As Levin Steps Back, Accelerated Schools Takes Stock

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The Accelerated Schools project, one of the oldest and most popular "brand name" models in the school improvement field, is looking for a home.

The project directors heard late last month that plans long in the works to move the program from its current home at Stanford University to the University of California had fallen through. The setback means the 13-year-old program may find itself without a national headquarters when the academic year ends.

For Accelerated Schools, which has as its hallmark the belief that all disadvantaged students should have a "gifted and talented" education, the news is ill-timed. The past two years have marked a period of both robust expansion and marked change for the organization.

That upheaval began after the organization's founder, Henry M. Levin, experienced serious heart problems in 1997 and began to look for ways to reduce his prominent--and high-pressure--role in the project. Last spring, he retired from Stanford after 31 years, accepted an endowed professorship at Teachers College, Columbia University, and set up the National Center for the Study of Privatization there.

Also in 1997, Accelerated Schools experienced a sudden jump in demand for its program. The catalyst was a new, $150 million grant program established by Congress to encourage schools with large populations of needy students to undertake comprehensive improvement programs, much like that offered by Accelerated Schools.

The project, in fact, was near the top of an initial list of 17 "suggested" programs that federal lawmakers included in the legislation.

Since then, 200 schools have joined Accelerated Schools. Now, with more than 1,300 schools in 41 states, the program is thought to be eclipsed in size only by Success for All, a program that operates in 1,500 schools nationwide.

The rivalry seems appropriate because the two programs espouse distinctly different philosophies. Where Success for All promotes a somewhat prescriptive curriculum--particularly in reading--Accelerated Schools offers more flexibility. The focus is instead on helping schools set their own priorities and form new governance structures to help educators meet those ends.

"This a very big country with very diverse communities," said Robert E. Slavin, the researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who developed Success for All. "And there are many schools for which Accelerated Schools is a perfect match."

'Artistic Director'

The planned move to the University of California system was part of Mr. Levin's efforts to distance himself from the day-to-day operations of the project.

"I'm 61, and if this is going to continue, it's got to be done without the participation that I've put in all these years," Mr. Levin said last week. "There are two ways of doing that. You can either get sick and die or you can be part of an orderly transition."

He had already, for example, devolved some of the organization's policy-setting duties to its 12 regional centers. And, once the program was ensconced in Oakland, Mr. Levin planned to hire a new national director. The idea was for Mr. Levin to become the group's "artistic director" and play more of an intellectual than a managerial role.

Mr. Levin said he did not want to take the national office with him to New York City, where a satellite center already operates at Teachers College, for fear that staff members there would continue to rely on him.

The transition plans collapsed, however, after the UC system's office of the president, which would have housed Accelerated Schools in Oakland, took on responsibilities for several new statewide education initiatives.

"We just felt we couldn't do the kind of job that we needed to do on these projects and at the same time create a suitable home for Accelerated Schools," said Robert Polkinghorn, the executive director of the university system's school-university-partnerships program.

Research Base Questioned

Accelerated Schools has had its share of setbacks and successes since Mr. Levin dreamed up the idea in the early 1980s, when he was a Stanford economics professor. The program quickly drew national attention for its attractive message and the positive results it produced in the two San Francisco Bay-area schools that first tested it. Similar success stories followed in hard-to-fix urban schools as far away as Boston.

But the two original flagship schools--Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco and Hoover Elementary School in Redwood City--eventually dropped out of the program after getting new principals.

A report published earlier this year by the American Institutes for Research also added a blemish to the program's long record of success. Aiming to give Consumer Reports-style ratings for 25 popular programs, the authors rated the research on Accelerated Schools' effectiveness as only "marginal."

The study said too few studies had been done using standardized-test scores to compare program schools over time with demographically similar schools that were not using it.

"Most of us in academia would like to see better longitudinal data on all these reforms," said Samuel Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins researcher who has studied Accelerated Schools and other school improvement designs.

Mr. Levin is hoping, however, that a forthcoming evaluation of the program by Manpower Research Demonstration Corp., of New York City, will dispel such concerns. The independently financed study, focusing on eight schools, is due out next fall.

The AIR study has not deterred converts to the program, said James Meza Jr., who directs the project's satellite center in New Orleans. That center added 11 schools this year--the most in its history. He attributes the growth to the program's central message.

"We teach as if all children can be taught as if they're gifted," he said. "And I think that belief is in accord with why people come into education and with what parents want."

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Page 5

Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as As Levin Steps Back, Accelerated Schools Takes Stock
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