Looking Back on 15 Years of Essential School Designs

Schools look far different these days than they did in the 1980s, when Horace first began to chart the effects of the Coalition’s Common Principles. In her farewell issue, the editor reflects on several fundamental shifts.

I didn’t know much about education reform when I wrote my first issue of Horace, in autumn 1988. I was a working journalist with a couple of kids in the local public school, and though I saw the truth of Ted Sizer’s critique in Horace’s Compromise, I couldn’t say much else about why schools operated the way they did, or how they might do things differently.

Naivete proved an asset, though, as Horace became my regular task over the years to come. As I went about talking to those who worked in Essential schools around the country I had to keep asking, “What’s that you’re doing?” and “Why do you do it that way?” Soon I learned to ask another question, “How do you know if it works?”

Whether I was talking with students or teachers, principals or superintendents, parents or college admissions officers, those questions gave me a way to begin exploring the universe of school. They complicated things I used to think were simple; they simplified things I used to think complex. As I prepare to move on to other work, I see that they also gave me an “essential” habit of mind that would serve any writer well.

But looking back over my 60 issues of Horace, I also can see that the answers to those questions have perceptibly changed during my tenure with the Coalition.

When I ask “What’s that you’re doing?” these days, I’m likely to get an answer that thirteen years ago was only a gleam in Ted Sizer’s eye–breaking a huge comprehensive high school into small, autono-mous units, for example, or requiring seniors to complete independent projects before graduation.

When I ask “Why do you do it that way?” the answers more often cite disaggregated data on how students are doing–and they often come from groups of teachers who work regularly with each other as “critical friends” to improve their practice.

And to answer “How do you know if it works?” more school people now invite me to look at students’ portfolios, witness their presentations and exhibitions, and judge for myself what they know and are able to do.

Changes like these come slowly, go deep, and affect the whole culture of schooling. And because so much remains to accomplish, we sometimes forget how far our Com-mon Principles have brought us since the start. So for my last issue as editor, I offer here a selective look at fundamental design changes in the Essential schools I’ve been watching all these years. Though space does not permit naming all those who deserve it, the spirit of all your work resides in each example.

Graduation by Portfolio

Central Park East Secondary School was once the celebrated exception to the public high school routine of cashing in a pile of course credits for a diploma. Now dozens of Essential schools around the country have followed its example, requiring students to assemble and defend their work in graduation portfolios.

Many extend the requirement to younger students, making portfolio reviews part of each year’s promotion process or a midpoint ritual halfway through the high school years.

Making time for these person-intensive systems poses problems for schools in states where a single high-stakes test determines graduation. In New York, such schools have formed a political coalition to push for waivers from the state’s tests, creating an alternative system whose checks and balances more than satisfy the need for external review. (See sidebar at left.)

Small Schools from Big Ones

Again, New York led the way when Essential school activists there persuaded the city to dismantle two huge comprehensive high schools and reopen them as clusters of small, autonomous schools. Several large-scale longitudinal studies then charted student outcomes in those small schools and others starting up throughout the city; and their strikingly positive findings drew national attention.

Now the same strategy has gained support in other districts worried about research that poor and minority students, especially, fare worse in large schools. In Chicago and Oakland, community pressure provided crucial leverage as regional CES Centers lent expertise and resources. (See sidebar, page 6.)

Creating separate schools that share administrative support under one roof, many have observed, seems to work better than merely dividing existing schools into “academies” or “houses” based on curricular themes. The latter approach too easily creates a subtle hierarchy of selection, in which some students receive a better deal than others.

How Time Is Used

The school day and the school year look rather different now in many places than when I began visiting schools. Long-block class periods have swept the country, helping Essential schools increase time for in-depth or integrated curriculum while reducing the number of students a teacher must come to know.

More schools now also build common planning time for teachers into the school day and year. Some, like the schools of the Southern Maine Partnership, schedule several weeks in the summer for curriculum development or other professional teamwork.

A few Essential schools are even tackling the thorny task of revising the traditional school calendar in various ways, to encourage year-round professional development opportunities while reducing summer learning losses. The equity gained for students whose summers hold little enrichment makes a powerful case for changing a system based on outdated assumptions.

More Personal Structures

So many Essential schools now organize students and teachers in ways aimed at increasing personal attention that one often forgets how recently the practice took hold. But cross-disciplinary teacher teams, advisory groups, and other such structures were rare when I first began visiting Essential schools. Growing from the middle school reform movement, they caught on in high schools eager to reduce student loads for teachers and to increase learning by knowing their students better. (See sidebar, page 7.)

