Every major school district in the country is engaged in some sort of school reform. Efforts range from primarily pedagogical to primarily political.

Below are sketches of five districts. We included New York and Los Angeles because they come closest to Chicago in size. We selected the others by asking five well-informed observers to name districts with the most promising efforts. Memphis came out on top; finalists Boston and Charlotte-Mecklenburg were selected for geographic diversity.

The experts were Leslie Graitcer, executive director of the Bell South Foundation; Anne Lewis, a veteran education writer, editor and columnist; Chris Pipho, senior fellow, and Christine Johnson, Urban Initiative director, both of the Education Commission of the States; Marshall Smith, acting deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Education; and Ron Wolk, founding editor, Education Week.

Boston sets new standards

Supt. Thomas Payzant, a former federal official who helped overhaul Title I funding guidelines, is working to rework the way Boston runs its schools. His plan, “Focus on Children,” unites the district’s disparate reform strategies under one banner: clear, districtwide learning standards.

Standards for every subject at every grade level are expected to be in place by 2001. They spell out exactly what children should be able to do and include multiple forms of assessment, such as portfolios, tests, presentations and story-writing. Payzant is counting on improved instruction and pinch-hit strategies like tutoring and summer school to bring stragglers up to par by June 2001.

Under the 1994 federal legislation that Payzant helped write, every school in Boston is eligible to use its Title I funds for programs that benefit all students, not just the poorest. Payzant has requested that each school write a comprehensive yearly plan spelling out how it will bring every student up to standards, and he visits each school at least once a year to check up on implementation.

Payzant’s job has been made easier by a longstanding network among Boston’s civic and business communities and its schools. Since the mid-1970s, businesses have worked hard to foster relationships with neighboring schools. In 1982, business and civic leaders, the school board and the mayor formed the Boston Compact, which channels outside resources to schools and helps draft educational goals.

The Boston Teachers Union is another key player. Through its forward-looking contracts, it has introduced charter schools, comprehensive professional development and other initiatives. And Mayor Thomas Menino is leading a high-powered campaign to provide one computer for every four students within five years.

Like most ambitious reform efforts, “Focus on Children” has had more success in some areas than others. Boston’s schools still use multiple-choice tests, even though Payzant would rather introduce more open-ended forms of assessment. He has been unable to find an alternative exam rigorous enough to meet with public support. Parent involvement, which the administration generally supports, has been disappointing. On a positive note, the Center for Leadership Development, the district’s thriving professional-development arm, has already begun aligning its offerings with the new standards.

Mary Ellen Smith, executive director of Critical Friends of the Boston Public Schools, says she has little faith in Payzant’s plan. “You get a lot of rhetoric and a lot of very impressive goals,” Smith says. “In Focus on Children, there is no implementation plan, no strategy. The infrastructure hasn’t changed.”

Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, which gives whole-school grants to Boston public schools, disagrees. “There are a lot of pieces that have been put in place that will become visible as the year unfolds,” she says. She points to the increasing number of teachers Payzant has observed basing their lessons on the new standards. “This takes a lot of time,” Guiney says. “The structures for delivery are deepening and really taking root.”

New York’s system cleans up its act

Now entering his third year in office, Chancellor Rudy Crew has moved forcefully to curb the corruption that has rocked many of New York’s 32 community school boards, which oversee elementary and middle schools. Crew helped rewrite the state law that created elected district boards nearly three decades ago, giving both himself and district superintendents more power.

Superintendents got the power to hire and fire staff, choose instructional materials and handle government funds. The chancellor got the power to select superintendents, determine hiring requirements for new principals and intervene in failing schools and districts, taking them over if necessary.

At the same time, though, a series of fiscal crises in New York City has brought education budget cuts almost every year since 1990, even as enrollment has been increasing by as many as 20,000 students a year. Rather than provide more money, the new state law charges the chancellor with creating a finance policy to protect the system’s existing funds from waste and fraud and with hiring auditors to check up on each community district.

