judy B. Codding, the vice president of programs for the National Center on Education and the Economy, the nonprofit, Washington-based policy organization that created America's Choice. "We've had a year to plan for this."

Ms. Codding and other purveyors of so-called whole-school reform models are busy this spring and will be overwhelmed this summer, when money from the new $150 million federal program starts flowing to states and trickling down to districts. The funding includes $120 million in Title I money, targeted to schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

Cynthia G. Brown

The Department of Education is preparing to distribute the money to states starting July 1. The states in turn will award it to schools with the most promising plans for adopting models such as America's Choice, Success for All, and other comprehensive programs that supporters say have a track record of improving student performance.

Just how many such projects will be in place in the fall is still unclear, according to Bill Kincaid, the Education Department project manager for the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program. Educators also refer to the program as Porter-Obey for Reps. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., and David R. Obey, D-Wis., the two congressmen who tucked it into a major appropriations bill that passed last year.

Busy Summer

Some states are interested in routing money to schools so they can begin working this coming fall; others will parcel out portions of their grants for immediate work and hold onto the rest for later distribution; and some will wait until the fall of 1999 to start the initiatives, Mr. Kinkaid said.

Overall, New American Schools, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit corporation that lobbied Congress for the new program, estimates that 2,500 schools eventually will receive a piece of the $150 million pie.

New American Schools, founded by business leaders in 1991 at the request of President Bush, is touting the eight models, including America's Choice, it underwrote. The Education Department is distributing a list that includes 18 other designs. Schools may use another approach so long as they can prove that it meets the nine criteria the program sets for successful applications.

With the short summer schedule and intense interest, Ms. Codding and others who created America's Choice will need to cram into one summer several weeks of training for the literacy coordinators, community-outreach specialists, and design coaches who will be based in every school that chooses the standards-based program.

Ms. Codding estimates her team will be working in 150 to 200 new schools come fall.

Intense Interest

Most states have held conferences explaining how local districts can qualify for the new federal money. Kansas officials, for example, traveled to communities throughout the state to pitch the program. In Wisconsin, more than 100 interested officials were turned away from an overbooked state-run conference in Milwaukee.

The Council of Chief State School Officers drew 250 people from 32 states to El Paso, Texas, last month for a two-day conference on Porter-Obey. That's twice the attendance of the organization's previous meetings on improving the achievement of low-income students.

The intense interest, most observers say, is a reaction to recent research findings that the federal Title I program has failed to demonstrate long-term gains in achievement for the disadvantaged students it was designed to serve.

One recent Education Department report showed that whole-school approaches such as Success for All and the Comer School Development Program help low-achieving students close the gap on standardized tests. ("Chapter 1 Study Documents Impact of Poverty," April 16, 1997.)

"People who see Title I as a very important program and who are disappointed with the results are seeing this as a way of hopefully improving the results of all Title I," said Cynthia G. Brown, the deputy executive director of the Washington-based council of state chiefs. "Anybody who's focused on schools that are struggling is very interested."

Not all observers and participants are certain the new program will produce the results its backers want.

Maris A. Vinovskis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has studied the impact of Title I and other federal initiatives, said the legislation puts too much emphasis on the comprehensive nature of the projects instead of the specific models that have proved successful. He added that he endorsed the concept behind the Porter-Obey program.

"Why presuppose that comprehensive is the way to go," Mr. Vinovskis said. "I think I'm going to be shaking my head saying: 'This was an opportunity missed.'"

Even leading supporters of the project predict that many schools will follow models that don't work.

"There's going to be a lot of garbage," said Robert E. Slavin, the founder and director of the Success for All program and a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"In the cases where people take on garbage, is it going to be worse than what was going on before?" he added. "Probably not."

Mr. Slavin argued in an Education Week Commentary last year that the entire $8 billion Title I program should be built around whole-school models. He was an informal adviser to Reps. Porter and Obey. ("How Title I Can (Still) Save America's Children," May 21, 1997.)

Even if schools choose to use programs with a proven track record as part of the current $150 million initiative, they won't necessarily succeed.

A recent RAND Corp. evaluation of New American Schools projects found that, after two years, only half the 40 schools studied were "implementing" or "fulfilling" the core elements of one of the designs the new-schools organization funded. Four schools remained stuck in the planning stages after the same period, according to the research. ("Study: Schoolwide Reform Not Easy," April 1, 1998.)

"It will be chaotic while things sort out," John Anderson, the president of New American Schools, said of the new federal program. "By and large, I think [program designers] will be fine."

Starting To Prepare

This year, Ms. Codding, Mr. Slavin, and other whole-school creators are too busy, though, to dwell on what research may show in future years.

Ms. Codding and her colleagues in the America's Choice design expect to work quickly this summer. The design is named for a 1991 report, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, issued by the National Center on Education and the Economy. It received funding from New American Schools to put its ideas into action.

For America's Choice to work in schools, Ms. Codding of the NCEE said, it must be put into place in a cluster of at least 13 schools in one region, preferably within the same district.

The geographic concentration is needed because the designers will hire cluster-leaders to work with the schools, and--to be economical--all the schools must be within an hour's drive of one another.

"For our design with all the training components ... it's going to take a clustering concept," Ms. Codding said.

Each school in a cluster will hire a design coach, a literacy coordinator, and an outreach coordinator. All three people need to be available for training that will last from two days to four weeks at the start.

Success for All's organizers, on the other hand, are preparing principals and teachers in 400 schools to start work under its design in the fall. All of those schools have won the support of 80 percent of their teachers, as the program requires, and are putting employees through the training now. They will be ready to fully implement the program whether or not they win a grant from the Porter-Obey program, Mr. Slavin said.

Other schools will be able to put Success for All partially in place under the comprehensive-reform program in the fall, according to Mr. Slavin.

The latecomers will be able to take on every element of Success for All in the 1998-99 school year except for curriculum, he said.

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