Mixed Record For Coalition Schools Is Seen

By Debra Viadero — November 01, 1995 12 min read
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A brown banner hangs at one end of the cavernous atrium at Paul M. Hodgson Vocational-Technical High School here. “Coalition of Essential Schools,” it reads--a hanging advertisement of the school’s pride in belonging to that national school-reform network.

But not every high school that has experimented with the coalition’s ideas has been so proud of the results. A little more than a decade after Brown University professor Theodore R. Sizer launched the coalition, the group’s record is at best mixed.

More schools than ever--916--now belong to the coalition or hope to soon join. And many of those schools can show both hard and anecdotal evidence pointing to better test scores, lower student dropout rates, rejuvenated teachers, and an increase in the number of students going on to college as a result of their coalition-inspired reform efforts.

Research studies that have been trickling out over the past few years, however, suggest that numerous other schools have had far less luck with Mr. Sizer’s ideas.

Even after millions of dollars and years of experience, these studies say, the coalition’s strategy is far from a proven cure for ailing schools. (See Education Week, April 13, 1994.)

“A lot of schools got off to a good start and then seemed to fade away,” said Donna Muncey, an anthropologist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who tracked the first wave of eight coalition schools in the 1980s.

After five years, she found, the implementation of reforms in those schools was limited to pockets of teachers who had made the coalition’s vision their own.

The varied reasons the projects failed in those schools include faculty infighting, differing interpretations of the coalition’s ideas, the loss of key leaders, parental opposition, and unexpected costs.

These problems are not news to the coalition, which has been studying its future for a year now, or to Mr. Sizer, who has been taking stock of it all himself in a book that he is writing. Mr. Sizer says the spotty track record was not unexpected. Change is hard and comes slowly, he said.

“I would say the majority of schools are finding getting the plans they’ve evolved into practice exceedingly difficult,” Mr. Sizer said in a recent interview. “It’s easy to come up with a plan, and it’s harder to get the powers that be to go along with that plan.”

Most of the schools are just beginning, Mr. Sizer said, even if some of them have been at it for five years.

This week, when participants meet in New York City for the group’s annual fall forum, the coalition will unveil a report setting a new direction for its future. While the substance of that report has not yet been made public, one point is clear: Neither the group nor its founder is ready to throw in the towel yet.

Starting With Horace

Mr. Sizer, 63, who has often been described as looking like the tweedy New England schoolmaster he once was, in effect provided the philosophical groundwork for the coalition movement in his 1984 book, Horace’s Compromise--The Dilemma of the American High School.

It told the tale of Horace, a fictional high school English teacher burned out by a system that left him with too little time to work with individual students or with his co-workers. The biggest drawback of that system, the book argued, was that it bred bored students who could not think deeply or critically.

To create schools where meaningful learning could occur, the book offered nine “common principles.” (See box, this page.)

Instead of sitting passively, the principles hold, students should function in school as workers. And teachers, rather than lecture from the front of the room, should behave more like coaches. No teacher should be responsible for more than 80 students.

Moreover, the principles call for replacing traditional requirements that students spend a particular number of hours in courses with exhibitions of student work. Rather than just put in time, students would have to demonstrate what they can do with what they know in order to graduate.

The principles also endorse putting decisions about the use of instructional time and decisions in the hands of the faculty, personalizing teaching to meet the needs of particular students, ridding the school of “nonessential” coursework, adopting interdisciplinary teaching, instituting longer and more flexible class periods, and promoting a tone of “unanxious expectation, of trust, and of decency” in the school.

To do these things, the principles hold, schools should make a long-term plan for themselves and prepare to spend no more money than about 10 percent above what traditional high schools spend now.

Good Timing

“It wasn’t as though he [Mr. Sizer] invented those ideas,” Ms. Muncey said. “But he put it out in the market of ideas in a way that did not blame administrators or teachers for the conditions in schools, but asked them to think about their roles to change them.”

