Essential Schools and State Systems: How Is the Climate Changing?

As schools change, states can either help or hinder thier efforts. In California and New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania, far-sighted policy makers are setting up structures that encourage bold steps in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

Sooner or later, when schools begin to change in the fundamental ways advocated by the coalition of essential schools, they will run up against state educational policies and regulations. Maybe a teacher wants to center a U.S. history course around a theme like immigration–but the state dictates what textbooks she must cover. Or a principal might want a special education teacher to be working with the regular program too, so teachers will have no more than 80 students yearly to coach in mixed-ability groups–but the fine print rules against it. Or because state achievement exams emphasize coverage over depth, teachers may fear leaving their textbook course outlines.

The state is not a monolith, of course, but a system of people doing their jobs; and depending on what those people’s outlooks are, they can dramatically alter the climate in which school change efforts take place. As the Essential School effort snowballs across the country, crucial questions arise as to how that climate affects the Coalition’s struggle for meaningful school reform, and how statewide strategies can help rather than hinder Essential schools in that task.

Most CES work involving state systems takes place through Re:Learning, a collaborative effort of the Coalition and the Education Commission of the States that encourages everyone “from schoolhouse to statehouse” to align their goals, policies, and funding in support of Essential School ideas. Eight states– Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, Colorado, and New Mexico–have so far signed on with Re:Learning, and several more are close to doing so. In a few other states, such as California and New York, the Coalition works through large regional networks of schools, but because these efforts depend on privately funded coordinators, they can be cumbersome and unstable; CES now largely limits new membership to states that have joined Re:Learning.

In any case, the Coalition has recognized that true Essential School change ultimately depends on the state’s active participation. But each state’s relation to its CES member schools reflects its own politics, personalities, and priorities; and as individual as each situation are the key questions and solutions a state will frame.

When a state signs on to Re:Learning, some worry, will school reform become too vulnerable to the vagaries of changing administrations? If for political reasons a state will not join Re:Learning, can Essential School ideas permeate the establishment anyway, changing the educational climate of a state in other, subtler ways? In either case, is it better to concentrate on building up a few strong schools as models of Essential School philosophy, or to spread the effort among more schools, broadening the political base but risking attempts that may turn out to be shallow and unpersuasive?

Looking at how Essential schools fare in states where the climate for change is warm, one confronts many of these dilemmas in all their complexity. New Mexico, for example, which is a Re:Learning state, has focused state efforts on moving as quickly and broadly as possible to introduce Essential School ideas from kindergarten through the college years. The gargantuan California educational system has not joined Re:Learning, but Essential School principles show up in the state’s broad efforts to shift fundamental visions of schooling, and in its grant programs for schools moving boldly toward reform. Such efforts to nurture change are as different as a garden hose and an intravenous tube, but each has had some success.

Achieving systemic change necessarily means altering policies, codes, and regulations; and across the country Essential School advocates are watching with keen interest as states like these ones begin to imbed many of CES’s Nine Common Principles in more enduring forms. California’s radically revised curriculum frameworks and its experiments with alternative assessment methods, for example, have much affinity with Essential School ideas. New Mexico has revised certification requirements to encourage teacher-generalists, and given the state board sweeping authority to waive other rules for experimental schools. And Pennsylvania, a Re:Learning state, has made dramatic changes in the rules governing its curriculum.

How has all this come about in less than a decade? How can such reforms be expected to fare in the next few years? Some answers may emerge from a close look at two states’ journeys toward change, and at how Essential Schools figure in their plans for the future.

California Embraces Change

When school reform became a hot issue in 1983 in California, the na tion sat up and took notice. California claims one in seven of the nation’s public school students–Los Angeles County alone has as many students as all of New England–and with its burgeoning immigrant population and a deep fiscal crisis, the state exemplifies all the toughest problems facing U.S. educators. The 1983 School Reform Act, passed in response to public discontent as schools came under national fire, called for tougher standards, more accountability, and sweeping efficiencies in school management. But old paradigms of schooling–a “back-to- basics” attitude that did not fundamentally question how material was best taught and learned–still underlay its thinking.

