Humanizing the 'Shopping Mall' High School

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Ten years ago, the Coalition of Essential Schools was established to address problems that researchers had identified in a five-year Study of High Schools, headed by Theodore Sizer. Across the diverse high schools they studied, these researchers found chronically passive students, many of them not well known by their teachers. They found teachers too harried for much thoughtfulness or caring--meeting 150 students or more each day on a frantic schedule; and working in isolation from each other, unable to take collective responsibility for the effectiveness of their schools. Finally, they found a curriculum that was nearly everywhere shallow and fragmented--all coverage and little depth.

In deciding how to tackle these problems, the coalition took three serious risks. On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, it seems fitting to consider how the coalition has managed these risks, and to ask what taking them has yielded.

  • High school focus. The coalition decided to focus on the high school despite evidence that the problems of the high school are symptomatic of more systemic ones. In effect, it decided to work intensively on one part of the overall problem, and trust the rest to others. Although it has gotten involved in state-policy reform through a partnership with the Education Commission of the States, called Re:Learning, and also in the reform of elementary education through a partnership with New York City's Center for Collaborative Education, it has largely left the details of this work to its partners.

    The coalition took this tack and has persisted in it despite the fact that high school is widely assumed to be the toughest sector of American schooling to reform. Indeed, the Study of High Schools helped document the reasons why this is so: the high school's "shopping mall" design that enables it to satisfy any particular criticism by opening up a new specialty shop; the sheer size of the average high school; and the fragmentation of high school faculties along departmental lines.

    Predictably, the coalition has had tough going. Even many of its earliest and most well-intentioned member schools have encountered great resistance. Yet, some others, despite the odds, have become exemplars. These include early members who have managed to keep the struggle enjoined for seven or 10 years, and later ones who learned from both the successes and failures of the pioneers. They also include a number of high schools built from scratch with the coalition's principles in mind. But whether new or restructured, the mere existence of these exemplars (and the chance to visit them), has contributed significantly to what might be called the discourse of reform. In achieving just limited success even after 10 years of effort, the coalition has helped educators and policy-makers understand the need for serious change in high schools, and has defined the direction for this change. By virtue of its own track record, it has also raised consciousness about how hard serious change really is, and how long it takes.

  • Networking. The second risk the coalition took starting out was to emphasize networking as a strategy. It resolved early to link teachers and schools across the ordinary jurisdictions of American schooling, and to maintain the links even in the face of the predictable failure of some of their efforts. Even if some schools proved more resistant to the principles of the coalition than the local champions of these principles first assumed, the coalition hoped to keep them in the network and to learn from their experience. Its faith in networking is deeply American: Many difficult historical changes in American habits and institutions were accomplished because local change efforts were supported through good times and bad by a network. One thinks, for example, of the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, or the effort to achieve women's suffrage.

    Of course, networking as a school-reform strategy is risky. It depends upon fostering communities of belief, but communities of belief always engender dissent. Nothing is more predictable in school than that some teacher's profession of belief in the coalition or any other outside effort will cause some other teacher to recoil. Moreover, networking runs against the political grain. Throughout the 20th century, most change efforts in American education have been promoted by bureaucratic means rather than by networks. That is why the coalition is often accused of political naivet‚. Real change of the sort the coalition seeks, say some of its critics, can come only by the effort of state and national legislation and regulation, and by district-level rather than school-level action. We must reinvent the system, they say, so that it aligns better. But Ted Sizer has emerged as a foe of alignment, even suggesting that the strategy is the last gasp of the 20th-century effort to create an ever more efficient top-down system. For the 21st century, he suggests, we will need a "bottom down" strategy, in which autonomous and locally responsive schools are held accountable by means of their networking obligations. He would replace supervisory assessment with a model in which the exhibition of student work becomes the basis of a continuous conversation about standards across local and regional networks of schools.

