Essential School Structure and Design: Boldest Moves Get the Best Results

From what schools teach to how they allocate time and people, their design should emerge from local priorities and build on what we know about student learning. Drawing from their common principles, Essential schools are posing the most fundamental questions about how schools should look.

“It was easy,” Einstein is said to have quipped when explaining how he came up with his theory of relativity. “All I had to do was ignore certain basic axioms.”

When it comes to public education, his tactic may merit a closer look; for perhaps never in this century have such volatile energies converged on the subject of how schools ought to work.

Whether the subject is charter schools or the Colorado shootings, district take-overs or “reconstituted” schools, workplace learning or Web-based courses – the public discourse has dramatically shifted in just the last several years.

And for the first time since compulsory public education began in this country, it includes not just educational “experts” and school boards but parents and teachers, legislators and mayors, universities and businesses.

Around the nation, more people are asking whether schools as most now look – large, anonymous places that shuttle students through a fragmented day and test them with impersonal zeal – are designed to best yield the engaged and thoughtful citizens the next century requires.

The Federal government has allocated over $150 million to the search for “Comprehensive School Reform” designs aimed at boosting student achievement in poor and low-performing schools.

For many who have seen reform waves come and go, that push recalls the “school improvement” wave of Cold War days, when the government funded massive curriculum development projects that still gather dust on the shelves of teachers who largely ignored them.

But these days, the conversation focuses not just on textbooks but on all the structures and systems that make up a school’s “design” – curriculum and instruction; standards and assessments; the allocation of resources from people to money and time; the roles of adults and students; the schedule and calendar; the opportunities available for learning; even the architecture of the school itself.

Why is this discourse roiling the public waters just now, when for much of this century Americans have largely accepted and perpetuated standard-issue designs for our elementary and secondary schools?

In part, it arises from critical research over the past 20 years, questioning whether those designs serve children well enough in these changing times, and what it would take to change them.

In part, it comes from a social and economic climate in which the boundaries are steadily blurring between public and private functions. Entrepreneurs start public charter schools these days; corporations sponsor public schools. Tax credits or publicly funded vouchers are taking poor children out of failing schools. Home schooling has increased exponentially. The Internet and the media teach young people much of what they know. And the people once regarded as experts in schooling – from big-city school boards to teacher education colleges – are finding themselves blamed, scorned, or replaced.

Organic, Ongoing Design

But in its search for answers – whether through staffing or schedules, curriculum or budgets – the conversation about school design can turn facile and prescriptive. And, as many Essential school practitioners have pointed out, any effort to supply models for school reform runs the risk of missing some crucial lessons history and research have to tell.

For one thing, school designs grow organically from their local contexts, born of and nurtured by a community’s increasing understanding of its particular conditions and its willingness to address them.

In fact, the successful outcomes of school change efforts have far less to do with design “inputs” than with the internal dynamics of the school community, Paul Berman and Milbrey McLaughlin concluded in their massive 1977 national study for the Rand Corporation.*

No matter how coherent any particular design might seem from the policy level, Ontario educator Michael Fullan observes, it will feel fragmented to teachers in schools until they can create their own knowledge of what to do rather than adopting that of “experts.”

In addition, school design entails an ongoing inquiry process, as a community introduces its strategy for improving problems, inquires into and analyzes its results, revises its actions, and continues the cycle. Especially as communities rapidly change their makeup, school designs must continually adapt to suit the current circumstances.

Finally, any school design serves a particular society’s purposes, including maintaining the existing balance of political, economic, and social power – on both local and national levels. Any sustained investigation of how schools work, the Coalition asserts, must include a hard look at the issues of democracy and equity a particular design raises. For examples, many conventions of schooling, from tracking to testing, operate as sorting and selecting devices that deny a high-quality education to students not privileged by their color or economic class.

Principles Generate Designs

What does all this mean in the practical world of schools? Can a school join the Coalition hoping to find clear guidance about which structural and design elements will best support student learning?

It can, both from CES principles themselves and in the professional development that flows from those principles, Coalition practitioners assert.

“If a school starts by exploring how the Ten Common Principles might play out in its own context, ideas about design will emerge,” observes Jan Reeder, who co-directs the CES Northwest Center in Tacoma, Washington.

“The common principle that a school must know every student well, for instance,” she says, “virtually requires a structure in which adults can work with small numbers of students over an extended time period.” Research solidly supports that principle, she notes; yet a school might devise any number of effective ways to carry it out.

For ideas, schools can now also look to a set of CES “benchmarks” developed since 1998 by a working group of the Coalition’s National Congress. Still in the pilot stage, the benchmarks have already proved useful as exemplars for Essential schools interested in charting their progress along a set of “indicators.” (See sidebar, pages 4 and 5.)

Certain of the Coalition’s eight Organizational Principles also offer useful design guidance. For instance, a school committed to documenting and demonstrating the work of students, or to collaboration and critical friendship among its faculty members, must design ways for this to happen into its daily routine. Or a school that regards the family as fundamental to its work may require pre-enrollment family interviews, schedule home visits by teachers, or build parent-student-teacher conferences into its calendar.

Even with principles to call on, designing or redesigning an organization requires substantial effort and expertise. New schools as well as redesigning schools are increasingly turning to regional CES centers and the national office for coaching in this complex process.

The national office is developing a series of professional institutes to help school teams think through and plan for effective school designs with Coalition principles in mind.

