`Breaking the Mold' of Education

Eleven design teams gear up to reinvent US schools for the next generation of children

AS part of his America 2000 education agenda, President Bush put out a clarion call for a new generation of "break-the-mold" schools.

At the president's request, business leaders created the New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC) last year and launched a nationwide design competition to attract ideas for reforming American schools.

"You are going to see massive changes in American schools," promises Tom Kean, NASDC chairman and president of Drew University in Madison, N.J. "We are aiming for nothing less than a fundamental and dramatic change in education."

Donations to the nonprofit corporation fell far short of the $200 million goal. But there was no shortage of ideas for reinventing American schools.

Nearly 700 design teams entered the competition for NASDC grants. Eleven of these teams won funding for their projects. The "New American Schools" they develop are expected to serve as models for change in American public education.

"Of all the aspects of America 2000, this is probably the most useful," says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "We already have about a dozen major national networks of school reform. This will certainly add to it."

Others are less impressed with the initiative.

"I see it as window dressing," says Michael Slater, associate director of the Educational Leadership Institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "It's not a systemic kind of a change. I don't think it will change the basic structure of education."

The 11 winning teams will implement their ideas in public schools in 20 states.

Some teams include well-known school reformers whose concepts have already proved successful, others involve newcomers with untested ideas.

"We have selected proposals from some of the giants of education reform in this country ... and proposals that have bubbled up from communities where all kinds of citizens have come together and committed themselves to rebuilding their schools," says Ann McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer of NASDC.

The 11 projects incorporate a wide range of educational theories and practices, including extended school days and school years, increased parental involvement, advanced use of technology, and close links between school, community, and social services. (See story on Page 13.)

"Together they have given us the set of blueprints we will need for reinventing America's schools for the next generation," says Ms. McLaughlin. "The aim is to eventually include all 110,000 schools in the country. We won't be satisfied until all of them change."

Grant applicants were asked to submit plans that could be replicated in public schools nationwide. Implementation costs were not to exceed the amount most public schools already spend.

"One very important basic rule of the competition was that we asked every team to start from scratch. They didn't accept anything about today's schools as either a given or a sacred cow," says Norman Augustine, a member of the NASDC board of directors.

However, most of the designs will be implemented in existing schools.

Each team is expected to receive from $500,000 to $3 million in first-year grants.

Most will spend the year refining their initial concepts and laying the groundwork for implementation.

From 1993 to 1995, teams will test their concepts at initial school sites. Between 1995 and 1997, the focus will move to helping communities interested in adapting the ideas to their own schools.

NASDC has raised about $50 million, mostly from the major companies with representatives on its board of directors. McLaughlin, who was recently hired with a mandate to improve fund-raising, says she's confident that NASDC will reach its goal of $200 million.

But the scale of the initiative has already been rolled back considerably. NASDC originally planned to finance 20 to 30 design teams instead of 11.

"There's no question that it's been scaled down," Mr. Newman says. Nevertheless, "it's already had a big impact," he argues.

"The funding and the bid process served as a catalyst," Newman says.

Partnerships between school reformers, school districts, states, and communities were inspired through the design competition. "Everybody in the process went through the exercise of asking, `What would I do to completely change a school?' And that's a useful process," Newman says.

Some design teams that didn't earn grants from NASDC may take their ideas to local foundations for support, he predicts.

But Mr. Slater and others question the concept of funding a handful of experimental projects and trying to replicate those ideas in schools and districts throughout the US.

"I have no doubt that [the initial sites] will be different and probably successful schools," he says. "But to take what happens in those schools and move it over five miles and replicate it in another school is not all that simple," Slater argues. "What is implied in this is that we're going to create a mold into which we can pour bad schools, and they'll be reshaped into good schools."

The heart of the challenge is transferring reform ideas from school to school and school district to school district, according to many education reformers.

"It's not that we don't have some wonderfully restructured schools now, we do," Newman says. "But you can get a school restructured and really make wonderful changes in the performance of students, and the school right next door to it will just ignore that and keep right on going."

Yet Newman is optimistic that the New American School designs can be adopted by other schools. "They're coming into a system that every year is doing more and more replication," he says. "This is pushing the critical mass further."

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