New American Schools: A Short, Opinionated History

New American Schools was an attempt to reinvent the school in a way that brought together best practices in a holistic way rather than implementing reforms piecemeal.

Photo of a High School

Educators and ed reformers have long been tantalized by the dream of “reinventing” the school. “If only we could break away from this industrial-style arrangement,” goes the usual refrain, “with its boxy classrooms, batch-processed students, and rigid bell schedule, and create totally different schools that are better suited to modern times and to children’s needs.”

History shows that schools have actually changed from time to time, albeit in ways more incremental than revolutionary, as American education has evolved from the one-room schoolhouses of the frontier to include the “comprehensive” high schools envisioned by James B. Conant and others in the 1950s. Since then, we’ve seen numerous efforts to take down walls and open up spaces, to experiment with different schedules and calendars, to install at least a modicum of modern technology, to bring sundry social services under the school roof, and more. Yet across the land today, it’s still generally true that one’s children and grandchildren are being educated in schools, both public and private, that resemble far more than they differ from the schools of one’s parents and grandparents. Thus, the oft-stated quip that if Rip Van Winkle awoke today from a century-long snooze, the only institutions that he’d recognize would be schools and churches. If only we could truly reinvent rather than tinker!

Reformers have also long been driven by the need to find promising ways to “turn around” failing schools, a need that intensified after enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Along with that law’s mandatory standards and testing came accountability requirements whereby schools that chronically failed to produce adequate achievement in some or all of their pupils got labeled as “in need of improvement.” Such a label triggered a volley of plans and interventions, “corrective actions,” and, ultimately, “restructuring.”

Labeling aside, the federal requirements—now loosened but not eliminated in the Every Student Succeeds Act—added to the desire, and sometimes the obligation, of education leaders, reformers, and elected officials to deal forcefully with chronically weak and perhaps totally dysfunctional schools. Either shut it outright—always hugely controversial and politically risky—or completely overhaul it.

This, however, has proven extremely difficult to accomplish.

Though much of the turn-around ardor came later, the appetites for school reinvention and holistic reform came together in the early 1990s in a major R & D (mostly D) initiative known as “New American Schools,” which also tapped into the country’s affection for “public-private ventures.” Such fusions of effort and resources are a familiar strategy for developing and propagating promising innovations, products, and models.

There’s much blurring in the public-private realm, and New American Schools was one of the larger, more interesting—and arguably blurrier—examples. As an idea, it was unveiled in April, 1991, when President George H.W. Bush and Education Secretary (now Senator) Lamar Alexander set forth their “America 2000” strategy to jump-start education reform in the United States in general and, in particular, propel the country toward meeting the lofty national education goals that the president and governors had recently set “for the year 2000.”

Bush and Alexander were aiming high. The president spoke of America 2000 as winning a “battle for our future.” Alexander termed it a “crusade.” And it had multiple dimensions, including some that would prove contentious both then and on Bill Clinton’s watch (and even today), such as national academic standards and exams (though the GOP team hastened to note that these would be optional for states.) Its centerpiece, however—that was Bush’s word for it—was nothing less than to “break the mold. Build for the next century. Reinvent—literally start from scratch and reinvent the American school.” Then send the new models all around the country, so people could see them in action and want more of them for themselves—and also deploy them as part of needed school turnarounds. How much better, after all, to set about to overhaul a troubled school when you have in hand a glittering and proven model of how the rebooted school should look and function.

Talk about an education moonshot!

The vehicle was not to be a rocket ship, however, but a new nonprofit entity named the New American Schools Development Corporation—known as NASDC, commonly referred to simply as New American Schools, sometimes NAS. Initially chaired by ALCOA CEO (later Treasury Secretary) Paul O’Neill, its board included many of the leading lights of American business, and its private fund-raising, after a harder-than-expected start, ultimately brought in some $130 million of the hoped-for $150 million development fund. (Publisher Walter Annenberg helped greatly with a fifty-million-dollar gift in 1994.)

NASDC’s original “theory of action” was to contract with “three to seven R & D teams,” which would then assist communities across the land to create break-the-mold schools, at least one (Alexander intended) in every Congressional district. The hope, obviously, was that these schools would be so exciting and successful that communities would want—and then create—many of them on their own, using their own resources augmented by federal dollars that would flow from the inspiration and appetite that the thrilling new designs would generate.

