'Critical Friends' in Re: Learning Help Colleagues Navigate School Reform

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Once a month, Bill Johnson hops in his 1989 Plymouth Sundance and drives north to John Jay High School in upper Westchester County to talk with teachers about school reform.

Mr. Johnson can empathize with their concerns. Most days, he teaches social studies here at Bronxville High School.

"I'm trying to do this stuff all the time myself,'' the 19-year veteran says. "And I know how hard it is.''

His work as a "critical friend'' to staff members at John Jay is part of a unique effort to redefine the way professional support is given to schools pursuing large-scale reform.

Known as the National Re:Learning Faculty, it consists of a cohort of like-minded teachers, administrators, community representatives, and school-board members who are struggling with change in their own schools and districts, and who can share their insights and experiences with others.

Currently, nearly 100 National Faculty members are either working with schools or being trained to do so. So far, they have assisted more than 30 schools nationwide.

Begun two years ago by one of the largest school-reform networks in the nation, the Coalition of Essential Schools, the National Faculty provides a range of services, including workshops and advice on such topics as curriculum development and scheduling to classroom observations and demonstrations of teaching techniques.

Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University, created the Coalition of Essential Schools in 1984 to help a handful of schools carry out his nine principles for improving American high schools.

Today, the number of coalition schools has burgeoned to nearly 300.

Because staff members at Brown University can no longer provide all the training and assistance that schools need, they created what is, in essence, a self-help network.

"Strong local support, provided by colleagues from nearby schools and districts,'' Paula Evans, the director of the National Faculty, said, "will enable teachers and administrators--as well as parents and community members--to stay the course and make visible progress.''

More Intensive Training

While the coalition does not provide a cookbook recipe for participating schools to follow, many of Mr. Sizer's principles require wrenching changes in how schools operate.

They include doing away with most electives and survey courses, graduating students based on what they know and can do rather than on credits earned, and encouraging teachers to work collaboratively.

Ms. Evans said the overwhelming nature of such work requires more than the "one shot'' in-service training typically provided for teachers and administrators.

National Faculty members commit to working with one or two schools for at least one academic year. They spend a significant portion of their time observing and listening. The agenda for what they do at the school is defined by the school itself, not by the consultants.

The idea for such ongoing, collaborative relationships--provided by those in the trenches--is spreading.

Last month, the state of Vermont launched the "Vermont School Restructuring Corps,'' in which businessmen, principals, teachers, and education professors are trained to provide technical assistance to schools engaged in systemic change.

This winter, the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., launched a similar effort.

'Winning People Over'

Mr. Johnson is a far cry from the typical high-paid consultant. A bearded, long-haired extrovert who keeps a drawerful of Jolly Ranchers candy in his classroom to help him quit smoking, he views his role as part missionary, part politico.

"There is an element of winning people over,'' he said. "It's important that people get to know who you are and trust you, because you're going into somebody else's school.''

"Too often, people have been brought in as experts,'' he added, "and that's not what this is about.''

During a recent visit to John Jay, Mr. Johnson met with a small group of teachers working on an interdisciplinary, global-studies course and prodded them to clarify what they expect students to know and be able to do by the course's end.

"It's difficult to keep in mind that 'less is more,' '' one teacher worried. "We're not secure enough yet to let that happen.''

"If you're in a discipline where coverage has been stressed for most of your career,'' Mr. Johnson sympathized, "I think the concern that was just voiced is the toughest thing for any of us to get through.''

After four years teaching an interdisciplinary course at Bronxville, he added, "This is the first year I feel more on top of it than behind it.''

To participate in the program, Mr. Johnson's home school agreed to release him for up to 20 days during the school year.

John Jay--or any other school he works with--pays substitute costs for the days he is not at his school. The receiving school also pays travel expenses and a $75-a-day consulting fee, which goes to Mr. Johnson for his services.

Coalition as Matchmaker

Most of the matches between the consultants and the schools are made by coalition staff members in Providence. In addition to John Jay, Mr. Johnson is working this year with the Alternative Community School in Ithaca, N.Y.

But the match with John Jay seems particularly appropriate.

Bronxville and Cross River, N.Y., where John Jay is located, are both affluent suburban communities where the schools have a reputation for sending their graduates on to college.

Ninety-nine percent of the graduates from the 283-student Bronxville High School go on to higher education. The school itself looks like a small-scale replica of an Ivy League campus, complete with stained-glass windows and well-manicured lawns.

Although Bronxville was one of the first schools to join the coalition in 1985, it has constantly struggled with how much of its traditional structure to give up. Many teachers pride themselves, for example, on their subject-matter expertise and are reluctant to abandon Advanced-Placement courses for interdisciplinary studies.

Over the past seven years, however, teachers have slowly moved away from traditional lecturing. A walk through the halls reveals students working in small groups and standing at the front of the class explaining their ideas to others. The teachers float in the background: coaching, cajoling, and questioning.

John Jay is also a "pretty well-established school that's done pretty well,'' Mr. Johnson said, "and there's reluctance on the part of faculty to make some radical changes.''

"We're members of the coalition, but we're really wondering what that means in terms of actual practice,'' said Dick Parsons, a teacher at the school who is also a National Faculty member.

"Our [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores are high,'' he noted. "Our success on the Regents [a New York State test] is high. So one of the issues we have to deal with is whether education as a whole is broken, or whether what we are doing still works.''

