RE:Learning: New Help in Getting Started

Schools or districts that operate in relative isolation have particular difficulty winning the financial, political, and philosophical support they need to think seriously about educational redesign. At the same time, helping schools to find and maintain support is a growing administrative problem for the Coalition staff at Brown, as the Coalition expands and the number of schools requiring such assistance increases.

A 1988 initiative called “Re:Learning: From Schoolhouse to Statehouse,” which developed in response to these needs, aims at winning state-level funding for schools interested in Coalition ideas. At the same time, it creates administrative structures through which Coalition staff can maintain better contact with what goes on in the field.

The Re:Learning initiative is a combined effort of the Coalition, the Education Commission of the States (a Denver-based, nonprofit, nationwide interstate compact that helps governors, state legislators, state education officials and others develop policies to improve the quality of education), and interested states. The initiative advocates a bottom-up process of system-wide educational redesign. A state makes this possible by agreeing to legislate funds and other kinds of support so that change can be envisioned and carried out by those most directly involved in the day-to-day realities of students’ learning — namely, the teachers themselves. Recognizing the uniqueness of different schools’ staffs, students, communities, and histories, the Re:Learning initiative calls on each school to consider how the nine basic Coalition principles apply in its own case, and empowers the school to realize the vision that results.


How Re:Learning Works

But how does Re:Learning actually work in the real world? The case of Delaware, one of five states to participate this year (along with Arkansas, Illinois, New Mexico, and Rhode Island), is instructive. In fall 1987, a representative from ECS met with the governor, his education adviser, the president of the state board of education, and the state school superintendent to explain the initiative and discuss Coalition principles. As a result, $210,000 was written into the governor’s proposed budget, earmarked for supporting development in up to seven schools. Meanwhile, a network of advocates formed including representatives from the University of Delaware, officials within the Department of Public Instruction, and other state-level education officials. Along with Coalition staff from Brown, this group began to consider various administrative issues, such as the position of state coordinator for the schools to be selected, and the selection process itself. At the same time, meetings were held with representatives of the teachers association, the PTA, and all other groups that would be affected if the initiative were adopted, to discuss the nature of Re:Learning and win further support. As a result of over six months of intensive planning, when the Finance Committee finally passed the proposed $210,000 on the second vote, the state education system was well prepared to welcome and support schools interested in joining the initiative.

Of the four schools eventually chosen — two high schools, a middle school, and an elementary school — some responded directly to an invitation that went out to all schools, while others were asked to join for more specific reasons, such as proximity to the university, or in order to achieve better demographic balance. Each school was given $30,000 and asked to match this with $10,000 in new funds, the resulting monies to be used as the school saw fit to support staff discussions and development activities.

After only five months, the effects on the schools are already visible. Consistent with Re:Learning philosophy, each has developed its own approach to rethinking teaching and learning. Steering committees, faculty-wide involvement, reading and study groups, travel to other Essential Schools, and a variety of other development strategies have formed. At one school the state acted as facilitator by arranging an exemption from the state code so that a normal instructional day could be devoted to staff training instead.

Different visions are emerging from the schools, partly because schools are at different stages of the process. “Some schools are farther along than others in reaching consensus about goals,” reports state coordinator Joe Fitzpatrick. “But this is a process that cannot and must not be rushed.” In his view, when teachers focus on getting students to use their minds well, and realize that they can have power in their own classrooms, “the moment will come when they see the necessity for changing the way a lot of things are done.” In the meantime, simply the ongoing staff discussion is generating changes in how teachers teach.

Helen Foss, the governor’s education adviser, reports that the principals of all four schools are astonished by the changed atmosphere. In something as prosaic as “the quality of lunchroom talk,” she says, discussion of educational objectives and methods is now routine. The “lunchroom index” reflects teachers’ widespread perception that what they think and say matters. “Just in this first year of studying and thinking, it’s extremely impressive to hear the teachers talk,” Foss says. “When they start saying things to you like, ‘For the first time, I really feel like a professional,’ well . . .”

In its first year, the Re:Learning initiative seems to be working well. The state of Delaware has allotted an additional $165,000 to bring new schools in, and on a national level several new states have expressed interest. The initiative may prove to be a powerful and satisfying way to get started.