As historian Jeffrey Mirel wrote in 2002 in what amounted to a slightly premature obituary for the decade-long venture:

The idea was to apply a research-and-development model to a sector that too often fell for romantic—and untested—notions of how schools and learning should be structured. NASDC’s early leaders were determined to apply a no-nonsense business approach to their efforts, to create an organization that was as lean and agile as the corporations they led. New American Schools would be less bureaucratic and more aggressive in responding to new ideas than the typical government agency or major foundation. Moreover, NASDC would be a sort of venture capitalist for education, constantly evaluating its investments and continuing to fund only those designs that proved their effectiveness.

The conception was magnificent, but of course reality would prove something less than that.

* * *

Bush and Alexander were soon out of office and, while the Clinton team wasn’t hostile, it was more interested in what government could do to help attain those ambitious national goals (which then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton had played a large role in formulating) than in a private sector venture funded and initially led primarily by wealthy Republicans. Moreover, as NASDC ramped up, it needed staff, procedures, credibility, and other imperatives that destined it to resemble a large nonprofit organization more than a nimble venture-capital firm.

The original plan evolved into a still-ambitious “design competition” whereby NASDC would fund design teams that would develop break-the-mold school plans that the teams themselves would then, in effect, advertise to communities and states. When a team found a taker for its plan, it would provide much technical assistance to the client district so that the novel design might be properly implemented.

Additional federal funds might one day flow for this purpose—and eventually they flowed generously—but the public-education market would decide, which at the time meant that traditional school districts would be the main customers for those teams. (The country’s first charter school opened in 1992.) NASDC would underwrite development of the new models and help publicize them, thereby seeking to build some interest, but the teams that created the supply would have to become entrepreneurial in connected what they designed to places with the desire and the means—political and fiscal—to put it into practice. As Jeffrey Mirel noted, “at some point these design teams would need to become self-sustaining, taking fees from school districts in return for their expertise.”

The competition to become a NASDC-funded designer proved to be quite a big deal, attracting nearly 700 initial applicants, which reviewers ultimately winnowed down to eleven winners, nine of which received multi-year financial support for their work.

Although Mirel reports that “The popular and media response to the NASDC initiative was generally upbeat and positive,” there was also criticism. Some came from the left, “primarily from liberal critics of the Bush administration,” asserting that this was the work of “right-wing ideologues and privatization advocates” and/or that needy children, poor districts, and minorities would be neglected. “You can bet,” cautioned former U.S. education commissioner Harold (“Doc”) Howe II, “that, when these parties get together, they will spend little time in making a diverse society work.”

Education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban, whose acclaimed book, Tinkering Toward Utopia, came out in 1995, fretted that New American Schools would turn out to be yet another of the many “reinvention” efforts over the years that turned out to be “shooting stars that spurted across the pedagogical heavens, leaving a meteoric trail in the media but burning up and disappearing in the everyday atmosphere of the schools.”

From the right came a different concern that Mirel says proved more “prescient”: that the RFP and selection processes were “skewed to ensure the choice of safe rather than break-the-mold designs,” would reward experienced grant-writers, and would wind up funding established organizations that would not, in the end, do anything that was truly novel or that would produce dramatically different results.

The winning designs, for the most part, did indeed come from established outfits headed by familiar education names and, says Mirel, “were notable mainly for their use of progressive rhetoric in describing their approaches.” His summary of their plans is replete with concepts and terms that remain much in vogue a quarter century later, from “interdisciplinary,” “authentic,” and “community based” to “learner centered,” “active inquiry,” and “multicultural.” Several designs sought to replace traditional age-based, year-at-a-time grade progressions with multi-age groupings and plans to move students forward when ready.

If fully and skillfully implemented as designed and at scale, most of these designs would have, if not exactly shattered the mold, certainly placed children in schools that were different from the norm of the 1990’s—and from the vast majority of today’s schools as well. Contrary to concerns raised from the left, the teams focused on disadvantaged, urban communities and on helping kids whose achievement needed a major boost. When RAND conducted a three-years-into-implementation review of seven designs, it noted that their teams had “partnered with schools and districts that are characterized by a host of problems related to poverty, achievement, and climate characteristics.” In other words, they weren’t headed to cushy suburbs or other places where the going would be easy!