In addition, the former principal of John Jay High is now the superintendent of the Bronxville school system and a vigorous supporter of the coalition. Both schools are also working to develop alternative forms of student assessments.

'A New Set of Ears'

But there is a sense at John Jay, in particular, that their work with the coalition has stalled.

Laura Frenck, the school's new principal, said the coalition has sent them a message "that we couldn't remain members indefinitely and not be more proactive.''

Mr. Johnson's presence, she hopes, will help jump-start changes at the school and allow them to explore new ideas "in a more safe, secure fashion.''

"He's a new set of ears for us,'' she explained. "He's free to do and say what he thinks and does, and then he leaves. And there's a great deal of merit in that.''

According to Mr. Johnson and his colleagues, the fate of the coalition's efforts rests in schools such as Bronxville and John Jay.

"Nobody questions the need for change or reform in desperate situations in urban schools,'' John Chambers, the superintendent of the Bronxville school system, noted. "But that doesn't mean we're doing as well as we should be in schools in affluent systems.''

"The whole reform of secondary education will succeed or fail based on what models affluent suburban schools can show,'' he added.

The 'Trainers of Trainers'

Fifty-eight teachers are currently members of the National Faculty, known as the Citibank Faculty because of a grant from the financial-services company that helps support the program. The National Faculty is also financed with a grant from the Danforth Foundation.

There are also 24 principals, known as Thomson Fellows, who are paired with schools. And this year, the program has expanded to include 14 district-level personnel, school-board members, and community-based professionals who are working with schools on a less intensive basis.

To help prepare for their task, most of the fellows participate in five weeks of training: a week in March and four weeks in July.

The training sessions are designed to immerse participants in coalition principles and how they can be put into practice; to help with facilitation techniques, such as conflict resolution; and to provide experience in designing a course based on essential-school theories.

During the summer, the teachers prepare and teach interdisciplinary courses at the Brown Summer High School. The more experienced fellows also co-lead the coalition's summer institutes for member schools.

During the year, principals and teachers receive ongoing support from the coalition staff. Staff members visit fellows in the field. They conduct regional meetings to continue their training. And an electronic-mail network helps fellows stay in touch with the coalition and with each other.

The intensive training and the availability of the network have created a lasting bond among faculty members.

"I have just been so impressed with my colleagues,'' Mr. Johnson said, "just their pure nuts-and-bolts effectiveness as teachers, and how good they are at applying coalition principles.''

Eventually, the coalition hopes to establish regional centers, with the help of the National Faculty, to provide ongoing support and training to its member schools.

"In Providence, we see ourselves more and more removed from direct professional development and more in the role of the trainers of trainers,'' Ms. Evans said. "We really are out to shift the whole mental model of professional development.''

'A Kind of Irritant'

Although its founders originally envisioned the National Faculty as a resource for other schools, its greatest impact appears to be on the schools from which fellows come.

"We've noticed that when we have a Thomson fellow or a Citibank fellow and they go back into their own school, that the school changes dramatically,'' said Mary Hibert, the project manager for the Thomson Fellows.

"By virtue of having a Citibank fellow come from their school, it's provided a kind of irritant,'' Ms. Evans agreed. "All of a sudden, they've got this person in their midst who is talking to us daily.''

That phenomenon of self-examination was already apparent during this spring's training session at Brown. After sitting through one exercise, Steve Seaford, a teacher at Pasadena (Calif.) High School, said, "We're going to have to tell [our teachers] that our restructuring has just begun.''

Many of the fellows said they joined the program specifically to help their own school or to improve their own teaching.

"We're all involved in these battles,'' said Eileen Barton, a teacher at Sullivan High School in Chicago. "And you need to periodically connect with people who have the same battles. People who have the same enthusiasm can commiserate with you.''

The 'Reflective Practitioner'

Mr. Johnson said his own teaching "is the best I've ever done.''

"The heart of all this is the idea of the reflective practitioner,'' he said. "I spend so much time looking at what I'm doing. The whole experience of being a Citibank person and being responsible for modeling the best behavior has had a huge impact.''

The social-studies teacher's classes are noisy, animated places. Most of the activities are done in groups.

During a recent lesson, for example, students analyzed chapters on African-American history that they had co-written for a mock textbook.

Rather than regurgitating facts, they had to consider why their fellow students chose to include certain historical events and personalities and why they organized the chapters the way they did.

Each student was then asked to write a letter to the authors of the chapter, as if they were an African-American reading it. Throughout the lesson, the students worked independently, relying on each other as much as on Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson also coordinates the seminar program at his school--an advisory group in which students meet twice a week to discuss the more affective side of learning. In the seminar, students keep journals, discuss current events, and debate issues that have come up in the school's student-faculty legislature.

Students are required to attend the student-faculty legislature several times a semester.

Mandy Gersten, a mathematics teacher at the school, said she has used Mr. Johnson's help on an informal basis throughout the year. "I know he's out there finding out what's going on,'' she explained.

She added: "I think, sometimes, people respond better to an outsider than they do to one of their own.''

"When I first came here,'' Mr. Johnson said, "I was way too abrasive and too demanding of people to change. And I've recognized that's not going to work.''

"I still am somebody who would like to see a lot of change in a short amount of time,'' he added, "but that's just not the nature of the kind of change that we're talking about.''

Vol. 11, Issue 34, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: May 13, 1992, as 'Critical Friends' in Re: Learning Help Colleagues Navigate School Reform
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