The New American Schools and the concept of school design

This is a throw-back post to an interesting and seemingly pretty thoughtful reform effort from the 1990s that may or may not have gone astray, depending on one’s sense of history. It’s hard to find anything current about the New American Schools Development Corporation, but the non-profit sponsored thousands of individual school reform efforts for more than a decade.

In the 1990s, President H.W. Bush sponsored a reform conference of governors that led to the creation of the private non-profit organization, New American Schools (NAS). NAS supported the creation of nine whole-school design models and their work spawned a small body of school design literature and analysis. Bodilly (2001), writing for RAND Education, which conducted the NAS analysis, explains the NAS definition of design:

The notion of a design was meant to convey a coherent and comprehensive set of school-level practices that unified a school behind a goal of high performance by all students. Those practices would cover all grades, all students in the school, and all important functional areas of the school. (p. xiii)

The 1,500 schools (including some whole districts) that participated in the large scale, decade long experiment, selected an NAS design to implement and then worked with the designers over periods of years to implement these models in the local context.

The nine designs that NAS supported ranged employed a range of design processes and represented a range of values decisions impacting any number of the elements of schooling. The RAND analysis of the work offers broad categories for sorting the models based on the elements of design that they account for–Core Designs, Comprehensive Designs, and Systemic Designs.

Core designs are those that focus primarily on “curriculum, instruction, standards, assessments, student groupings, community involvement, and professional development” (Stringfield, Ross, & Smith, 1996, p. 7).  Comprehensive designs include these elements and also “integrated social services, governance changes, and organization and staffing changes” (Stringfield et al., p. 7). Finally, systemic designs look beyond the individual school at district or state level policy.

Each of the NAS design models is a complex, whole-school approach. The analysis of the NAS strategy conducted at RAND is mostly of how design organizations brought their school designs to the schools and the success of failure of the resulting implementation.

This is important work for understanding the scale-up process of systemic reform. It requires some very close reading, however, if it is to be of practical use to entrepreneurial school designers. Bodilly’s (2001) work is perhaps the most useful. It includes a list of some of the elements of schooling and the implications of the NAS data for making design choices about these elements.

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