    The prospects of success for such a strategy are at this point a matter of hopefulness and of promising efforts here and there. Yet it resonates with similar strategies being pursued in the restructuring of many American corporations, and throughout the entire field of communications. It is no more utopian than the vision that the Internet might become at some point an information superhighway and transform our relationships to information and each other. Even if the American reliance on bureaucracy remains strong, our experiments with networking proliferate daily.

    Meanwhile, some important evidence has surfaced recently on whether school and teacher networks might make a difference in boosting student achievement. Milbrey McLaughlin and her colleagues at Stanford University's federally funded Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching have conducted a major study of the effort to redirect teaching and learning in American schools toward genuine understanding rather than rote recall. Among the most powerful levers for making this shift, they found, are networks and other professional communities. These can function, say the researchers, as "learning communities which generate knowledge, craft new norms of practice, and sustain participants in their efforts to reflect, examine, experiment, and change.

Philosophy versus model. Finally, the third risk the coalition took in setting its agenda was to avoid developing a model, and to advocate a covenant of principles instead. Among the most important of these principles are that schools should have an intellectual focus; that they should have the same goals for all their students; that they should organize themselves to know these students well and to acknowledge their unique characteristics as people; and that they should graduate them only when the students can demonstrate that they have learned what the school intended to teach. A corollary principle has also arisen within the coalition as a result of the accumulated trial and error of its member schools. It holds that the other principles are nearly impossible to achieve in big schools. It argues for building small schools, or at least breaking big ones up into small units.

Apart from the emphasis on smallness, however, the coalition has steadfastly maintained that no two good schools are alike. It claims that New York City's Central Park East Secondary School in Harlem became an excellent school by inventing and adapting one design, but that Federal Hocking High School in rural Ohio is likely to achieve its own excellence by other means. In taking this position, the coalition has been guided by research on the implementation of innovations which suggests that even when reformers insist on "faithfulness" to a single design, the design becomes transformed in actual practice. In effect, the coalition opted to encourage such transformation from the start, especially out of respect for the diversity of contexts and purposes in American education.

Still, this remains a risky strategy since it puts so much of the burden of design on schools themselves. It makes reform take longer, and makes it look different from place to place. So different, in fact, that the coalition suffers the frequent charge that its "model" cannot be validated by research. Recently, however, some inventive research undertaken by the federally funded Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin has managed to measure the impact of variant models of coalition-like principles on student learning. Researchers associated with the center studied the impact on students of smaller, more "communal" schools, ones in which students stood a greater than ordinary chance of being known well; and they studied the impact too of schools--small or otherwise--that engage in the kinds of "restructuring practices" advocated by the coalition--interdisciplinary teaching, the use of "mixed ability" grouping, the provision of common planning time for teachers, flexible teaching blocks, and so on. Using a methodology that ignored the particular ways that schools implemented these practices, and employing a national database that includes conventional measures of student achievement, the researchers found that the restructuring practices make a real difference in student achievement, and that smallness adds to the difference.

Like the research findings on the effects of networking I have already mentioned, these findings offer a glimpse of a different kind of accountability in the 21st-century American school system--one premised on responsive variation, rather than supervised faithfulness to models. Such glimpses give many schools in the coalition the heart they need to keep struggling in a principled way. And each struggle, even on occasion a lost one, energizes the next.

So, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the Coalition of Essential Schools feels successful, but only in the way that, say, the civil-rights movement felt successful in 1963--lots of people had just marched on Washington, but most of the long haul still lay ahead. The 3,500 people who crowded into a Chicago hotel for the coalition's annual fall forum last November do not prove that the reform of the American high school is imminent, nor even that very many of the high schools represented have serious reform plans in place. But they do suggest that interest and effort are both growing.

Out of respect for the work remaining, the coalition held only a muted birthday party.

Vol. 14, Issue 28, Pages 46, 50

Published in Print: April 5, 1995, as Humanizing the 'Shopping Mall' High School
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