Teachers in Conversation

Early in the Coalition’s history, with a grant from Citibank, several yearly cohorts of Essential school teachers came together to form a pioneering network of “critical friendships” that CES called its Citibank Faculty. They received training that allowed them to go back to their own and other schools and help coach colleagues in Essential school strategies. As the grant expired, the new Annenberg Institute for School Reform hired the group’s leaders to form a similar network called the National School Reform Faculty. That group now operates independently, with its base at the Harmony School, a longtime Essential school in Bloomington, Indiana. A large percentage of its members teach in Coalition schools, and as in the original Citibank Faculty network, they carry on a lively electronic exchange of professional conversation that spreads their ideas and experiences across cyberspace. (See sidebar below.) Just as important, many gather regularly with colleagues in their schools to critique their own teaching practices, look closely at student work, and build professional community. That reflective culture can thank the Coalition for its early inspiration and nurture.

Integrating Curriculum

As more teams of teachers breach the boundaries of academic departments, they have opened the door to courses that cross disciplines as well. Everywhere in Essential schools these days are units driven by “essential questions” like “Whose country is this?” or themes like “crime and punishment.” While a decade ago teachers interested in this approach had to write the curriculum themselves, the Internet now teems with good examples, complete with reading lists, lesson plans, and sample student work.

Pushing against this fertile work is a powerful testing industry whose exams typically reflect conventional subject-area divisions. But even there, an initiative as respected as New Standards has established cross-curricular standards in “applied learning,” lending weight to a range of assessment techniques.

Senior projects–investigations and presentations that often cross disciplines in areas of a student’s particular interest–have also gained enormous popularity and respect in the last decade. Ten years ago such work showed up only in a few pioneering high schools; now, even the federal and state education departments are pushing them as a way to keep seniors engaged intellectually as their high school years wind down.

Because the arts are often shortchanged in schools with scarce resources, the Boston Arts Academy, which integrates the performing arts into a demanding academic curriculum, offers an especially encouraging example. To graduate, students must write an actual grant proposal for their arts project, and many receive funding from community partners.

College Admissions

Essential high schools take a risk with college admissions when they strip down the curriculum, group students heterogeneously, and use rubrics and written comments rather than conventional rankings and grades. But some have found that new ways to report student progress actually give colleges a clearer idea of what applicants really bring to the table.

The transcript of the Francis W. Parker Charter School simply lists without grades the courses a student has taken. Then it submits a narrative summary of academic achievement, drawn from the assessments teachers write at each term’s end. “Colleges have proved far more interested in students who have worked hard and engaged in their courses than in possibly more academically talented students whose assessments reveal less motivation and effort,” says this Massachusetts school’s director of student services. “They know what it takes to succeed in their colleges.”

Even in large-scale settings, schools are finding ways to present student achievement more authentically. California’s Transitions project, working with Hoover High School in San Diego and others, has created transcripts that accurately represent academic progress in a cross-disciplinary curriculum, in a form acceptable to the highly standardized University of California admissions process.

K—12 Articulation

Many more districts have now begun to build coherent curricular pathways from a child’s early years in school through the high school years.

In smaller places like Northport, Michigan, this has given rise to a district-wide exemplar of Essential schooling. In more populated districts, some fine Essential schools (like Louisville’s Brown School) house kindergarten through grade 12 under the same roof. Groups of small schools that occupy the same building (as in New York and Chicago) often create a natural partnership in which students move up into a like-minded sister school. And some large urban areas (like Philadelphia and Los Angeles) are encouraging schools in the same “feeder pattern” to share curricular approaches and professional resources. When it works, a sense of community begins to build that joins teachers, students, and families in a mutual enterprise of learning.

Community Connections

Schools like California’s Oakland Tech and Boston’s Fenway High School are among the many that have forged sustained connections with their communities, yielding real advances in student learning. At Fenway, for example, area hospitals welcome student interns, who then incorporate their work experiences into substantive research papers. In Oakland, students collaborate with University of California graduate students on city-planning projects that directly affect their own urban neighborhood. Many New York City Essential schools require community internships for graduation.

School Governance

Choice among public schools was a rarity in 1988, but since then Essen-tial schools from coast to coast have been among the many to sidestep the traditional district bureaucracy by becoming charter or district pilot schools. Close to 1,800 such schools now operate in 36 states, under performance contracts detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success. Charter schools are usually accountable to their state or local school board to produce positive academic results and show fiscal responsibility; in return, they exercise increased autonomy. Such freedom has considerably helped schools like New York City’s International High School, which labor to maintain their Essential school characters under the press of restrictive state and local regulations.

I could go on for eight more pages, with far more examples and names than space permits here. But let these few stand for all your brave advances, and many more to come. As I move on from this beloved work I salute you all, who are my heroes. You have changed the face of schooling in our time. Bravo.