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Essential-Schools Coalition: Principles Making Headway

To the Editor:

I enjoyed very much your thoughtful progress report on the Coalition of Essential Schools ("Mixed Record for Coalition Schools Is Seen," Nov. 1, 1995). I had not expected to enjoy it because of the headline. I hope other readers went beyond that "mixed results" label to understand that what the research you report says, in effect, is that where coalition principles are put into effect, they seem to work pretty well, especially when they come from the grassroots.

When imposed from above or truncated by factional or budget pressures, coalition principles do not do so well. This is not the same thing as saying that the results are mixed. It is closer to the truth to say that many coalition schools are handicapped by the general resistance to reform.

Education is a tough field to turn over because almost everyone has years of experience in it, and few wish to admit that those years were spent passively absorbing other people's thinking instead of doing much of their own.

As a teacher in a coalition school, I can say that one of the most exciting effects of approaching coalition principles--beyond the engagement of the students in their own educations--is the revitalization of teachers as they wrestle with the task of shifting ownership of knowledge to the students, rather than, as the old clich‚ puts it, shifting information from their notebook to that of the student without requiring that it go through his or her head.

David Holdt
Watkinson School
Hartford, Conn.

To the Editor:

I have not read the most recent analysis of reform efforts by member schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools. However, in attempting to understand the effects of the coalition, it would be a shame to limit the focus of any evaluation to the 916 full-member schools alone.

As an observer of school-reform efforts around the country, I see evidence that the coalition's principles are filtering into school-level discussions regardless of the school's affiliation with any reform "movement." Schools using emerging standards to guide reform are consciously affirming the principle that schools are the places for students to learn to use their minds well.

Untracking schools honors the tenet that the school's goals should apply to all students. Despite the persistence of district-level curriculum objectives that emphasize "coverage," schools are increasingly pursuing a "less is more" ideal by developing a thematic curriculum that explores "essential questions" in greater depth, especially in a humanities format that combines literature, language arts, social studies, and the arts.

Likewise, more and more schools adhere to the notion that students are workers, and in that spirit they insist that it is the work students produce, not standardized-test scores, that must be the focus of assessment. As a result, more and more teachers are involved in the process of examining student work to develop rubrics and classroom and school standards of high-quality work.

Outside the classroom, the coalition's notion of "critical friends" has become institutionalized through, for example, California's Program Quality Review and emerges as an ingredient for change in schools like those participating in such New American Schools Development Corporation-funded projects as Expeditionary Learning.

Studies of coalition schools can inform us about the conditions that make it possible to weave the principles into a whole cloth that fits each school's circumstances. But even schools that are not part of the coalition can tell how the principles have changed teaching and learning in many of their classrooms, too.

Anne Wheelock
Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Ravitch On Characterization Of Role in Standards Process

To the Editor:

Your story about the national history standards mischaracterized my role in their development when I was assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. A caption under my photograph says that I "oversaw the standards" but "never read the various draft versions," which implies that the ultimate blowup might have been averted if I had intervened while in office.

There are two things wrong with this portrayal. First, I told the writers that I read and commented on the final draft, which was released nearly two years after I left office. Second, the story failed to point out that federal officials are legally prohibited from supervising, controlling, or directing any curriculum or program of instruction. Had I attempted, while in office, to rewrite the first draft of the standards or to impose my judgments on the consensus process, my actions would not only have violated the law but also would have been inappropriate political interference.

Even now, with hindsight, which supplies 20-20 vision, I believe that I was right to obey the law.

Diane Ravitch
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Productivity, Humanity, and 'International Ranking Lists'

To the Editor:

G. Carl Bell would turn schools into mirror images of good businesses ("Solving the Productivity Puzzle," Commentary, Nov. 8, 1995). He says we should examine our resources, inputs, requirements, and outputs. We should judge our success by net profits; that is, the ratio between costs and benefits.

Well, why not? Aren't teachers the manufacturers and children's minds the product? Shouldn't good manufacturers make better products at the cheapest possible price? Let them be accountable!

The only trouble with this model is that students are not objects to be shined up like cars in a factory. They are human beings with minds of their own, willing and able to take or leave whatever trip anyone lays on them.

Teachers, too, are sentient, reflective human beings who live in schools. Schools are communities where everybody has a right to live and grow. The model should be one of improving human relationships.

Right now students get their best shot for camaraderie, cooperation, and competence from gangs and the drug culture. Apparently, they are very "productive" in meeting the goals of turf protection or making money.

If a classroom is run like the human community it is, with students sharing responsibility for setting goals and methods, productivity can be both satisfactory and satisfying. People in schools should not be used to sustain America's ego on some international ranking list.

Rachel M. Lauer
Professor of Psychology
Pace University
New York, N.Y.

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