The timing was also right. A year before Mr. Sizer’s book was published, a national commission had released its attention-getting report warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity” overtaking the nation’s education system. The public and educators were looking for solutions.

Over the years, Mr. Sizer has attracted nearly $100 million to support the coalition’s efforts from major foundations such as Exxon, Citicorp, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He also linked the coalition with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States in an effort to spread his reforms faster and more broadly. The effort, known as “Re:Learning,” helped funnel state dollars and political backing to coalition schools.

Today, the largest concentrations of coalition schools are in the 12 Re:Learning states. But that project ended its five-year run with a record of spotty results. In a few of those states, the effort has been blended into other reforms, fizzled out, or been taken under the wing of the state school board.

If Re:Learning is renewed for a second phase, according to the ECS, it will be broadened to include other national reform networks as well.

“Having school designs just from the ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum doesn’t lead to state policy that is welcoming to different designs,” said Robert Palaich, who oversees the project at the ECS, said. “Back in 1988, there were a handful of reform networks. ... In 1995, there are dozens.”

Hodgson Perseveres

Delaware’s Hodgson Vocational-Technical High was among the crop of schools that came to the coalition through the Re:Learning initiative.

Steven H. Godowsky, the school’s principal, said the school received $35,000 in extra state and local money during the 1989-90 school year, its first year of participation in Re:Learning. The amounts have gradually decreased each year since; this year, the school will receive $1,000 to send a small number of teachers to the fall forum.

Delaware school officials decided several years ago to intertwine Re:Learning with a National Science Foundation- sponsored effort to promote systemwide change in science and mathematics teaching.

Later, after a new state schools chief took office, both projects were placed under the state’s overarching school-reform plan, called “New Directions.” The reasoning was that any efforts to change what goes on in schools should encompass all aspects of the system.

“I think by and large Re:Learning schools felt abandoned when that happened,” Mr. Godowsky said, “especially when people made real commitments.”

But while some other high schools let their coalition membership lapse, Hodgson persevered.

For one thing, the match made sense for the school. Vocational schools already ask students to show what they can do with what they know. The same concepts just needed to be extended to academic courses, which Hodgson’s teachers were also in the process of strengthening. They hoped to make it possible for Hodgson graduates to have two real options when they left school: college or a vocation.

‘Real World’ Learning

“When I saw my students in shop class working with their hands I could understand why they would come to my class and not pay attention,” said Darnel Grandell, who chairs the school’s math department and sits on its governing committee.

As one report on Hodgson’s efforts noted: “If they’re going to be plumbers, carpenters, masons, cosmetologists, why can’t they also be educated plumbers, educated carpenters, educated masons, educated cosmetologists?”

Hodgson’s crowning achievement so far has been the institution of a senior project. Since 1990, 12th graders at the school have been required to spend a year writing a paper and creating a product. In the spring, they present their work before a panel that includes local business people and teachers. Last year, the school board agreed to make the project an official graduation requirement.

“It’s a good learning experience,” said Allen King, a senior whose project focuses on pneumatic-power technology. “It teaches you how to get into something, and it shows you how the real world is.”

The school has also rearranged its schedule so that some class periods are twice as long as they once were and teachers can team up to teach interdisciplinary classes.

“I like it better,” said Lindsay Fraze, who is taking a combined honors-English and world-history course. “You get all this time, and it just flows and you see how they relate to each other as you go.”

Hodgson High’s experience would seem to buttress the observation of Robert L. Hampel, a University of Delaware associate professor of education who studied coalition schools in the state, that the “coalition is not a fix for broken schools.”

“What it does,” he said, “is sustain and nurture people who are already thinking along these lines.”

Reaching Roadblocks

In contrast, at Paul Robeson High School, half a continent away in inner-city Chicago, a proposed move to 100-minute classes is being challenged by a teachers’ union member who filed a grievance against the coalition school.