The focus on disadvantaged youngsters and their schools, while morally justified and politically appropriate, did raise the long-standing question of whether “progressive,” child-centered education such as most of the NAS teams were committed to is an optimal approach for addressing the education needs of such kids. A robust line of research suggests that students who don’t get a lot of structure and systematic knowledge outside school tend to do better with structured, sequential, knowledge-rich curricula and instruction—hence the impressive success of “no-excuses” charter schools and their ilk, such as New York City’s Success Academy—while more progressive pedagogies may work better with children who have plenty of order in their lives, books in their homes, etc. In other words, it’s possible that the school designs emerging from most of the NASDC-supported teams were less than perfectly suited to their target audience. (It also strikes me, in retrospect, that the educational needs of disadvantaged youngsters would better have been met by enrolling them in traditional Catholic schools than by “breaking molds” and “innovating.”)

In any case, the very elements that made the targeted schools and communities needy and deserving of help also meant that, in RAND’s phrasing, “To scale up the designs or replicate implementation in these sites is extremely difficult.”

Unlike charter schools, which were only just coming into view, and unlike the original plan for Chris Whittle’s Edison Project (another privately financed initiative—this one profit-seeking—to “break the mold” in K–12 education), which concentrated on creating brand new schools, the NASDC teams were bent on transforming existing, district-operated public schools. And that’s always a heavy lift, whether the existing schools are educational successes or basket cases. In the former situation, “it ain’t broke,” so why change it? In the latter situation, it’s tantamount to taking an education sow’s ear and striving to turn it into a silk purse. That’s hard under any circumstance; harder when resource levels are level and the staff remains in place; and hardest in schools and districts that may not be particularly well led, probably not well financed, and most likely shackled by politicized school boards, turbulent communities and rigid union contracts.

* * *

The NAS teams faced all of these challenges in places like Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Miami, and Memphis. Almost everywhere they went it turned into a slog. This led RAND to conclude (as of 1998) that NAS’s initial aim—to “transform the achievement of large numbers of students with design teams and the assistance they provided to schools”—was “overly ambitious.” Roughly half the schools in the evaluation sample “made gains relative to the district” in which they were located—but the other half did not.

Simply scaling up brought challenges aplenty because the quantity of technical assistance required to transform even a single existing school, particularly one in trouble, proved costly, time consuming, and something best done by sophisticated individuals who were well versed not only in the new design but also in the myriad issues associated with school leadership, education (and municipal) politics, race relations, and organization theory. They also had to be pleasant, patient, tireless—and willing to spend many weeks far from home. If, however, a design team failed to achieve sufficient scale, it wouldn’t have the district fees it needed even to keep operating.

“By mid-1997,” Mirel writes, “NAS was well into becoming more of a clearinghouse than an initiator of reform and was changing the design teams into market-oriented purveyors of educational improvement. NAS increasingly focused on helping the teams become self-sufficient organizations capable of marketing and supporting their products.” Some of them, however, “had virtually no business or marketing experience.” Finances tightened, the more so because “so many of the clients targeted by NAS were low-performing, financially strapped districts.”

Various rescue-and-salvage attempts were undertaken, as was much Washington lobbying, which prompted Congress in 1997 to enact the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, commonly known (after its lead sponsors) as the “Obey-Porter Amendment.” This opened the federal till to release $150 million “for competitive grants to aid schools in adopting ‘proven’ whole-school reform models,” with the NAS teams widely viewed as the best-established and perhaps the best models available.

They were not, however, the only such, nor was it clear that they were even “proven.” “With the possible exception of Roots and Wings [which built on John Hopkins professor Robert Slavin’s well-established “Success for All” program]”, Mirel wrote, “at the time that Obey-Porter was enacted the NAS designs still couldn’t provide substantial evidence of effectiveness.”

Nor could many others! In 1999, the American Institutes of Research (AIR) published “An Educator’s Guide to Schoolwide Reform,” timed to take advantage of Obey-Porter, which examined twenty-four different whole-school designs in search of convincing data showing that, when properly implemented, they had a positive impact on student achievement. It turned out that just three of the twenty-four had “strong” evidence of that kind—and none was an NAS design. Among the eight NAS programs then still active, only one could boast “promising” evidence, and one other appeared “marginal” in boosting achievement. None of the others could even be rated because they had too little data.

For its part, RAND continued to evaluate the NAS designs themselves, comparing the performance within districts of schools that adopted them to similar schools that didn’t, again using pupil achievement as the marker. Again, the results were equivocal. (Strongest, I’m pleased to report, was the Hudson Institute-based “Modern Red Schoolhouse” team, with which I had a loose advisory affiliation for a time.) Of the eleven schools using its design that fell into RAND’s sample seven surpassed their districts in math gains and eight did so in reading. But taken as a whole, only about half the NAS schools in the study did better than their unchanged district counterparts.