The law also provides for school-based budgeting and shared decision-making, without spelling out details. It says only that schools should balance “participation by parents with participation by school personnel in advising in the decisions devolved to schools,” and that principals engaged in school-based budgeting should use a “collaborative school-based planning process.”

Ray Domanico, executive director of the Public Education Association, a parent information group, is critical of the law’s ambiguous language. He says it gives Crew room to turn local councils and budgeting committees into mere advisory bodies. “There is nothing seriously approaching shared decision-making in New York City,” he says. “The action the legislature took ended up centralizing power.”

Meanwhile, a small-schools network also is thriving in New York under an Annenberg Challenge Grant. One success was persuading the central administration, which oversees high schools, to close two failing high schools and replace them with smaller schools. “To varying degrees of success, small schools is an important initiative in New York,” says Heather Lewis, co-director of the Center for Collaborative Education, a network member.

However, Crew does not see such local initiatives as the main avenue of change. “Those who would welcome the abolition of the current system have never demonstrated an ability to bring in its place a system that works on the massive scale that the public schools do now,” he told the New York Times. Crew has at least one set of numbers on his side: Last year, every community district posted gains in elementary reading scores.

Memphis dives into new designs

Since she took over in 1993, Supt. Gerry House has been willing to find new ways to help disadvantaged students succeed. Her major effort has been launching several alternative-school designs, most of them purchased from the for-profit New American Schools, in nearly half the system’s schools.

In 1995, Memphis became one of 10 districts in the country to pledge to implement New American Schools designs in at least 30 percent of their schools within five years. The designs vary widely, from the interdisciplinary, project-based approach of Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound to Co-NECT’s emphasis on Internet technology. Currently, 50 of the system’s 161 schools use the designs; another 24 use others, including Paideia, Multiple Intelligences and Arts Integration.

These sometimes-radical departures from the traditional school format have met with some confusion and outright opposition. In some cases, school staffs selected their designs without a thorough understanding of the new practices they would have to adopt, such as team teaching. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Memphis shows that the new designs that seem to be meeting with the most approval are those that back up their philosophies with practical, specific techniques for implementing them.

The teachers union contract allows both principals and teachers to request no-fault faculty transfers if they object to the new designs, a measure meant to calm teachers’ fears that they would be forced to participate in non-traditional teaching. As it turned out, few requested transfers.

Rick Potts, principal at Idlewild Elementary, which is using the New American Schools Co-NECT design, praises the “complete package” his school was given to help ease the transition: computer connections with Co-NECT schools across the country, a clearly-defined professional development package and two years of full financing from the district.

April Mabry, a 3rd-grade teacher, says one challenge is that her school is expected to teach children to statewide standards, even as it uses new teaching methods and authentic assessments. “I’m learning slowly how to integrate it all,” she says.

House is a firm proponent of professional development. She rounded up local funding to open a multimillion-dollar professional development academy. She also streamlined the system’s bureaucracy, created small networks of principals and hired liaisons to help schools navigate the new designs.

Steven Ross, associate director for the Center for Research in Education Policy at the University of Memphis, acknowledges that moving so quickly at so many schools poses problems. Even so, he says, “We have clearly seen different types of teaching, probably for the most part improved teaching. It is more cooperative, more project-based.”

Los Angeles has a lot to LEARN

The sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, which covers all or part of 28 municipalities, has never been amenable to systemwide initiatives. However, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN), a non-profit group started by the mayor of Los Angeles, has led the most far-reaching reform strategy the district has known.

Close to 40 percent of its schools have adopted the LEARN plan, which trains parents and school staffs to make decisions about curriculum, budget and governance. The training lasts from 10 to 18 months and is offered through UCLA and local education organizations. Topics include management, collaboration and planning.

While LEARN schools may make budgetary, hiring and curriculum decisions, the extent of this power varies from school to school, depending on local preference. Each LEARN school has an “instructional transformation team” that writes academic goals and plans the curriculum and a “local leadership council” that makes most other decisions. Parents, staff and administrators participate in both groups.