And in St. Louis, school officials ousted Thomas Reefer, the principal of a science and math magnet high school, after he tried to institute Coalition of Essential Schools reforms.

“It’s just very hard to reform a school once it has started out as a traditional high school,” said Mr. Reefer, who has since filed a lawsuit against the school district.

To some experts, the problems that coalition schools have encountered are no different from those that any significant reform effort might face.

“I’ve studied reforms since 1973,” said Lorin Anderson, a University of South Carolina professor who tracked Re:Learning schools in his state. “I started with mastery learning, and I did outcome-based education and the effective-schools movement.”

“It doesn’t make any difference what I’m studying, the results are almost always the same,” Mr. Anderson said.

Of the 15 schools he studied that had tried out coalition ideas through Re:Learning, he said, only two or three are now full members of the network.

Moreover, observers say, high schools often prove to be nearly impervious to change.

“Many parents and school board members have a notion of what a real high school has to be,” said Mr. Hampel. “It has to have departments, 50-minute periods, and kids have to bring home textbooks.”

When those elements are not in place, the outside community begins to think it is not a “real high school,” he said.

Ambiguity and Distance

Other researchers say the coalition is also partly to blame for its schools’ failures. One common criticism is that the nine common principles are ambiguous. Teachers may spend a year, for example, scratching their heads over what it means for a teacher to be a coach.

“With the coalition, you start with a broad series of goals, and the coalition actively resists making them concrete,” said Samuel Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University professor who studied schools that had been singled out by the coalition as model programs.

“It was not at all clear that all the schools were doing anything active,” he said.

Researchers also say the coalition lost a chance to work more closely with struggling schools when it joined the Re:Learning initiative.

“It’s the depth-vs.-breadth issue,” Mr. Hampel said. “In Delaware, politicians would have seen it as a failure if it hadn’t added schools every year but, in retrospect, there were too many schools.”

Mr. Sizer does not disagree.

“Sure, it’s fuzzy, because the world is fuzzy,” he said of his reform scheme. Every community and school is different, he added, and schools must shape their own principles to fit. Otherwise, faculty members will never come to feel that they own the principles.

Thus, the coalition is loath to impose any direction from its central office at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The group does, however, link participating schools up with “critical friends"--educators from other member schools who visit and critique their progress.

Paradoxically, the lack of precision may be as much a strength as a weakness. Supporters say the freedom to interpret the principles for themselves is what attracted them to the coalition in the first place.

“I didn’t know when I wrote these principles the use to which they were going to be put,” Mr. Sizer said recently. “They weren’t honed, and maybe that’s a good thing.”

“If I did, maybe that would squeeze all the blood out of them,” he added. “The point is people are thinking hard about them.”

Moreover, the ideas have become part of the national discourse on how to improve schools.

As for its size, the coalition’s report is expected to call for decentralizing the organization.

“We’re in too many schools in too many states for one office to provide support to schools well,” said Sherry P. King, the superintendent of the Croton-Harmon school district in New York, who heads the group’s futures committee.

Buying In

After five years, even Hodgson’s coalition-inspired reforms are not in full flower.

A proposal to lengthen every class period in the school divided the faculty last year, led to some tears, and was later abandoned. Only one teacher sees only 80 students, and there are no plans afoot to drop Carnegie units, the traditional method of calculating high school graduation credits.

“It’s like we’re on an exercise belt and we keep racing a little closer to one end, and then we slip back and now we’re close to the middle ground,” said Wayne Wilberding, who teaches culinary arts at the school.

But on state writing tests last year, Hodgson’s 10th graders outscored every other school in the state. And though they do not know what the Coalition of Essential Schools is, students remark on the “tone of decency” at the school.

“Even if the coalition goes away tomorrow,” Mr. Godowsky said. “We’d still be here, because we bought into that set of principles.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Education Week as Mixed Record For Coalition Schools Is Seen

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