Common Principles Link Coalition Members' Efforts to Reshape Their Schools' Programs

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High schools, writes Theodore R. Sizer in Horace's Compromise, are guilty of engaging in a "conspiracy of the least" in which teachers--who are required to accomplish too much in too little time--agree to demand the very least of their students in exchange for good behavior.

Students, the most ingenious of whom are often labeled "cheeky and disruptive," are typically "docile, compliant, and without initiative." Teachers, meanwhile, are typically prevented from deciding what the basic outlines of their curriculum will be or how much time they will have to teach. "Teachers are often treated like hired hands," writes Mr. Sizer. "Not surprisingly, they often act like hired hands."

In addition, Mr. Sizer says he found that, in spite of the American tradition of local control of education, the nation's high schools are standardized "in terms of grades, calendars, courses of study, and even rituals" to an astonishing degree.

"The problem is the assumption that standardized practice is the route to high standards--when in fact the opposite is true, because we're all different," he said in a recent interview in The Johns Hopkins Magazine. "[E]verybody will use the same, specific program, all in the name of excellence. ... Everybody will have their left finger amputated because a few may have a finger that needs to be amputated."

Common Principles

The solution to this state of affairs, suggests Mr. Sizer, is outlined in the nine principles that undergird his approach to reform. And schools joining his "Coalition of Essential Schools" must agree to make these principles the foundation of their programs. The priniciples include:

Intellectual Focus. Schools should focus on helping adolescents learn to use their minds well. Schools should not attempt to be "comprehensive" if such a claim is made at the expense of the school's central intellectual purpose.

Simple Goals. The aphorism "less is more" should serve as a guidepost. Curricular decisions should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery of a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. They should not be guided by an effort merely to cover content.

Universal Goals. The school's goals should apply to all students, while the means to attain those goals will vary to fit the students. School practice should be tailor-made to meet the needs of every group or class of adolescents.

Personalization. Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum extent possible. No teacher should have direct responsibility for more than 80 students. Decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of teachers' and students' time, and choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies should be left entirely up to the principal and staff.

Student as Worker. The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student as worker, as compared with the more common metaphor of teacher as deliverer of instructional services. Accordingly, the predominant pedagogy will be coaching, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.

Diploma by Exhibition. Entering students must demonstrate competence in language, elementary mathematics, and basic civics. Those who cannot are to be provided with intensive, not-for-credit remedial work. Students progress, and ultimately graduate, by demonstrating mastery of subject matter by means of "exhibitions." As the diploma is awarded on this basis, the school's program uses neither strict age grading nor a system of "credits earned" on the basis of time spent in class.

Attitude. The tone of the school should stress the values of unanxious expectation, of trust, and of decency. Incentives appropriate to the school's particular students and teachers should be emphasized, and parents should be treated as essential collaborators.

Staff. The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first and specialists second. Staff members should expect multiple obligations and have a sense of commitment to the entire school.

Budget. The school's budget should reflect the following goals: a total student load per teacher of no more than 80 pupils; substantial time for collective planning by teachers; competitive staff salaries; and an ultimate per-pupil cost not to exceed that at traditional schools by more than 10 percent. In order to achieve these goals, plans may have to reflect the phased reduction or elimination of some of the services now provided to students in traditional comprehensive high schools.--tm

Vol. 04, Issue 36

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