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Success With Coalition Reforms Seen Limited in Some Schools

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New Orleans

Some of the first studies to look at the acclaimed Coalition of Essential Schools reform network suggest that some participating schools are having limited success in implementing its ideas.

Five studies on coalition schools were presented here last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Collectively, they draw on the experiences of 24 schools nationwide. The coalition currently has nearly 160 member schools.

Four of the five studies suggest that, while some teachers have made profound changes in their teaching styles as a result of involvement in the coalition, few, if any, of the schools studied have implemented its philosophy wholesale. Some schools, facing teacher dissension or financial or district pressures, have abandoned it.

"We have here an attractive, amorphous reform which has been unevenly implemented and into which people put tremendous effort but which will fade out in a few years, leaving behind burnt-out teachers,'' Michael Fullan, the dean of the education faculty at the University of Toronto, said in commenting on the findings at session here.

The fifth study documented a more successful effort in a single high school.

Patricia Wasley, senior researcher at the coalition, said that some of the studies focused on schools in the early stages of reform and that others failed to document how much support schools received.

"It takes people such an enormous amount of time,'' she said. "We would hope that those schools that didn't ... drop the reform would see more evidence of growth over time.''

A National Movement

Founded in 1984 by Theodore R. Sizer, a Brown University education professor, the Coalition of Essential Schools is a collaborative effort to redesign the way schools operate. Its work is grounded in two of Mr. Sizer's books, Horace's Compromise and Horace's School, which chronicle problems and change in a fictional, traditional high school.

The movement was seen as getting a further boost recently when the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg pledged to donate $50 million to the Annenberg National Institute for School Reform, which is also run by Mr. Sizer and based at Brown. (See Education Week, Jan. 12, 1994.)

Nine common principles undergird the coalition's reform effort, including the notion of "student as worker'' rather than a passive recipient of knowledge, the idea that teaching and learning should be personalized, and a belief that diplomas should be awarded based on students' mastery of subject matter rather than completion of courses.

But the new studies found that educators often differ in their interpretations of the core ideas.

"We found teachers and administrators within a group had different understandings of the principles even though they all thought they sounded great,'' said Lorin Anderson, a University of South Carolina researcher who conducted a one-year evaluation of six coalition schools in that state.

Moreover, some schools used the principles to support what they were already doing, while others used them as a springboard to bring about improvements.

Relatively few of the schools studied had made a consensus decision to join the coalition, and the change process often led to dissension among faculty members.

Uneven Implementation

Schools also found their efforts thwarted by high turnover among administrators and by district initiatives that either ran counter to the coalition philosophy or subsumed the coalition effort.

"If you're a teacher working 90 hours a week trying to change everything about your practice,'' said Donna Muncey, a researcher at St. Mary's College of Maryland, "and the next thing you know you're fighting with your colleagues and your kids, and the principal who supported you leaves, you begin to say to yourself 'Is this worth it?'''

She is a co-author of a study in which researchers spent most of five years observing eight schools. "By the third, fourth, and fifth year, a lot of teachers slowly started reverting back to their traditional ways of teaching,'' she said.

As a result, students' experiences in coalition schools varied widely, said Samuel C. Stringfield, a principal research scientist for the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. His three-year study focused on five schools considered to be exemplars of coalition principles.

He recounted the day of one student he followed who "was not asked a single question that had anything but a factual response,'' describing some of the problems Mr. Sizer decried in his books.

In contrast, a student in a different school went to an English class in which studies of early 19th-century literature had been coordinated with a history unit on westward expansion in the United States, and students took part in a mock trial about the forced relocation of American Indians. Mr. Stringfield said such activities exemplified the best of the coalition's approach.

"What those five papers said to me is the coalition could provide a great deal more prescription without upsetting the balance,'' he said.

But Ms. Wasley said providing concrete models goes against the coalition's efforts to be "intellectually respectful'' of educators and to give them a sense of ownership of the changes in their schools.

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