Gradually, though, state initiatives launched under the Reform Act’s auspices began to push against and test those old assumptions. The new California curriculum frameworks became known nationwide for reflecting state-of-the-art thinking on math, science, and writing across the curriculum. A state-sponsored network of “Subject Matter Projects” involved teachers in summer study groups to develop and spread such ideas. Senate Bill 1882 provided an infusion of money for staff development; the California State Leadership Academy encouraged administrators to become instructional leaders in these new efforts. A program called Every Student Succeeds (ESS) funneled funds to schools trying new ways to integrate students at risk of failure back into their core curricular programs; and another provided health and social services to kids in need. A task force report called “Caught in the Middle” suggested new visions of middle schools’ purpose and means. And the Business Roundtable, an association of the state’s top 75 private employers, lent its weight and support to selected change efforts.

In this new atmosphere, the Coalition of Essential Schools became an influential ally to those who saw improving curriculum and pedagogy as the heart of school reform. Because it was not formally connected with the state bureaucracy, some observers say, the Coalition could serve as a “critical friend” to schools and state people alike. From its place as a nationally known outsider, it could both provoke and enable, challenge and support the growing statewide conversation about learning, and point out the implications for schools of what the state was doing.

“We were outside the system, so we could be an advocate at every level,” says Steve Jubb, who now coordinates the Northern California Essential School effort. “We weren’t just a friend to Mr. Teacher, or a friend to Mary in the education office. And no one was paying for our services, so we could be disinterested–we weren’t seen as trying to protect our jobs.”

The formal Essential School effort in California, however, stayed in the discussion stages until the late 1980s. The Coalition did have two regional coordinators–Maggie Szabo in the San Francisco Bay area and David Marsh, a University of Southern California professor, in the Los Angeles region–to field questions from interested schools, and they ran workshops bringing in people from Essential schools in other states. But about that time Judy Codding, who had led two early Essential school efforts in Westchester County, New York, took over in 1988 as head of Pasadena High School and Coalition ideas found their first large-scale arena in California. “At last we had a school to bear witness to our ideas,” Coalition Chairman Theodore Sizer says.

How the Ideas Spread

Today, the Coalition in Southern California has its own network of experienced Essential School people in active contact with each other as “critical friends” and coaches. Maggie Szabo has moved into a state position directing an ambitious program of grants for school restructuring under Senate Bill 1274–the guidelines for which, signed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, deeply reflect the Coalition’s Nine Common Principles. Along with Szabo, David Marsh and Judy Codding serve on the state’s new Task Force on High Schools, in whose far-reaching final report Essential School ideas will figure prominently. Coalition thinking was very influential in revising the training materials that 1,500 school administrators have worked with in the California State Leadership Academy. Schools are working with state-led projects on new assessment practices, and the California Assessment Program (CAP) has begun to introduce new performance-oriented measures into its testing program.

And all eyes are riveted on the changes under way at Pasadena High School, a large urban school staggering under the kinds of problems that face the entire state–dropouts, drugs, the weight of a dead curriculum with no relation to a multicultural population approaching the 21st century. In Codding’s first few years Pasadena’s faculty reorganized itself into five houses, began to cross disciplinary lines and strip the curriculum of non-essentials, and wrestled budgets to put close knowledge of students by teachers at the top of its priority list. Students now show up regularly and their grades are rising, Codding’s figures show, though she bears battle scars– from a walkout strike by students and teachers when she moved inter-scholastic athletics out of the formal school day, for example.

Pasadena is just one of the showcase schools that typify the strategy of California’s school reform movement in general and of Essential School reform here in particular. At Santa Monica’s Lincoln Middle School, a flourishing Essential school, Ilene Straus was named the state’s Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In nearby Orange County, Judy Cunningham and Rancho San Joaquin Middle School have won a wide reputation for Essential School practices. To provide support and coaching for teachers within the schools and nearby, the Coalition has clustered a number of its National Re:Learning Faculty members in each of these schools, and all have grown used to troops of visitors flocking through their halls.

Some of these model schools, but not all, have benefited by special state grants, which augment the average $4,100-per-pupil expenditure that ranks California among the lowest in the nation in per-pupil spending. The situation vividly illustrates California’s strategy of inspiring change in the many by paying for change in the few. Last year, under Senate Bill 1274, 212 schools received planning grants to help them envision their restructuring. This year, if the legislature votes funds for it, the state will select more schools–not necessarily the same ones, or even as many–to receive additional money for the next five years as “demonstration schools.”

In choosing its grant recipients, the state looks for a spread across achievement records and socio-economic levels; some good schools with ambitious programs resent the system because it leaves them dependent on local tax overrides or business partnerships. On the positive side, several of the state’s initiatives (such as professional development and restructuring grants) dovetail neatly around new visions of teaching and learning. And the state’s restructuring goals–“a thinking-centered, meaning-centered curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, combined with dramatically bold and effective school and district structures and practices”–read like an Essential School manifesto for change.

