The Business of Change Corporate Leaders Had Bold Designs to Change the Culture of Public Schools. A View from the Front

Article excerpt

When captains of industry took up the cause of education reform in the 1990s, they aimed to "break the mold" of US public schools.

No more bits and pieces of reform - a little remedial reading here, a new box of math kits there. The business leaders that got behind the New American Schools initiative wanted big, bold designs for comprehensive reform - including everything from content to teaching to parental involvement.

It started like a classic top-down Washington initiative, including a summons to the Rose Garden of top names in US business and education. But the legacy of the New American Schools Development Corp. (NASDC), which closed last month, may be profoundly local. The maverick entrepreneurs and charter-school operators now taking up the mantle of whole-school reform don't look like the corporate elites that launched it. Their aim is to prove that the best way to reform schools is to start from scratch. In April 1991, President George Bush called on business leaders to put their "genius for invention to work for America's schools." These included people like David Kearns, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Xerox Corp., who had turned his company around by new quality- management practices. Many were shocked by what they saw in US school management. Where was the budget for research and development, the accountability, the quality control? They didn't like reports from their human-resource directors that new job applicants were short on basic skills. Moreover, they thought that they understood what many voters and school boards did not - that turning around the culture and performance of a school takes time, focused effort, and the resources to stay the course. "We knew it would take years to implement these changes, because people who had been involved in the corporate world knew how long it took to change a corporate culture," says Paige Cassidy, who joined the New American Schools development team on loan from AT&T. Business leaders pledged $42 million, and board member Walter Annenberg, former United States ambassador to Britain, added another $50 million in 1993, as part of a $500 million grant to help public education - the largest-ever private gift to public schools. Their goal was to identify new education designs that would help all students meet world-class standards in at least five core subjects while operating on a budget within reach of schools. New American School designs are now in use in more than 1,000 schools and 31 states. With $150 million in federal funding this year, some 2,500 schools are expected to implement some form of whole-school design this year. A variety of strategies for change These designs range from Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, which promotes "learning expeditions" around a single theme, to Modern Red Schoolhouse, which emphasizes a rigorous, traditional curriculum. The Co-NECT Schools model works best with a computer in every classroom, while the Roots and Wings design offers tightly scripted instruction that requires no new investment in technology. But for principals under the gun to boost test scores, they all offer a coherent strategy for improving teaching, testing, and parental involvement. In addition, design teams provide on-site support and benchmarks to measure progress. For example, Annapolis Elementary School - operating in the oldest elementary school building in use in Maryland - is in its second year with the Expeditionary Learning design. Kids say they love their classes, parents are volunteering in record numbers, and officials say the climate of learning has improved dramatically. "The model gave us a framework, a tremendous amount of staff development, and momentum," says Principal Rebecca Schou. "I used to see eight to 10 students a day with discipline problems; now I'm seeing almost no one. We've seen about 12 students return from private schools, and parents expressly said that they're back because of what's happening here. …

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