School & District Management

‘Annenberg Challenge’ Proves To Be Just That

By Lynn Olson — June 25, 1997 11 min read
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It was billed as a “challenge to the nation": $500 million over five years, much of it to improve education in the country’s largest and most intractable cities.

Since Walter H. Annenberg announced his gift to the American people in late December 1993, the retired publisher and diplomat’s “Annenberg Challenge” has funneled millions of dollars into five original cities--Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay area--and made grants to several other urban areas.

A central assumption was that by giving money to reformers on the ground, rather than to the school bureaucracy, the challenge could make public education work for poor and minority students and deepen existing grassroots efforts.

More than three years later, some of the original cities can point to significant accomplishments, such as 122 small schools here in New York.

But that initial premise--of circumventing district red tape by creating groups of schools and educators who drew their support from each other and from outside partners--has proved unrealistic.

“The reality is that there’s no such thing as positioning yourself outside the district,” said Barbara Cervone, the national coordinator for the Annenberg Challenge. “There’s no bribe big enough for districts to let a piece go.”

More than halfway into the five-year period, each of the challenge projects is struggling to influence the larger educational system.

Several have had to pull back from overly ambitious goals, and most have encountered to different degrees the powerful forces that have derailed many an urban school reform project in the past: political squabbling, philosophical disagreements among reformers, battles with teachers’ unions and district bureaucracies, and conflicts with other ongoing reforms.

As a result, the long-term impact of the challenge remains uncertain.

In city after city, the grand rhetoric and euphoric visions of the days after the initial announcement are gone. In their place are more mature projects that seek to work with--not outside of--the existing system.

“The big money raised these big expectations that somehow we would transform New York City,” Ms. Cervone said. “No way.”

Honoring Local Contexts

From the start, the Annenberg Foundation encouraged each site to craft a plan uniquely suited to local circumstances.

As a result, the urban grantees share some general beliefs and values, such as: the importance of smaller, more personalized schools and classrooms, high expectations for all children, and strong ties between schools and between schools and their surrounding communities.

But they vary markedly in how they have put those beliefs into practice--so much so that some have questioned whether there is any cohesion to the challenge on a national level.

“I think whether it worked or not depended a lot on the readiness of the community,” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Program on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “My view is that some of the Annenberg projects are not going to go very far.”

In Philadelphia, the Children Achieving Challenge is built around the reform agenda of Superintendent David W. Hornbeck. And the district and the challenge have crafted joint work plans that reflect the school board’s funding priorities.

“It’s virtually impossible to separate out what’s happening with the challenge and the problems it faces from the life of the district itself,” said Tom Corcoran, who leads the research team for the Philadelphia project.

In the first year, Children Achieving chalked up some notable gains, including draft academic standards; a reorganization of the district into clusters of elementary, middle, and high schools; and the partial implementation of a new teaching and learning network.

But the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers remains bitterly opposed to what it views as an expansion of the bureaucracy. And the reaction of teachers remains mixed. Meanwhile, a looming showdown with the state over the district’s fiscal crisis threatens to bring the reform agenda to a halt. (“Teachers: The Reluctant Recruits,” Feb. 19, 1997.)

Small Schools

In contrast, the New York City challenge set out to create an alternative school system--called the Learning Zone--independent from the central office and heavily oriented toward the idea of small schools.

The Learning Zone would have brought together individual networks of three to eight small schools to work on such issues as teaching strategies, standards, and assessments. Schools in the zone would have operated independently of many of the New York system’s rules and regulations--much like charter schools.

By promoting smaller schools and giving them greater autonomy in exchange for accountability, the planners hoped to strip away the bureaucracy and anonymity that have long marred education in this massive system.

But the original Learning Zone concept--of school networks accountable to each other instead of some higher authority--has not materialized.

Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew balked at the creation of what was to be, essentially, a separate district operating outside his control. As Annenberg Challenge reformers in other cities have learned, without the support of the existing district structure, progress can be difficult, if not impossible.

“The creation of a parallel system under this chancellor is not going to happen,” said Iris Morales, the director of the New York Networks for School Renewal, the name of the challenge project here. “And I don’t think any of the sponsors want that.”

At least not any more. The organization is now working with Mr. Crew to establish a Learning Zone that might include networks of small schools but also could involve some of the system’s 32 community school districts.

Within the new framework, the reformers have made progress.

As a result of the Annenberg Challenge, small schools have become a visible and legitimate part of the New York landscape, and have spread to remote corners of the city. Today, 122 such schools serve nearly 50,000 of the system’s roughly 1.1 million students.

At one of them, the 21st Century Academy for Community Leadership in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, director Evelyn Linares has created a dual-language curriculum for 55 students in kindergarten and 1st grade. The children alternate between instruction in English and Spanish. The school, which opened in January, eventually hopes to expand to grades pre-K-12.

Ms. Linares grew up in this predominantly Dominican neighborhood, where most schools have swelled to capacity.

“I see how hard it is to remake something that’s not good,” she said this month. “You’re better off, really, just starting fresh and new. What [the challenge] gave us was the opportunity to say: ‘This is the way we think education works. And we’ll get people of like minds to put it together.’”