Without Re:Learning to organize Essential School change in California, the Coalition has relied on an extraordinary network of regional contact people paid by private foundations, universities, and even county or district systems. (The San Francisco Foundation bankrolls virtually all the Northern California effort; and the Ahmandson, ARCO, Drown, and Hearst Foundations are major contributors in the South.) It even seems possible that state restructuring efforts may intertwine with Coalition efforts to such an extent that the practical objectives of Re:Learning could be achieved without a formal commitment. For example, a “lead person” in each of California’s ten main geographical regions, paid by the state restructuring office, provides encouragement and support for schools applying for grants. And because the restructuring guidelines mesh so closely with Essential School ideas, Northern California Coalition coordinator Steve Jubb is besieged by schools asking him for help. Jubb is stretched so thin that he wants his job to be split into several new positions, perhaps correlating with the regions of the county school system.

A solid base of support at the University of Southern California provides a structure for efforts in that part of the state. “I spend one day a week as the CES Southern California coordinator,” explains David Marsh, a professor of education at USC. “One day a week the state pays me to go to Pasadena High to be their ?school coach.’ One of my doctoral students, Cathy Armstrong, is a teachers union representative and CES coordinator at a large urban high school, so she can represent the Coalition. Another USC doctoral student, Ilene Straus, is a Thomson Fellow on the Coalition’s National Re:Learning Faculty, as is Judy Cunningham, principal at Rancho San Joaquin. We have Steve Poynter, a teacher at Pasadena, a Citibank Faculty Member, and a USC student. We have Julie Quinn, another USC student who directs staff development for the Glendale School District. Mike Goldman comes in for a week every month, from his half-time post with New Mexico’s Re:Learning, to work in the L.A. region. That’s a lot of influence, a lot of voices to spread the word.”

Although California’s new state policies are well focused by Essential School standards, Marsh acknowledges, the state’s success is still moderate, its performance bad, and its funding terrible. Still, he says, for a state in a disastrous educational and financial situation, things look pretty good to him. “If you can get four big districts to have a small set of transformed schools,” he argues, “you’ll be moving very fast.” The danger, he warns, is “devising 100 programs to address 100 problems,” and he credits Maggie Szabo in the restructuring office with writing “brilliant guidelines” with which schools can identify their central problems. “I’d rather deal with these dilemmas,” Marsh says emphatically, “than let every school do it on their own.”

Re:Learning in New Mexico

School reform was also launched in New Mexico in 1983 with a “back-to-basics” school reform act rooted in more requirements, more regulations, an old-style industrial model of schools made more efficient. By 1988, when an influential group of five well-placed educators made the trip to Milton, Massachusetts for a groundbreaking Coalition summer workshop, the state was chafing against what it viewed as top-down change, and was ripe for more substantive, teacher-driven classroom reforms.

Now, barely three years after New Mexico joined Re:Learning, the state is up to its ears in Essential School ideas, running an intensive effort to reorient its 88 school districts from kindergarten through post-secondary levels. The state presents an astonishing picture of determination and speed, a mix made possible, at least in part, by the personalities and placement of the initial five people whose interest in Essential Schooling got the whole thing started here on virtually no funds except a grant from Panasonic and the administrative support of Eastern New Mexico University.

New Mexico is a huge state geographically, the fourth largest in the nation; but unlike its sprawling cousin, California, it is small in numbers and its educational establishment is close-knit. “Superintendents and principals here tend to know what each other are doing,” says Jeanne Knight, the state’s Associate Superintendent and head of the cadre charged with developing and articulating Re:Learning’s goals. That fact helped when Knight attended the 1988 Milton Coalition workshop, accompanied by Marlis Mann, aide to then Governor Garrey Carruthers; the late Eddie Ortiz, then the influential superintendent of Santa Fe’s school district; Judy Duval, a teacher now with Re:Learning’s New Mexico offices; and Hayes Lewis, the superintendent of the Zuni schools, one of two Native American school districts in the country.

The five represented such an inclusive spread of school people, and their personal influence was so marked in the state, that Essential School ideas won widespread acceptance throughout the system early on. All agree that a powerful early spokesman for the effort was Governor Carruthers, a change-minded Republican who chaired the Education Commission of the States; and the help of Eastern New Mexico University was also indispensable. But the state’s swift commitment to Re:Learning has now handily survived a change of administration under Democratic Governor Bruce King, the death of the charismatic Ortiz, opposition by right-wing elements, and yearly funding decisions by a legislature with unusually direct control over the state’s school budget.

