The Essential Conversation: Getting It Started, Keeping It Going

Time to talk. Space to talk. People to talk with, ideas that spark more ideas, and a school climate that invites honest inquiry to happen. If Essential School ideas about teaching and learning are going to take root, these things must come first.

Today, Pueblo County High School in Colorado’s District 70 looks like a traditional “shopping mall high school,” its 920 students moving through a six- period day along five ability tracks, its teachers working in separate disciplines, seeing 150 students a day in isolated classrooms. But behind that appearance a whole new way of talking about teaching and learning is in the air– in the halls and the faculty lounges, among parents, students, and teachers. And out of that conversation ambitious changes are stirring. “By next year at this time,” principal Dick Amman declares, “our goal is to come up with an alternative schedule, a new curriculum design, and a plan that uses advisors to help students assemble graduation portfolios representing the best of what they know and can do.”

Central to these goals is Pueblo’s commitment to a whole-school consensus on the changes, which revolve around the Nine Common Principles of the Essential School movement–though as little as one year ago only 35 percent of its teachers even felt change was needed. Already this year, a committee of Pueblo students have met to put the Common Principles into their own words, and 85 percent of the teachers have endorsed the document. And the school’s steering committee, made up of community leaders as well as students and staff, is solidly behind the proposed changes. Formally and informally, in ways overt and subtle, people here are talking with each other continually about what they want their school to be like.

If Essential School change is to take hold and endure, its advocates maintain, the importance of talk like this cannot be ignored. “It’s tempting for critics to dismiss our emphasis on this as sentimental,” says Theodore Sizer, who has long called the Coalition of Essential Schools “a conversation among friends.” In fact, he argues, “conversation is fundamental to school change. Without it, schools will go nowhere; with it, they will succeed.” But how can a school achieve the kind of involvement among its staff, its students, and its community that places like Pueblo demonstrate? How does it even know what to talk about? What does it take to get those opposed to any change talking about new ideas? And how can the conversation, once begun, be nurtured and sustained so that school people’s sense of their own professionalism will thrive and flower?

Why Bother to Talk?

In the typical isolation of the American school workplace, the barriers to conversation are formidable, research has shown. As Susan Moore Johnson points out in her 1990 book Teachers at Work, most teachers have little systematic contact with each other; they see students only in the classroom and do not usually discuss them with their colleagues. Rarely do they turn to each other for help on instructional matters, and rarely do schools encourage collaboration by setting up structures that support it. “The last time many teachers routinely talked about issues of education was probably in graduate school,” says the Coalition’s Beverly Simpson, who works with schools at the start of their involvement.

With the full weight of that status quo against them, some school people, excited by Theodore Sizer’s ideas, have tried getting an Essential School program going more or less on their own–as a school within a school, for example. But seven years of Essential School experience shows that such decisions are likely to backfire. “If you don’t include people in the conversation, they feel excluded; and excluded people make things fail,” says CES Director for Schools Bob McCarthy.

Back in 1984, for example, a small group of interested teachers at Houston’s Westbury High School started meeting as “Horace’s Company,” discussing the Coalition’s Nine Common Principles and how they could try them out. Westbury became a charter member of the Coalition, but the effort remained a school- within-a-school; a succession of principals was only one of the reasons that the rest of its faculty never became actively engaged in talking through Essential School ideas and practices. After a close faculty vote against whole-school involvement, Westbury temporarily shut the program down and went back to the planning stages, this time taking deliberate steps to build dialogue into every teacher’s day. Today, the school is steadily transforming its structure, and it predicts all of its 2,000 students and 97 teachers will be working with Essential School ideas within a year. Many of the most resistant faculty, like shop or art teachers who saw their subjects as threatened by change, are now contributing key guidance as the whole school readies to introduce graduation exhibitions, says Karen Owen, Westbury’s Essential School coordinator.

The conversation’s aim, however, cannot be to put in place a predetermined agenda of Essential School reform. Instead, Ted Sizer emphasizes, it has to have a democratic focus; each school must find its own ways to work through its particular challenges. But conversation is the necessary medium to do this, he argues, and so setting up a context of collegiality in which it can thrive must be a school’s first task.

New Conditions, New Norms

“Collegial workplaces depend on teachers’ openness and readiness to improve,” Susan Moore Johnson concludes in Teachers at Work. They must also have “reference groups of peers for identifying problems and taking action; ample time for observation and discussion; and administrators who both encourage teachers and accommodate their needs as they explore new collegial relationships.” When all these pieces are in place, it appears, a new tradition of collaboration starts to exert its own force, causing people to rely upon it for solutions as subsequent situations arise.