Formed in 1991, LEARN is the brainchild of lawyer and philanthropist Richard Reardon, who gained enough visibility through the effort to become mayor. Reardon rounded up representatives from the teachers union, non-profits and local businesses to hammer out the proposal, which the School Board adopted in 1993. LEARN is funded partly through a $25 million, five-year Annenberg Challenge Grant.

The board’s goal is to have all its schools implement LEARN by 1999. However, Assistant Supt. Judy Barton says this isn’t realistic, given the system’s size. “This isn’t a mandate,” she adds.

Competing reform strategies also hamper the effort. For example, the 1989 teachers contract mandated school-based decision-making via “local leadership councils.” These councils could make some decisions on operations, schedules and certain non-salary budget lines, but not on curriculum or personnel. The arrival of charter schools, which have yet another governance structure and philosophy, adds another wrinkle. Some schools use more than one reform model.

In 1994, the system split its seven subdistricts into 27 clusters. Each has an administrator who is charged with promoting statewide standards, evaluating principals and giving final approval to budgets. Cluster leaders often must navigate various reform protocols as they work with schools.

Many LEARN schools and central-office administrators are unclear about how the various governing structures fit together, according to a 1997 study headed by Michael Butler of the Evaluation and Training Institute in Los Angeles. “Instead of LEARN being an umbrella-type reform, it can be seen as ‘just another program,'” Butler says. “When you have multiple decision-making forums, it’s hard for people to understand to which of these forums they should bring their list of things they want to accomplish.”

Maynae Lew, who coordinates LEARN implementation, acknowledges the confusion. Still, she points to two things that set LEARN apart: intensive leadership training and greater local decision- making. “The whole thrust of LA is toward decentralization,” she says. “What’s different about LEARN is that it’s a cohesive plan that brings together all of the reform components.”

Charlotte puts goals in focus

Reform in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district has one focus: curriculum and instruction. Supt. Eric Smith has created programs to reach a set of systemwide goals by 2001. The programs emphasize early childhood literacy and better preparation for college.

One of Smith’s most important goals is to have 85 percent of 3rd-graders reading at or above grade level, compared to the current 61 percent. Soon after taking office last fall, Smith drafted a literacy plan that pays close attention to early development, offering a highly structured, full-day pre- kindergarten program to 2,000 at-risk 4-year-olds. The program requires parents to practice reading with their children regularly.

Barbara Pellin, an assistant superintendent who heads the program, says it was designed in part to supplement Head Start, which she says has had disappointing results. Other aspects of the literacy plan include lengthening daily reading periods and supplying more teachers to schools with the greatest number of poor children.

Smith has charged high schools with bringing students’ SAT scores to the national average and having more students complete college preparatory courses. The district is inching toward those goals with two programs.

One is Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college prep program for middle-achieving students, many from less-educated families who otherwise might not consider college. AVID counselors encourage students to take challenging courses and talk to parents about the myths and realities of college life.

The second program is Achievement 2000, a partnership with The College Board, which helps students move into Advanced Placement courses by encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving in regular classes. As part of the program, all high school students take the PSAT exam in their freshman, sophomore and junior years to help diagnose trouble spots.

Led by self-proclaimed “education governor” James Hunt Jr., North Carolina has been noted for its innovative education policies. The state plans to install its newest brainchild, the “ABC” accountability plan, in all schools this year. The plan gives schools the freedom to determine such basics as calendars, class size and textbook selection and then makes them accountable for student test performance. Schools with improved test scores will get cash bonuses, while persistently failing schools can be taken over by state officials. The state also recently passed the Excellent Schools Act, which ties higher teacher pay to higher hiring standards. It makes firing incompetent teachers easier, too.

Smith’s success depends in large part on his political savvy in dealing with the county commission that funds the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. By designing his programs around clear, measurable goals, and then matching budget lines to those goals, Smith convinced the commission to fully support his 1997-98 budget. His predecessor, John Murphy, was praised for creating 40 magnet schools and drafting systemwide learning standards, but he left office partly because he could not get his budget passed.

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