And it is redesigning one of CES’s most long-standing processes, “the Trek,” which coaches school-based teams in such work. (See sidebar, page 8.) Trek participants learn a set of skills and tools in strategic planning, managing organizational change, and incorporating inquiry into practice, all aimed at improving student achievement. They work out ways to achieve the key elements of an Essential school in ways that respect and respond to its local context. They develop strategies through which to engage their community in the redesign of its schools. Working in cross-school and school teams, they pay visits to other schools to observe, study, and offer feedback on their practices.

Exemplars of Design

Many Essential schools, in fact, have turned for useful models to other schools whose structures and priorities have paid off in increased student learning. (See sidebar, page 6.)

“To me, a design is on paper – for a model, you look at the living thing,” says Deborah Meier, who started the most well known of these, Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, and currently heads the new Mission Hill elementary school in Boston. Dozens of small schools in New York City and elsewhere have since adopted Central Park East’s stripped-down interdisciplinary schedule, advisory system, and performance-based graduation requirements.

So many schools have inquired about the distinctive design of the Met school in Providence, Rhode Island that the school now conducts “design studios” in which teams make guided cross-site visits to facilitate the rethinking of their structures and practices.

In the wake of recent shootings at large schools in middle-class communities, suburban schools around the country are investigating Coalition-style advisory systems, aimed at creating a climate in which students can form stronger bonds with adults who model inquiry and respect.

And New York City’s experiment with breaking down a large urban high school into several autonomous smaller schools has proved so successful that variations on it are in the works from Philadelphia to the West Coast.

But “simply importing practices that work well in one place doesn’t necessarily lead to greater student learning,” Meier warns. “Each local school has to think through the principles of what it wants to see in students, and then let the practices emerge from those principles.”

Some Elements Are Essential

That reliance on principles partly explains why – however different they may look on the surface – the most successful Essential schools rely on a few key elements that help increase achievement for all students, not just the privileged few.

These factors – from reducing the student-teacher ratio to requiring exhibitions of student mastery – derive from such a formidable research base that the Coalition national staff has come to consider them as “non-negotiables.” Though they rarely characterize United States schools, they do show up consistently in those of other countries known for high student achievement and teacher quality.

The use of time stands as a prime example of how school design affects learning results. Teachers in Japan spend only half their work day in class; during the rest, they work with colleagues on their own skills and lesson plans, or give individual help to students who need it.

And the Japanese mathematics curriculum exemplifies the Coalition’s “less is more” philosophy; students must learn in great depth roughly a third of the concepts that American students rush through in the quest for “coverage.”

School calendars in other countries also reflect a balance that affords sensible periodic breaks yet gives teachers regular time to learn and plan together. Poor children experience far more summer “learning loss” than their privileged peers, research has shown, which makes the school calendar an equity issue as well as an indicator of teacher professionalism. In response, many urban and suburban schools in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Florida now operate on a year-round calendar, which also helps with over-crowding problems. (Various forms of this practice are well summarized on the Web at

Many pioneering Essential schools have adopted interdisciplinary teamed instruction, which both decreases teachers’ overall student load and helps learners cross arbitrary boundaries between subject areas. Where this technique was used, a 1994 study from the federally funded Appalachia Educational Laboratory found, student performance increased across the board. Students showed a better grasp of concepts and skills, more connections across disciplines, greater enthusiasm for learning, increased participation in and completion of learning activities, fewer discipline problems, and improved attendance, it concluded.

Reducing the student load also goes far toward increasing achievement. Schools where teachers taught fewer than 80 students showed significant gains on standardized test scores, grades, attendance, and other indicators of success, Craig Larson’s 1998 study of 121 CES secondary schools found. And 1999 findings from the landmark Tennessee-based Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achieve-ment Ratio) show that students who were in small K-3 classes outperformed students in larger classes all the way through high school – with particularly strong results among African-American students.

Boldest Moves, Best Results

“Complex structures result in simple behaviors,” Thomas Sergiovanni writes in his book Moral Leadership, “and simple structures result in complex behaviors.” If schools intend to help all students learn at high levels, CES executive director Amy Gerstein argues, they must redesign their structures in dramatic ways, creating simple, flexible systems in which students and teachers can develop in complex ways.

“Conventional schools, which are designed to sort and select students, produce inequity,” Gerstein declares. “We won’t have high standards for all children until we have the courage – conceptually, culturally, and politically – to stop tinkering with these systems and reject their assumptions entirely.”

In fact, the best results from Essential schools thus far have come from those that have most boldly challenged fundamental aspects of what Americans think of as school.

Though such action takes both skill and political will, research makes plain that it pays off. “When the changes embodied in the Coalition’s . . . common principles are fully implemented both inside the classroom and in the school as a whole, the effects are consistent, beneficial, and significant,” concludes a 1996 report by Margaret MacMullen summarizing four major research efforts. “Such schools have increased student engagement in academic work and raised student achievement and parent, teacher, and student satisfaction; they have had a positive effect on student behavior and promoted equity in achievement among different groups of students.”

In this top-down era, the push is on to “replicate what works”; and the Coalition stands ready to help schools think through their design issues in numbers of ways. (See left.) Still, Ted Sizer emphasizes, Essential schools stand out from the current conventional wisdom “in our conviction that a school’s design must be rooted in its local culture to survive.” School by school, they are seeding the nation with bold examples of how and why that works.