Life Is About the Work You Do: Horace interviews Ron Berger

Ron Berger works with Expeditionary Learning Schools (ELS) as Northeast Regional Field Director. ELS is a comprehensive K-12 educational design that combines rigorous academic content and real world projects –learning expeditions – with active teaching and community service. Expeditionary Learning is now being implemented in more than 140 urban, rural, and suburban schools, including a strong representation of CES schools.

Berger’s books, A Culture of Quality and An Ethic of Excellence, have inspired many Essential school educators to reach for what’s best in their students and themselves. Berger talked with Horace editor Jill Davidson about his deep roots in progressive elementary education, concentrating on the importance of students of all ages doing meaningful, enduring work.

Horace: Talk about your involvement with progressive education and with the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Ron Berger: I taught public school for 28 years, mostly at Shutesbury Elementary School in rural western Massachusetts. We had a commitment to CES principles even before the publication of Horace’s Compromise, with which Ted Sizer brought CES work public. Shutesbury was a unique opportunity. Because it was the only public school in a small town, it couldn’t publicly define itself as progressive. That would alienate some people in the town. We had to make progressive practices evident in terms of values like perseverance, authentic work, courtesy, and responsibility. This was what the old-time Yankees valued; those were the values that matter in real life. What we might call progressive are the values that working class people in the town cared about. It was a privilege to work there.

We were a one-school district, and teachers were trusted to create curriculum that was not part of a large mandated approach. We created curriculum that had local roots, connections to local history, and addressed local environmental conditions. This curriculum made contributions to the town; it was of real value. Doing that is hard within a mandated district curriculum.

Horace: What projects emerged from the Shutesbury curriculum?

Berger: In our rural town, everyone has a private well; most families are not sure if their water is safe. Fifth and sixth grade students set up a partnership with a local college that had a mass spectrometer. Elementary students tested water with the college students and prepared individual reports for families and a full report for the town. This was original science, high-stakes research that got kids who may not have been considering college working in a college lab. They were able to see that college is an amazing opportunity, and this project was powerful and authentic.

Other teachers in the school at all grade levels were doing similar projects. Third and fourth graders counted amphibians. They went into the wetlands and forests, and their counts contributed to the Massachusetts state database. This was original research and a very powerful opportunity. Kids got to do real work that they were really proud of and that was judged by professional science standards.

Horace: Talk about how the ideas that CES stands for matter when it comes to teaching and learning with younger kids.

Berger: CES was born from the great wisdom of Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier in seeing that the clutter and anonymity of many high schools prevented school cultures that could shepherd all students to success. Much of what they suggested, including smaller, more personal settings where students are well known and guided by adults, and longer periods of time to go deeper into project work and learning, came from the heritage of elementary schools. It’s no coincidence that Debbie started as a kindergarten teacher, before her ground-breaking work with high schools.

Some of the CES principles are not as salient in elementary settings, because they exist particularly to establish the more personal and flexible context in high schools that many elementary classrooms already have. Some principles, though, are vital. Two CES principles that matter significantly in elementary settings are “less is more” and “depth versus coverage.” Today’s pressure is toward surface coverage of content to prepare for high stakes tests. The more that state frameworks grow detailed, the more this happens. It’s growing more difficult to give students the opportunities to use their minds well as critical thinkers, to work as historians, scientists, mathematicians and writers.

Horace: But conditions these days for many schools present so many challenges to the practice of “going deep” with kids.

Berger: One positive thing about NCLB is the spotlight it sheds on achievement of students in low income communities; that spotlight is good. But if those schools in low income communities aren’t doing well, there isn’t a lot of thought about how to fix them. Drills, more hours, and more testing aren’t thoughtful and careful ways to make those schools better. They don’t need pressure; they need stronger school cultures and aligned strategies. How do you change the culture of a school and build instruction that creates student engagement? There’s a lot of discussion about schools being low achieving, but not a lot of discussion about how to turn a school culture around to a vision of high achievement. CES and ELS embrace the notion that it’s all about the culture of the school. Adding 20 minutes to the day and more tests will not solve the problem.

I think that my message and ELS’s message has resonated most strongly when people actually look at the work that students can do. It’s amazing work. It’s deep, sophisticated research work and high quality writing and math, work that is hard to achieve if you’re always in survey mode. Teachers require the opportunity to step off the coverage treadmill and provide authentic work for students. Not doing so is as much a danger in elementary as in secondary schools. I travel around the country with a suitcase full of incredibly beautiful and sophisticated student projects, created by students of all ages, races, income levels and geographic settings. This archive begins a dialogue: what conditions and school cultures help to create this type of high-quality work?

Success in life is about the kind of work you do and the kind of person you are. Looking at real student work changes the discourse from test measures to more authentic measures of what kids can do.

Horace reviewed Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftmanship with Students in Volume 20, Issue 4, Fall 2004. The review is online at