Part of that political stability can be credited to an extraordinary effort to disseminate the Essential School idea of “student as worker,” at the very least, widely throughout the state, from kindergarten through college and teacher education programs. Though most schools are only in the earliest stages of exploring what that might mean in action, Essential School vocabulary is everywhere; thousands of teachers, parents, administrators, and school organizations have already participated in Re:Learning activities and awareness sessions.

New Mexico Re:Learning goes about its mission from an unused elementary school in Santa Fe, its tiny staff headed by Pedro Atencio, a widely admired, soft-spoken, intense former principal of Santa Fe’s Sweeney Elementary School, committed to involving teachers, parents, board members, and administrators as widely as possible. To do that he relies heavily on the Coalition’s “Trek” concept, a year-long framework that helps school envision and carry out change. This year some 250 school people who are farther along in the process served as “Essential Friends” to partner schools, “trekking them” through the phases of change. New Mexico’s universities are a key part of this effort; they grant graduate credit to teachers for work on Trek activities, and they help sponsor task forces where networks of teachers share expertise in particular subject areas.

With Judy Duval and Michael Goldman (a former teacher at New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School), Atencio has used the Trek strategy to decentralize the state’s effort, spreading $619,000 in Re:Learning funds this year among some 50 schools in five large geographical regions, at an average of around $10,000 per school. Next year Re:Learning is asking for $1.5 million more, as schools now in the exploratory and design stages begin to carry out their plans. A matching grant from Southwestern Bell supplements state funding. And New Mexico is waiting hopefully for word on a five-year National Science Foundation grant that would put $2 million more yearly toward efforts to change curriculum and instruction in ways closely compatible with Essential School ideas.

Atencio and his staff acknowledge that their ambitious strategy means a large number of New Mexico schools are in the earliest phases of change, still coming to terms with the failings of the traditional system and exploring new options. But they point out that as regional support is formalized and structures of peer support (like the Trek) built up, schools should move more quickly and at less cost through the early stages of restructuring.

Restructured Santa Fe

In several districts–Zuni in the West, Albuquerque in the populated center, and Loving in the east are good examples–clusters of schools or even entire districts are involved in transforming schools from the early grades through high school along Essential School principles. In the Santa Fe district, for example, it is easy to imagine a student progressing from Sweeney Elementary School to Capshaw Middle School and Capital High School with a thoroughly consistent sense of what that education meant–an integrated, student-centered curriculum centered around essential themes.

At Sweeney, the district’s largest elementary school with a large population of at-risk children, the school is governed entirely by a seven-person management team made up of teachers, staff, and parents. The climate at Sweeney is one of striking cooperation, its curriculum dominated by teachers’ determination to know their students better in a broad variety of contexts. Older students pair with younger ones as “writing buddies”; teachers regularly exchange classes with another age group; special education students are thoroughly integrated into regular classes; and students work toward cross- curricular competencies in a cycle of theme-oriented social studies units.

Down the road at Capshaw Middle School, an early grant from Panasonic Foundation helped principal Steve Dilg and his staff articulate a vision that had much in common with Essential School ideas. Today, four heterogeneously grouped “families” of 150 students and five teachers, grouped around common hallways, take responsibility for their own curriculum planning, scheduling, discipline, and counseling. Two schoolwide questions focus the curriculum, and each team develops its own interdisciplinary units, enjoying considerable flexibility in scheduling each day’s time blocks to suit their needs. An eighth- grade class led by Kermit Hill, for instance, explores the essential questions “What is love?” and “Why do humans fight?” by exploring the pivotal Civil War battle at Gettysburg from several perspectives, culminating in a re-enactment of the battle on the school playing fields.

The school obtained a waiver from the state to reflect its interdisciplinary commitment in a checklist of exit competencies that focus on demonstrated “essential skills” across the curriculum. Teachers use a variety of assessment measures, including portfolios; presentations, and open-ended questions; and eighth graders demonstrate their readiness to graduate in a public “rite of passage” exhibition.