The United Federation of Teachers, the city’s main teachers’ union, has supported small schools by amending its contract to enable such schools to choose teachers based on criteria other than seniority. Last year, that flexibility was extended to other public schools that want it.

And though the Learning Zone concept has been scaled back, it remains a part of the challenge effort. As now envisioned by Mr. Crew, it would reward high-performing schools and community districts by giving them greater autonomy.

But it will remain part and parcel of the larger system.

“In some ways, at some levels, you can say we were compromised,” said Heather Lewis, the co-director of the Center for Collaborative Education, one of the four organizations that co-sponsor the New York challenge. But “from inside, we don’t feel that way.”

The difficult start has given the project’s leaders a sense of maturity, she added. “We can’t expect the system to change overnight. And we are not content, any longer, to sit in the cracks. So that comes with a price tag.”

Creating a Culture

Three thousand miles away, the Hewlett-Annenberg Challenge has taken an entirely different approach. The San Francisco-area project spans 740,000 students in more than 118 school districts in six counties.

The challenge, called the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, is a membership organization of schools, districts, and support organizations that share a set of common principles. Those that want to join must submit a detailed portfolio that shows steps they have taken toward such principles as whole-school change, high standards for all students, and the creation of powerful learning communities for teachers.

The collaborative provides funding to “leadership schools"--eventually expected to number about 200. Those schools are expected to drive reform throughout the Bay area by sharing their work in progress. Groups of teachers, principals, and other BASRC members also conduct research on topics of interest.

In a first-year evaluation of the collaborative, teachers showered praise on its professional-development opportunities, its high standards, and the insistence that educators gather and analyze data on the effectiveness of their work.

“We haven’t even begun to tap the wealth of resources they have to offer,” said Rosemary Holmes, the principal of the Paden Year Round School, a K-8 facility in Alameda, Calif., that was selected as one of 15 leadership schools the first year.

But as a school enmeshed in reform, she added, Paden’s role as a leader for others remains unclear. “As an individual school, it will have a profound effect on us and the way we think,” she said. “As to our district? I don’t know.”

A statewide initiative to reduce class size also hindered the reform agenda at many of the project’s schools this year, as they struggled to incorporate new teachers and find space for classrooms.

Although 53 districts have completed portfolios, in many cases their participation in the overall project remains peripheral. One exception is Oakland, where Superintendent Carolyn Getridge required every school to complete a portfolio process this year similar to that required by the Bay-area group.

“We’re not going to change the sovereignty of individual districts,” said Raymond F. Bacchetti, a program officer for education with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a co-sponsor of the challenge in the Bay area. “But we are, I think, going to be able to change the environment in which those independent systems work.”

In Need of Ideas

Before they can change the culture, however, most challenge sites have had to provide significant technical assistance to schools.

“We discovered, pretty bluntly, that some schools and individuals in schools needed ideas,” said Ken Rolling, the executive director of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. “After the first cut, the proposals were not as rich and not as substantial as we had expected.”

As a result, the Chicago project has slowed its grantmaking activity and focused more on providing support and guidance to networks of schools that received funding or hope to do so.

The challenge project there also is struggling to find common ground with Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 424,000-student system, who favors a more centralized, test-driven reform agenda.

“I think what we may see are some innovative programs developed in some of these schools and that they may become beacons of light that other people will want to turn to,” said G. Alfred Hess Jr., a research professor at the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “But I don’t think the scale is adequate to think we’re going to do systemic reform that way.”

Other challenge sites have had to rein in proposals that were too ambitious. The Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project includes both the Los Angeles system and the 81 districts in Los Angeles County, encompassing 1,700 schools.

“Our initial proposal was 25 pages, back to back,” filled with descriptions of what LAAMP would do and what schools and districts would do as a result, said Maria A. Casillas, the project’s director. “I think at first reading, it’s a beautiful poem.”

But today, she said, the project’s goals are smaller. “What we more realistically are taking stock of is: If you can’t do 50 things, what can you do well that will cause other things to tip in your favor?”

In Los Angeles, LAAMP supports the district’s road map to reform, known as LEARN. With that agenda now at a crossroads, the fate of the Annenberg project is also uncertain. (“Second Thoughts About LEARN Surface in L.A.,” May 28, 1997.)

‘Different Systems’

As these various projects move forward, there is widespread interest in knowing what Walter Annenberg’s huge investment in public education is producing.

“Big urban bureaucracies eat good schools for lunch and spit them out, over and over again,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “That’s the question for the challenge: Is it constructed in such a way that it can really overcome that?”

In an effort to answer that question, each of the urban sites has agreed to participate in a cross-site evaluation that will look at the effect of the different challenge projects on students, schools, networks, the district, and the larger community, including parents and the public.

Although the sites will not gather identical measures, they are all committed to collecting qualitative and quantitative data around topics of common interest, such as the academic benefits for students, the stability of students and staffing, and the creation of professional communities.

“If I had been king, I would have spent a lot less time negotiating through the system as it was and is and much more time in funding ‘different’ systems,” said Theodore R. Sizer, the former director of the Providence, R.I.-based Annenberg Institute for School Reform, who served as a pro bono adviser to Mr. Annenberg on the urban challenge. “I just don’t think that putting the control in the hands of the existing hierarchy is going to do it.”


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