Other problems followed, notably Memphis’s jettisoning of the entire NAS venture in 2001. That large, troubled city on the Mississippi had been by far the largest adopter of these new designs. A dynamic change-minded superintendent with a supportive school board had bought into the “break the mold” concept and induced nearly every school in town to work with one of the NAS teams. But reluctant schools dragged their feet on implementation; budgets tightened; the design teams had to cut back on technical assistance; and politics erupted. The reforming superintendent was ousted. Then so was NAS.

Sadly, similar tales can be recited of many other efforts at large-scale, top-down education change, whether at the municipal, state, or national levels. After an ambitious launch, with great leadership, political support and seemingly ample funding, things begin to go awry. Funding priorities change. Revenues declined. Leaders leave or are fired. Elections happen. And the giant rubber band of American public education follows its inherent need to snap back into its original shape once the external tension is eased.

Three years after being shown the door in Memphis, NAS itself would merge into AIR, which continues today to assist schools and districts in various ways to improve themselves, but which no longer has a unit—at least none that I can spot—dedicated entirely to “whole school reform” via “break-the-mold” designs. Meanwhile, however, NAS’s leaders were busy in the early 2000s, helping their teams strategize, steering some of them into what would become viable self-supporting ventures (sometimes of the for-profit kind), working cannily to persuade Uncle Sam to come up with fresh federal funding for such reforms and, as that money came on line, vetting many of the additional organizations that sought to partake of it.

“Comprehensive School Reform” got renewed traction in Washington, and much fresh money when 2002’s NCLB authorized a new federal program with that name, which lasted through 2005 (with some funds still being expended as late as 2008) and was then succeeded in 2009 by what became a massive federal program of School Improvement Grants (SIG), itself part of the same recession-recovery dollar gusher as “Race to the Top.”

Disappointingly, an evaluation of that multi-billion venture, published in 2017, reported that, taken as a whole, it had no significant effect on student outcomes.

Policy analyst Andy Smarick might well have said “I told you so,” for an important article that he published in 2010 suggested that whole-school turnaround efforts rarely if ever succeed in converting sow-ear schools into silk purses. And a Fordham Institute study released that same year concluded that “low-performing public schools—both charter and traditional district schools—are stubbornly resistant to significant change.”

Yet the dreams never die: the dream that schools can be reinvented through “break the mold” development efforts (see for example the Emerson Collective’s ongoing “XQ SuperSchool” venture, targeted on high schools); the dream that good ideas and proven practices can be amassed into coherent, comprehensive school plans instead of competing, piecemeal reforms; and the dream that chronically low-performing schools can be “turned around.”

Yes, change occurs in schools, often for the better, but it’s almost always gradual and incomplete. Yes, bad schools can often be improved, but seldom totally rebooted. That generally calls for thoroughly replacing staff as well as curriculums, sometimes also replacing at least some of the students, all of which is contentious and politically problematic. Even when most of that happens, it’s no guarantee that the school will produce stronger outcomes—or that any stronger outcomes that it produces for a while will endure. (What happens when, for example, the charismatic new principal departs or the outside “turnaround specialists” go off to work on another basket case?)

After reviewing troves of research, here’s what the federally-supported What Works Clearinghouse concludes about “comprehensive school reform”:

CSR programs can modestly improve student achievement in most circumstances. Effects appear strongest after CSR has been implemented for several years…. Research suggests that schools can best implement CSR by fitting it to their circumstances, selectively pursuing cohesive reforms, and building time and resources for CSR into regular operation. The professional development component of CSR appears most effective when teachers and administrators share leadership and focus on evidence-based practices…. High costs and maintaining political will and buy-in from school districts, principals, and teachers are challenges to implementing and sustaining CSR programs over the long time horizon needed for change. Research indicates that most schools pursuing CSR do not fully implement it.

Yet there were more chapters to follow, for just coming into view as NASDC launched, and continuing today at the remarkable scale of 7,000 schools, the vast majority of them “start from scratch,” and primarily dedicated to improving the education of poor and minority children, was the phenomenon of public charter schools. It has always faced resistance—that rubber band yearns to snap back—and its performance to date ranges from appalling to astonishing, but charters look like they’re here to stay. And the federal government’s support in developing and scaling that particular reform has been important. In a later piece, I’ll have more to say about that.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This essay first appeared on Flypaper. It is part of the The Moonshot for Kids project, a joint initiative of the Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress.

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