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Accelerated schools: Building on success

STANFORD -- Thomas Edison Elementary School in Sacramento is typical of the new urban school. In 1989, 36 percent of its 360 students were receiving Aid for Dependent Children and Free or Reduced Cost Lunch.

The usual problems abounded: 103 days of suspension during the school year, mostly for fighting; seven robberies in which audio-visual equipment was stolen.

Three years later, the school had been hit with more whammies - enrollment had jumped by a third; a staggering 80 percent of the students were on AFDC and Free or Reduced Cost Lunch. Teachers were swamped with new multilingual demands: The number of home languages in the school had risen from one to 13.

But only 34 days of suspension were recorded, and there were no break-ins for the school year. Moreover, standardized test scores for sixth-graders had risen, not fallen, in all three areas tested.

Edison is one of hundreds of "Accelerated Schools," now the largest educational reform movement in the nation.

The Accelerated Schools Project, initiated in 1986, was designed to accelerate the learning of at-risk children by treating them as gifted and talented students at a time when most programs favored slower "remedial" drill-and-kill lessons and worksheets that caused them to drop further behind their advantaged peers.

"How you define children has an awful lot to do with how you work with them," said the project's founder, Henry Levin, the David Jacks Professor of Higher Education at Stanford University, "and how well they succeed."

In the last month, the Accelerated Schools Project, which will include roughly 700 U.S. elementary and middle schools in 33 states this fall, was awarded $200,000 by the Danforth Foundation. The two-year grant will enable researchers to conduct a comprehensive program to review and develop a long-term strategy for the Stanford-based project.

According to Levin, the growth of the Accelerated Schools Project is "unprecedented, leaving us with no historical road map from other successful projects which can guide us in planning and coordinating future growth, consolidation and strengthening."

"We are entering uncharted territory since we are not aware of any educational reform movement that has extended to so many schools or such geographical diversity," said Levin.

"At the beginning, we weren't that ambitious. We thought we'd set up a couple of pilot schools and get results, and then write 50 articles that would impress people and we wouldn't get our hands dirty.

"That's university style - lots of show-and-tell, and an article a month," Levin said.

However, in the case of Accelerated Schools, the need was immediate and overwhelming. Within a few months after the first article was published, outlining the Accelerated Schools theory, two pilot schools were set up in inner-city districts in the Bay Area. Within five years, there were 150 accelerated schools in 17 states.

One of the project's big drawing cards was cost: According to Levin, "the most any school has spent is $30 per student in the first year, less the second year and almost nothing after that."

Levin took on the task of what he called "educational triage," going to the schools that needed help most.

Levin had noted the "impending crisis" in the United States caused by the rising number of children in "at-risk" situations - that is, children who are unlikely to succeed educationally because they do not have the experiences upon which school success is based. By the 1980s, when Accelerated Schools began, about one-third of all elementary and secondary students were considered to be educationally at risk, totaling about 16 million to 17 million students.

In the next phase of Accelerated Schools, Levin hopes to expand some of its principles to all students - "transforming the education of all students to make them capable and productive through Accelerated Schools."

All students includes older students. Levin says that the successes of accelerated schools are jeopardized when students enter "traditional" middle schools or junior high schools. As a result, the Accelerated Schools Project is now in 26 middle schools.

Satellite centers and training teams

One way the Accelerated Schools Project, now in the eighth year of its projected 30-year lifespan, has dealt with problems of growth is through its unique dissemination model.

The national headquarters at Stanford has eight "satellite centers" - five at other universities, one at a district office and two at state departments of education. (The first five centers were funded by a Chevron grant.) Each satellite center trains professional teams to assist cadres of teachers and administrators to work within schools. The satellite centers provide research, training and technical assistance for accelerated schools in their geographical areas. In addition, there are more than 40 "training teams" from districts, states and universities.

These training teams and centers, which function as laboratories, have created pilot accelerated schools that are a basis for providing hands-on experiences for their staffs, student teachers and administrative interns.

"We learned very quickly that if you need a supply line from Stanford, there are too few of us and the lines are very long," said Levin. "The resources need to be close to the schools, not far away."

The new Danforth grant will help Accelerated Schools address the project's scale and quick growth - in Levin's words, it will help the project "integrate its activities" and "create the reinforcement and synergy that leads to solid development rather than falling prey to piecemeal strategies."

The Danforth grant will enable the Accelerated Schools to use its own process for evaluation. Levin explained the procedure, which is used for accelerated schools, in a recent issue of Educational Leadership.

