CES at 25: The Transformative Power of Principle-Based Education

As this issue of Horace goes to press and with great sadness, we share the news that CES’s founder, Theodore R. Sizer, passed away on October 21, 2009 at home in Harvard, Massachusetts. Ted leaves his wife Nancy Faust Sizer, four children, 10 grandchildren, and a wide circle of loving family and friends. Please visit www.essentialschools.org to learn more about Ted’s life and work and to leave a message of appreciation.

Since this is a conversation among friends, as Fall Forum specifically and the Coalition of Essential Schools generally have been described over the years, here’s something that we can say to ourselves, among friends: changing schools and changing lives is difficult work. Admittedly, no one ever said this was going to be easy. The common-sense nature of the Common Principles makes them immediately attractive. Only experience can truly convey how completely a school—and the systems that contain and support it—must transform in order to use the Common Principles as its guide.

Many admire and perhaps even dream of being a part of the cohort of successful CES schools that have stayed the tests of time, opposition, and sheer hard work. Fewer may be willing to undertake the challenges required to know ourselves, our fellow educators, our students and their families, and our communities well enough to create transformational change. Fewer still may be willing to make the extremely difficult, sometimes impossible choices (impossible to avoid loss, impossible to avoid misunderstanding, impossible not to anger authorities and allies, impossible not to compromise our ideals) required to keep school structure, culture, and commitment on track. And perhaps even fewer have the imagination to create new approaches to personalized, equitable teaching and learning—among young people and among professionals—and reinvent old ones.

Happily, if you’re reading these words, you’re likely among the fewest of the few. And that is one of our primary frustrations: why so few? Why has it been so challenging to make Common Principle-driven education spread? Why has it been so challenging to get it to stick? After 25 tumultuous years, what gives?

“Our sin is that we don’t prescribe,” CES founder Ted Sizer wrote, mostly satirically, in 1997. “Teachers, it has seemed to some others over the last couple of decades, are to put the bolts in at the right times and at the correct rate, all according to someone else’s plan. Outsiders will then find a test or, better yet, make one up that fits their specific agenda, teach the teachers to drill the kids at meeting it, and—presto!—we have ‘reform.’ The children, well drilled, do well on the test—and test scores are the name of the educational game. We thereby have ‘proof’ that the children are truly educated, ready to take on the 21st century.”

Ted’s pithy summation of the seductive ease of test-driven, lock-step methods of testing learning (not just any learning, of course—facile learning, surface learning, learning that deadens the soul and doesn’t last, junk-food learning) neatly states what we’re up against. Most schools are part of systems that demand proof, and Essential schools are no exception. No sustaining and sustainable CES schools are islands. Just as schools must remake themselves to be student-centered, equitable, professionally enriching, and confident places of learning, the systems and networks of which they are a part—districts and other entities—must also recreate themselves in order to provide the right conditions for Essential schools. Such systems embrace demonstrations of mastery at all levels as sound measures of teaching and learning for all students, along with the necessary structural, cultural, professional, and other transformations, and they embrace—struggle with, perhaps, but ultimately find ways to support—the profound changes demanded by commitment to the Common Principles.

We know far more than we did 25 years ago about why this work is hard, and we know far more about how to make it happen. We have an invaluable record of the specific successes and challenges of what it means to be Essential—research that has emerged from the CES Small Schools Network and CES Affiliate Centers, hundreds of issues of Horace, books published by CES educators and staff members (three such books, newly released, are featured in these pages), and the collective wisdom of the CES network. That collective wisdom is put into practice, refined, and deepened every day in thousands of interactions among students, family members, and colleagues in a school’s learning community, which remains the essential unit of change, powered by the tremendous work of students and educators and supported by systems that “get it” and have restructured accordingly.

It’s not easy. It’s the work of a lifetime, as Teri Schrader says in these pages. Part of that work is being willing, even through fear and resistance, to consider seriously new ideas. Joe Greenberg’s call to add two new Common Principles to our current 10 exemplifies this willingness to learn and evolve. One of these new principles is a commitment to service-and community-based learning, and the other is sustainability, a theme that Carl Glickman and April Peters continue as they carefully analyze the factors that contribute to sustaining the mission of CES schools. They assert, and Adelric McCain and Sean Ottmer subsequently affirm, that our commitment to core (but perhaps not ever-unchanging) principles makes it possible to stay focused on what’s essential.

Longtime CES educator Bil Johnson shares research and commentary on the practices and school culture characteristics that contribute to creating effective advisories, a practice that perhaps more than any other is the hallmark of deeply committed CES schools. Johnson synthesizes the experiences and collective wisdom of five Essential schools to clarify the reasons why advisories are an essential component of a school’s commitment to the Common Principles. Dianne Suiter also contributes powerful research about Central Park East Secondary School, analyzing the factors that caused that this school—an initial proving ground of CES ideas that was one of the first and most influential examples of personalized, equitable, and academically challenging education—to drift from its mission. Suiter’s research demonstrates the daunting challenges of sustaining Essential schools with care and compassion, emphasizing the ways that subtle changes—when made for the sake of convenience rather than in accord with a school’s mission, when made without deliberation among all stakeholders in its community—can, over time, wreak havoc.

This 25th anniversary issue of Horace also contains intimate, personal reflections on Ted Sizer’s life and legacy from Teri Schrader, Larry Myatt, George Wood, Bil Johnson, Dennis Littky, Paula Evans, Deborah Meier, and former Horace editor Kathleen Cushman. Their thoughtful descriptions help us understand how Ted Sizer made it happen. He seems to be able make time stop for just long enough to encourage us to look above the smog of our daily craziness to a better place. He unwaveringly trusts us—teachers, families, communities, and students—to do the right thing. Here’s how he put it in Horace’s School: “The changes will be messy. Democracy is messy. Those who want an orderly solution toy with democracy, that form of government beset with flaws but better than any of the alternatives. Those who assert that “the people” can never be trusted with setting standards sing an arrogant, dangerous tune.”

Though Ted definitely never said it would be neat and easy, he makes us believe that the work of changing schools and changing lives is possible. He’s given us the faith and the ideas, and over the years, we have supplied living proof that principle-based education creates transformation. That’s kept us going for 25 years, and we hope his faith in us, and our faith in each other and the ideas to which we’re committed, will keep us going for many, many more.

Theodore R. Sizer, “On Lame Horses and Tortoises,” Education Week, June 25, 1997
Theodore R. Sizer, Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School, Houghton Mifflin, 1992