At Santa Fe’s four-year-old Capital High School, the seminar-based Gateways program combines literature, history, philosophy, and the arts in mixed-age groups that use long schedule blocks to explore themes like power and authority, myths and legends, or human rights. Other departments, from math and science to foreign language, are at earlier stages of incorporating Essential School principles. But teachers say it will take more state help in terms of professional development, revised assessment methods, and autonomy in teaching materials to involve the whole school with Re:Learning’s goals.

Have State Rules Changed?

Even though few bold changes have been encoded in New Mexico’s education laws, any school with a plan for change now stands a good chance of getting it through. Last year, the legislature gave New Mexico’s state education board the authority to grant waivers from state regulations to experimental schools. Other changes are written right into the law: to encourage teachers to be generalists, the state now offers only 25 areas of certification, down from 154, and requires them to demonstrate techniques integrating disciplines. Another area of progress is assessment; an education department statewide task force is working to integrate cross-disciplinary performance-based competencies into the state achievement exams. “Even if Re:Learning were to pass on,” says Jeanne Knight, “the state board is working to ensure that the structure it stands for would remain.”

The Coalition also has friends in the State House, where Governor Bruce King and an active First Lady managed an extraordinarily smooth transition for Re:Learning after its powerful start under Governor Carruthers. “The whole effort could have collapsed when the new governor came in,” says Pedro Atencio. “But Caroline Gaston, the Kings’ aide on education, worked hard to lobby for Re:Learning in the legislature, bringing in the business community and national support from places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science.” Gaston, who is a powerhouse of energy, also advises the governor on children’s services, family issues, and substance abuse. Working with a national nonprofit group called Cities in Schools (CIS), New Mexico schools may soon become community centers for such matters, if Gaston has her way.

Even with the steady support of New Mexico’s educational establishment, Re:Learning faces other frustrations. The state’s teacher pay scale is among the lowest in the nation, and good teachers are continually being hired away to other states, fragmenting the base on which the Re:Learning strategy depends. Few schools have yet requested waivers on matters of textbooks and testing, and they have little control over class size, which is determined by the legislature. (Characteristically, in this case Pedro Atencio makes a virtue of necessity. “Instead of starting with site-based management and not knowing what to use it for,” he says, “our schools will have to start with a vision that creates a need for site-based management. The legislators will catch up.”)

“Our real obstacle,” Jeanne Knight says, “is not so much state policies. It is in our own heads–the traditional passive learning model that so many people take for granted. Everybody wants to be part of Re:Learning, partly because it carries money for schools. But few realize how hard it is to really do it. They get caught into thinking that if they just do cooperative learning, they’re fine.”

Re:Learning can provide a statewide FORM for school restructuring, Knight argues, but the substance must grow from a deeper understanding of Essential School principles. It’s risky, Knight says, to rely primarily on classroom teachers relatively inexperienced in their own school’s transformation to prod and coach other schools as they go through the same process. (It is not unusual in New Mexico for someone to begin the Trek process during one school year and lead a Trek workshop the next.) “We need those teachers in their own classrooms, improving substance there,” Knight says. “I’d like to see ten or twelve of the state board’s staff people deeply trained to serve that critical friend function instead.” And, although the state is busy redefining school leadership to include more than just the principal, Knight wants to focus on one person in each district–whether a coordinator, a principal, or a superintendent–who will be thoroughly coached by Essential School people in addition.

What can be drawn from a look at how these states have approached Essential School change system-wide? No two states are alike in makeup or politics, after all, and every such difference will dictate different routes to change. What states that are making progress seem to have in common, though, is both an elected leadership that endorses change and strong independent leaders in the educational establishment who can develop long-ranging new policies and put them into place.

Aside from that, states can help by sending strong signals to schools as to the route they want them to take, as New Mexico has done. They can give money and technical assistance to local schools in pursuing that vision, as New Mexico’s Re:Learning funds and California’s SB 1274 have achieved. They can set positive directions in curriculum, as California and Pennsylvania demonstrate, and follow that through with authentic assessment strategies, as is slowly happening in California and New Mexico. They can provide new visions–not precise blueprints, but reports like California’s “Caught in the Middle”–on how schools might look in the future. They can revise their credentialing and preparation requirements for teachers, involving university schools of education as all three of these states are doing.

These are neither “top-down” nor “bottom-up” efforts, in the old language of political change. Rather, they are powerful collaborations across all levels. They remind us that if it is to work, people THROUGH-OUT a state system must engage with school change–making it happen in their classrooms, their offices, and their chambers; making it matter to all the key stakeholders; and taking power on behalf of their children, whose futures will affect them all.