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The Essential Ted Sizer

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"It's amazing that the coalition is still expanding after 12 years, that hundreds of teachers have been inspired by this."

Arthur Powell

But why would someone with Sizer's track record even struggle with doubt? In an education world that has seen dozens if not hundreds of reform ideas come and go, that has been deemed "unreformable" by a number of "experts," the Coalition of Essential Schools has shown amazing staying power. Several coalition schools, like Central Park East in Harlem and Thayer High School in New Hampshire, have gained renown and brought their leaders--in these cases, Deborah Meier and Dennis Littky, respectively--to national prominence. The coalition is now so big that it has begun to decentralize its operations at Brown University in favor of regional centers.

"It's amazing that the coalition is still expanding after 12 years, that hundreds of teachers have been inspired by this," says Sizer's colleague Arthur Powell. "We began with a handful of schools, little money, and nine principles that are not exactly the polio vaccine, so evident are they. And, somewhat surprisingly, the coalition has become more connected with issues of inner-city life and poor kids. This to me is an astonishing success."

Perhaps even more significant than the growth in the number of member schools is the success the coalition has had in approaching what Sizer describes as "the long-term goal of getting people to think differently about adolescents in schooling." So embedded are the nine principles in our educational mind-set that even the most rigid back-to-basics advocates must contend with them.

At some coalition schools, the commitment among faculty is shaky at best.

And yet, the coalition--and the movement it spawned--may not be as robust as it appears. In 1985, Sizer commissioned an independent assessment of the coalition's work. In the resulting book, the recent Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms: An Ethnographic View of the Coalition of Essential Schools, researchers Donna Muncey and Patrick McQuillan study five different kinds of coalition high schools and conclude that reforms once planted don't necessarily take root. "Most coalition programs begin with enthusiasm and fanfare," the authors write, "but over five years, these efforts become more routine and, in some cases, more representative of typical school life."

One long-standing issue has to do with the coalition's "safety in numbers" approach to growth. Dependent upon funders who wanted to be associated with a program of real magnitude, the coalition quickly added member schools but lost, in the process, much of its depth of commitment to individual schools. In a sense, this has put the coalition in the somewhat awkward position of being at odds with its own philosophy. The coalition told teachers that depth is more important than breadth, that "less is more," yet it succumbed to the shallowness it disdains by eagerly adding schools to its roster.

And at some coalition schools, the commitment among faculty is shaky at best. A principal at one member school in the Southeast, for example, tells me during a telephone interview that only a third of his teachers have bought into the principles. The main obstacle, he says, is older teachers who are resistant to change. Another problem, he explains, is a lack of space at the school; teachers have a hard time finding a place for conferencing, an important element of the coalition model.

An hour later this principal calls back, saying he doesn't want his or the school's name used in this article. He also changes his story. Approximately 70 percent of the teachers at his school use the coalition's principles in their classrooms, he now says. He really doesn't know for certain, though, because he himself isn't directly involved with the coalition.

The older, more experienced teachers had seen reforms come and go, and they were skeptical.

And that's part of the problem, according to Reform and Resistance: The coalition has little direct involvement with many of its schools. In fact, Muncey and McQuillan found a number of school people who felt betrayed by the coalition. They said they were charmed into joining and then abandoned. One teacher told the authors, "The thing I would say, looking back on the seven years in the coalition, is that it's wonderful to be deserted by them." But it was different at the beginning, the teacher said. "When we were first involved with the coalition, it was with people with faces, people would come to our school, people would call." Another teacher complained, "[Sizer] got teachers excited and got them to the point where they dared to hope, and then he disappeared from our world."

The coalition, Muncey and McQuillan suggest, under-estimated just how hard it is to change schools. In many places, the coalition faithful--usually (but not always) young and idealistic faculty members--alienated many colleagues with a missionary zeal that the others found both naive and arrogant. The older, more experienced teachers had seen reforms come and go, and they were skeptical; in one case, this skepticism turned to resentment when they were referred to in a coalition report as "a bunch of naysayers."

Reform and Resistance sometimes reads like a psychoanalytic drama in which coalition upstarts perceive their somewhat stodgy elders as being in denial. The senior teachers do not want to acknowledge, the upstarts aver, that their teaching practices are less than effective and, hence, that they are deeply threatened by everything the coalition is trying to accomplish.

Those who are at odds with the coalition often do sound threatened. "We never use the word 'coalition' anymore," one angry teacher told Muncey and McQuillan, "It's like a dirty word." Another teacher, feeling that the school administration had shown favoritism toward coalition activists, said, "We must remove their halos; they are not the only good guys in the school."

But the old-line teachers, as obstreperous as they sometimes sound, do not always come across as mere reactionaries. The questions they raise about the coalition are, for the most part, salient and practical. How can teachers coach students when most still have upward of 120 students? How can teachers meet to reflect upon their practice when inflexible scheduling makes even occasional collaboration difficult? How can students take initiative, ask challenging questions, and launch their own projects when they haven't even done the required reading?

Some veteran teachers also express reservations about the philosophical underpinnings of the coalition's principles. How, they want to know, can teachers relinquish authority and let students discover things for themselves when students so often need explicit guidance to understand basic subject matter? And what about student exhibitions and portfolios--won't they always be hopelessly subjective assessments?

And then there are the teachers, especially in suburban schools that send most of their students on to college, who see no need for any kind of reform, let alone the coalition. "We are good now," one teacher told Muncey and McQuillan. "If it ain't broken, don't fix it."

Asked about the concerns raised in Reform and Resistance, Sizer is not the least bit defensive. It is important to understand, he notes, that the research for that book is at least five years old and, hence, somewhat dated; nevertheless, he says, it is "a very useful book. Why should everyone expect to get everything right the first time? Of course, we're going to do some things wrong."

"The most important thing," Sizer says, "is that our basic ideas be taken seriously because schools and school systems change because of ideas."

Sizer agrees that the coalition has run the risk of spreading itself too thin by so quickly expanding. But as Muncey and McQuillan suggest, the coalition has to some extent been driven by its funders, who, Sizer says, would eschew "a little boutique project." In America, the implication is, you have to be big to be taken seriously. Without substantial numbers, the coalition, Sizer believes, may very well have become irrelevant to a serious discussion of schooling.

"But in a way," he explains, "schools are almost pawns in a game. They come and go. Schools change. Communities change. What might not change is the way people think about schooling, and our long-term goal is to have people think differently about adolescents in schooling. The most important thing is that our basic ideas be taken seriously because schools and school systems change because of ideas. God knows, that's how we got the schools we now have."


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