Reform Alliance Gathers Steam

With bottom-to-top support, the Coalition for Essential Schools pursues grass-roots change.

`ALL of my predictions about what would happen have been wrong,'' says Theodore R. Sizer about the high school-university partnership he started in 1984. This Brown University education professor's goal of working with a handful of high schools in a bottom-up reform effort has caught on like wildfire with the people who make up the grass roots in education.

``If you had told me two years ago that we'd be 110 schools, I would have laughed at you,'' Dr. Sizer says of his Coalition of Essential Schools, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Perhaps not coincidentally, about two years ago Sizer joined forces with the state agencies and politicians he once scorned. In 1988, the coalition formed a partnership with the Education Commission of the States (ECS), a Denver-based interstate compact that helps governors and state officials develop education policies.

This initiative, ``Re:Learning: From Schoolhouse to Statehouse,'' marked a movement away from isolated, school-based reform to an embrace of those agencies and people that control funding and can lend valuable support to change. The project is an unusual marriage between those on the frontlines of education reform and those commanding change from the top. Governors and other officials in charge of setting education policy are beginning to realize that they can only do so much with top-down mandates.

At the same time, Sizer and his colleagues have recognized that those in the trenches can only go so far without the help of governing bodies. Rigid state and district regulations can become formidable barriers to reform.

Under the ECS-Coalition agreement, six states (Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) have agreed to waive restrictions and drop burdensome requirements for coalition schools. Each state is helping fund and support 10 schools in their state that want to implement Sizer's ideas. Some states are bringing elementary schools into the coalition.

Member schools are diverse; they are public and private, small and large, rural, urban, and suburban. What they share is an allegiance to Sizer's nine common principles.

Evidence that ``essential schools'' are being effective shows up in higher attendance rates, increased test scores, low dropout rates, and fewer disciplinary problems. ``But,'' Sizer says, ``the thing that gives me the most pleasure is to talk to the kids. There's a kind of self-confidence about them that's very attractive.''

The overarching goal of a school should be helping students use their minds well, Sizer says. In other words, teaching kids to think. The principles for achieving this goal include:

``Less is More.'' Schools should not attempt to be comprehensive but should teach ``essential skills.''

Teaching should be personalized as much as possible. Sizer recommends that no teacher have responsibility for more than 80 students.

Students should be active learners who are responsible for their own education rather than passive recipients of knowledge. Teachers should spend class time coaching students, not lecturing to them.

Instead of awarding diplomas on the basis of credit earned or time served, students should demonstrate mastery in an ``exhibition.''

Per-pupil cost should not be more than 10 percent above that of traditional schools.

``There have been endless efforts at school reform, each of which cost a large amount of money,'' Sizer says, pointing out that most of these attempts have failed. ``Our view is that we can't wait around for the public to increase school expenditures another 50 percent. What we have to do is take the money we have and redeploy it.''

ON the basis of the nine common principles, each school in the coalition is encouraged to work out its own goals. ``We don't have the answers we're trying to give to the schools,'' Sizer says. ``We have well-founded and deeply rooted convictions and a growing set of experience in a variety of schools.''

This kind of flexibility appeals to many educators. ``What I like about the coalition is that it allows each school to create a model for itself,'' says Dolores Laughlin, a teacher at Andover High School in Andover, Mass.

In some cases that may translate into slow progress. Such has been the case at Andover High, which joined the coalition six years ago. Only one course - taken as an elective by seniors - incorporates the range of coalition principles.

``Even though we are a coalition school, the process of change outside this one class has been slow,'' says Craig Simpson, a teacher at the school. ``But still there's been a movement toward the idea of students taking on the role of active learners rather than passive learners.'' Characterizing the process, he says, ``it's been almost an undercurrent rather than a tidal wave.''

Some schools create a school-within-a-school. ``My view,'' Sizer says, ``is that a school-within-a-school has got to be perceived from the first day as a pilot, not as another alternative program.'' He strongly rejects the idea of a ``shopping-mall'' high school where students choose from a smorgasbord of classes or programs.

The challenges of a school-within-a-school are well-documented. Teachers in opposing programs are often pitted against each other and competition between the two groups can be fiercely divisive.

Two high schools in New York City were founded as ``essential schools'' - Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem and University Heights High School in the Bronx. These schools are among the handful that have successfully implemented the full range of coalition concepts, according to Sizer.

A fair number of schools are ``stuck, paralyzed,'' Sizer says. They have managed to take the program only so far before encountering obstacles. But Sizer does not send those schools packing. ``My whole view of this is to be very understanding and tolerant,'' he says. ``What we're trying to do is exceedingly difficult. Why shouldn't they be stuck?''

Urban and poor schools have found it easier than wealthy, suburban schools to adopt the coalition concepts. These are ``communities which realize that the risk of not changing is greater than the risk of changing,'' Sizer says. ``They realize that the schools are not working. The gold-coast suburban high school where the kids get into college is under a good deal of pressure to not change one whit.''

At Andover High School, in an affluent suburb of Boston, high standardized test scores, a majority of students who go on to college, and a previous record of success make radical reform a difficult decision.

``If you're getting good results,'' says Ms. Laughlin, ``the feeling is why mess with success?''

OFTEN, the tendency is for each constituency - teachers, principals, school boards, and superintendents - to wait for someone else to make things happen. According to one teacher at Andover, who would not speak for attribution, ``The coalition is something that we get newsletters on but doesn't really impact us. The administration hasn't really made the case for it. I think it should be impacting us, but it hasn't really had the weight of the administration and the school committee behind it.''

This teacher, like others, is skeptical. ``I got the impression [when we joined the coalition] that it was a public relations thing. That it wasn't anything that would really be pursued.''

``In a sense,'' says another teacher at the school, ``joining the coalition means sharing power with other teachers. Some of us think that that's really liberating. And others see that as a threat.''

Educators like Craig Simpson feel strongly enough about the need for change that they are doing whatever they can to bring it about. As he puts it: ``You just can't walk away from the importance of students being thoughtful, active participants in their own learning rather than passive receptors of other people's ideas.''

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