School & District Management

‘Consumer Guide’ Aimed At Reform Programs

By Lynn Olson — December 06, 2000 4 min read
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Schools that want to raise student achievement often confront a dizzying array of reform models to choose from. Now, they’re going to get some help.

A blue-ribbon panel was scheduled to release guidelines this week to aid consumers in deciding which improvement designs and consultants would be right for their schools and which are most likely to yield results.

For More Information

The “Guidelines for Ensuring the Quality of National Design Based Assistance Providers,” are available online from New American Schools, or by calling NAS at (703) 908-9500.

The “Guidelines for Ensuring the Quality of National Design-Based Assistance Providers” come at an opportune time. In 1997, Congress funded the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program to help high-poverty schools adopt research-based designs that are intended to transform a whole school, rather than address piecemeal elements of it

Since then, some 1,800 schools have taken advantange of the $220 million federal program to help select from dozens of existing designs or come up with new ones. The results, observers say, are hundreds of comprehensive school designs of widely varying quality and replicability.

The guidelines are meant to help schools and districts evaluate how well a particular program and its providers meet their needs and objectives. They were drafted over a six-month period by a group of 17 prominent education and business leaders at the request of New American Schools, an Arlington, Va.- based nonprofit corporation that supports the creation and dissemination of whole-school designs. The panel’s members include the heads of national organizations representing teachers, principals, school boards, superintendents, governors, and major employers.(“Blue-Ribbon Panel To Set Standards for Reform Models,” Feb. 9, 2000.)

“We’re at a point in time where we need this kind of substance and clarity about a process to identify what works and to separate it out from others,” said Mary Anne Schmitt, the president of NAS. “On the supply side, we have this influx of a lot of new designs and providers, and a lot of them are good, but a lot of them aren’t or don’t have a real track record yet.”

Nas also announced plans to work with others to create an independent, nonprofit organization—known as the Education Quality Institute—which could rate the quality of whole-school designs and other educational intervention strategies on an ongoing basis. NAS has committed $100,000 of the $200,000 needed for an initial, three-month planning grant, she said.

‘Fairly Demanding’ Bar

To create the guidelines, the panel worked with NAS and the Houston-based American Productivity & Quality Center, a nonprofit consulting firm, to solicit suggestions from individuals with experience in whole-school designs and quality-assurance programs. They also gathered advice from policymakers, educators, administrators, parents, and other interested citizens.

Although the guidelines are “fairly demanding,” said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a member of the commission, “we wanted to be certain that we didn’t simply eliminate some of the smaller, less well- financed providers in the process.”

Vincent L. Ferandino

“We didn’t make them so difficult that only the better-financed, more established providers could meet them,” he said, “because we do feel there’s a need for some diversity, some greater choice for the schools, as these providers come forward.”

The guidelines are broken into three categories: the performance of the design, or whether it can demonstrate results; the quality of the assistance provided, such as professional development and curriculum materials; and the capacity of the design-based assistance organization, including its financial viability.

The resulting 31-page document operates almost like a checklist. By asking providers for evidence of the 33 indicators listed, and using an accompanying “tool kit,” schools can determine which providers best meet their needs. The tool kit is especially geared toward schools that are just beginning to consider comprehensive school change initiatives. It outlines the steps a school should undertake before selecting a design, as well as potential pitfalls to consider.

Both the guidelines and the tool kit can also be used to improve the implementation of already-adopted designs, or by the providers themselves to improve their services.

For example, a high-quality design should be able to demonstrate increases in student achievement for all subgroups, three to five years after the program is started. Evidence also should show that the design has been replicated in a variety of schools with positive results.

A school should request a detailed contract that specifies the roles and responsibilities of the design-based assistance provider, the school, and the district; the costs of implementation; specific timelines, milestones, and performance targets for each key design element at each phase of implementation; and remedies for breach of contract. In addition, the school should look for a design that makes available third-party evaluations or reviews of the design’s research.

“Any tool that helps schools make better decisions and helps them understand what it takes to make the change happen— what the support structures need to be, and what the financial obligations are for things like professional development and materials—is good because decisions should be made by design, not by who is most persuasive at the door,” said Mikki Terry, the deputy executive director for program development at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as ‘Consumer Guide’ Aimed At Reform Programs

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