Formed in 1984, the Coalition of Essential Schools is an umbrella organization that provides support and guidance for a network of schools that are “reinventing’’ themselves on the basis of a set of principles formulated by reformer and author Theodore Sizer.
Sizer believes that there is no one model of the successful school and that effective reform must be a school by school--even classroom by classroom--effort. He rejects top-down mandates and standardized solutions, arguing that schools are fragile places that gain their stability from subtle accommodation to the needs, character, strengths, and weaknesses of the communities in which they exist.
The philosophy of coalition schools is embodied in nine common principles that Sizer put forward almost a decade ago in his popular book Horace’s Compromise. These principles stress the personalization of learning--tailoring schooling to every group of students. Coalition schools focus on helping young people to use their minds, to master essential skills and be competent in areas of knowledge that are shaped more by the powers and competencies the students need than by conventional “subjects.’'
Teachers in coalition schools are treated as professionals, responsible for no more than 80 students, and take part in all important educational decisions. They are coaches who help students learn how to teach themselves. Instead of measuring achievement solely through standardized tests, essential schools ask students to demonstrate their grasp of the requisite skills and knowledge through exhibitions and performance.
Although Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University, originally anticipated a coalition of perhaps a dozen schools, there are now some 200 in 23 states involved. In 1988, the coalition and the Education Commission of the States established the Re:Learning program, in which nine states participate. Additional states are considering joining, and the list of schools “exploring’’ the coalition’s principles grows steadily.
In his new book, Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School, Sizer sets out to show educators that his coalition’s principles are possible in practice. “It’s difficult,’' he warns, “but quite doable.’' The book is drawn from his experiences over the past eight years working directly with teachers and students in high schools across the nation.
“Until we understand clearly just what [students] should do with their minds and hearts,’' he says, “and what standards they should meet, it is difficult to design a sensible school.’'
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Coalition Of Essential Schools