  • Taking stock. According to Levin, "everyone is involved" in taking stock, including principals, teachers, staff, parents and janitors.

"They decide what dimensions of the school they want to look at - but they have to look for strengths; that's very important," said Levin.

With the Danforth grant, "We are going to take stock of ourselves."

  • Developing a deep vision of the future. "This is not just a one-day inservice; it typically takes weeks or months and involves reflection, deep thinking," said Levin.

He typically asks schools to "design as fully as possible the dream school you would want for your own child or your grandchild, a child very dear to you."

"In the research some of us did in the early '80s, we saw hundreds of schools with mission statements but no mission, and vision statements with no vision. So our concern is whether they have a vision in their hearts and a set of beliefs that drive their daily behavior."

For the Accelerated Schools project, said Levin, "We need to take time to stop and synthesize what we have. We are feeling like we're making the step from a mom-and-pop organization to a big national movement."

  • Setting priorities. At this point, said Levin, it's time to bridge the gap between the "here" of reality and the "there" of the vision.

"The question is, where do they start? Now, in most schools, they'll say, 'We've got to work on everything at once.' We tell them, 'No, let's list everything that has to be accomplished - but no school is going to make significant progress in more than three or four things while still serving students, so you have to set priorities.'

"So people make pleas for different things and offer their rationales, trying to persuade their colleagues. They take straw polls and finally choose three or four goals. Around each priority we ask people to select working cadres, typically no more than eight or nine people. And the real work goes on when these small groups start to do research, start to do problem solving, using an inquiring process specifically designed for Accelerated Schools."

With the Danforth grant, the Accelerated Schools Project plans to present a report detailing priorities to enact a 5-year to 10-year vision.

Signs of success

Although Accelerated Schools does have evidence of rising standardized test scores, Levin prefers not to emphasize these for a number of reasons. For one thing, the scores vary enormously depending on how long the school has been in the program, how well the school was doing before Accelerated Schools, and how closely it has adhered to the program, which complicates statistical averages.

However, Levin is eager to tout Accelerated Schools' successes:

  • Hollibrook Elementary School in Houston enrolls more than 1,000 students, many of them recently arrived immigrants from Central and South America. About 90 percent of them come from families below the poverty line. In 1988, fifth-graders were about two years below grade level in reading and language arts; they were also below grade level in mathematics. By 1991, fifth-graders were slightly above grade level in their composite score and one year above grade level in mathematics.

"Through hands-on activities, research, discourse, imagination and creativity, the school had been transformed into a beehive of activity," said Levin.

  • Before 1990, Burnett Academy was considered to be the bottom middle school in San Jose. Enrollment was considerably below capacity (in a system of school choice). Violence, gangs and low test scores were problems. About 80 percent of the students were taking remedial subjects. By 1992-93, all eighth graders were enrolled in algebra and all seventh-graders in pre-algebra.

"Special education kids are getting algebra - so when I say all, I mean all," said Levin. The school also had created an enriched humanities curriculum that combined social studies, English and foreign languages, and in which all students participated. Achievement scores in reading and writing rose dramatically. Writing scores rose from the bottom in the district to district average in two years. "Student research projects abounded, especially in the sciences and technology, and fighting had become largely passe on campus," said Levin.

  • The 99th Street School in the Watts section of Los Angeles has about 700 students - two-thirds of them are African American; one- third are Hispanic. Among the 650 schools in Los Angeles, it was in the bottom 20 in achievement in 1990-91. Gangs, vandalism, fighting, poor attendance, teacher turnover and low achievement were chronic conditions. But by 1992, even after one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history, reading scores had jumped from the 18th percentile to the 30th percentile - more than six times the average gain for the district. Students' behavior problems had waned, and for the first time parents were actively involved in the school. According to Levin, parental involvement in Accelerated Schools is "based on two simple assumptions: The parents love their children and want them to succeed educationally."

What have they learned?

Years have brought wisdom for Accelerated Schools planners. According to Levin, "We know a lot more about leadership and leadership needs. If you had asked me before, I would have said a principal needs three things: skills, the ability to share decision-making and a fire in his belly.

"But skills can be developed, if the desire is there, and if there is the willingness to draw on resources rather than bark commands. It's more difficult to get people to relinquish a narrow base of power. And it's difficult to develop a fire in the belly," said Levin.

"We've seen principals become more democratic. But I've never seen anyone develop a passion for change."



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