The experience of the thirty schools involved in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association in the 1930s is good evidence of this. (See HORACE, Volume 8, No. 1.) In this large-scale experiment, thousands of teachers took bold risks to rethink and change what went on in their classrooms; they were given carte blanche by college admissions officers who guaranteed their students would not be penalized because of unconventional curricula. The study was abruptly brought to a close as World War II began, but it had lasted long enough to establish a new standard of what was acceptable and desirable in a high school education. According to some educators looking back on the movement, most of this happened through teachers talking together at the grassroots level, and gathered strength as they realized their freedom to express and try out new ideas over time. “The very ways people looked at high schools began to change,” says Sizer. “The Eight-Year Study legitimized a national discourse that called for much more student engagement with their work, in ways that mirror many of the ideas the Coalition now stands for.”

Small schools have a distinct advantage over larger ones in creating the conditions for conversation, as do independent schools over public ones, Susan Johnson’s research shows. Both face fewer bureaucratic and organizational obstacles to informal encounters. Among today’s Essential schools, one of the longest-standing traditions of an active conversation about teaching and learning is that of the 320-student Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire. Thayer is small enough that people can hardly avoid conversation; and its principal, Dennis Littky, promotes teacher-talk with unflagging energy and a seemingly endless stream of strategies.

Every Friday Littky’s T.G.I.F. memo is required faculty reading, an exuberant amalgam of his reflections and questions, copies of provocative articles, lists of the subjects and times of the next week’s meetings, and other diverse items. Two years ago, Littky passed out “those hardbound journals with pretty covers” to his staff in which they could correspond with him weekly about anything they chose. (“I find out things they’d never say in person,” he says.) He circulates a videotape interviewing each teaching team for five minutes on its progress; he operates a consulting stable of Thayer teachers who are hired to travel and lecture; he brainstorms with teams on new strategies for parent involvement. A cable television program called “Here, Thayer, and Everywhere” is in the works, to be an interactive training tool for teachers nationwide. At weekly hour-long faculty meetings, small groups bring together teachers from adjacent grades or related subject areas to work on curriculum and other questions. “We take turns bringing good food to the meetings,” says Dennis. “And I call them off after an hour. They’ve gotta be fun.” On their own, Thayer’s teachers go much further; it’s common for teams to meet outside school weekly for intensive planning sessions, at a local deli or a teacher’s home.

Partly because Thayer has been at it so long–longer than the Coalition has existed–the school has developed its own culture of conversation, creating new norms for how to deal with conflict, risk, or change. “People come to depend on it for direction over time,” CES senior researcher Rick Lear says. “It becomes a touchstone; when people get tired or things get difficult, they’re able to look back and say, “We talked about that, and here’s why we decided what we did.”

Creating those new norms in a larger organization can be an arduous process; many in the Coalition argue it can only happen, in fact, when schools are broken into separately managed units of around 500 or fewer students. However it is carried out, a number of linked conditions appear to be crucial to the process:

  • Ample paid or release time for reflection and conversation, not just as retreats and “day-away” programs, but built into the teachers’ daily schedule.
  • A small enough student load so that teachers know their students well, and have the energy to think and talk creatively about their needs.
  • Arranging school space, from lunchrooms to faculty lounges, so as to make conversations natural, attractive, and easy.
  • Public and positive feedback by the administration for taking risks in the classroom, even if they do not always succeed.
  • Periodic grouping of teachers with others who can help them, whether across grades, across disciplines, or across institutional boundaries.
  • Regular meetings of the entire faculty to address substantive educational issues over which they have real power.
  • Involving virtually every teacher in shaping some aspect of what is at stake.
  • The inclusion in the conversation of students, parents, and teachers not in the vanguard of change.

How to Include Everyone?

Given how hard it is to bring about even one of these conditions, it is no wonder that so many member schools in the Coalition’s first years chose to pass up the last three points and start with a school-within-a-school structure. Patrick McQuillan and Donna Muncey, who have followed the Coalition’s progress in depth for several years, have analyzed several such situations as part of their School Ethnography Project. Schools that start this way, they note, do so believing they can start up Essential School practices cautiously and at less cost, while preserving the peace among a faculty that did not always agree on the need for change. Invariably, however, the school-within-a-school efforts ran into even bigger troubles because they were separate from the rest of their schools. Their teachers were resented for receiving special treatment, like smaller student loads and extra planning periods. With everyone’s eyes on the new program, Essential School proponents felt pressure to publicize its success, making it hard to distinguish between real educational progress and public relations, and inviting the insulting impression that the rest of the school was somehow mediocre. Though in most cases the programs were intended to expand eventually into the whole school, uninvolved faculty often felt ill-informed as to what Essential Schools were about, and wary about extending practices like interdisciplinary efforts and longer-block scheduling that they saw as threatening their own domain. In the end, the conversation about school change was actually limited by the school-within-a-school choice, not promoted by it.

If things start to go wrong like this for an Essential School, McQuillan and Muncey warn, they may never go right again. Insiders to the program become exhausted with the continual political divisiveness, they say; outsiders harden their stances against changes in their teaching practices; and faculty relations (which historically are relatively tension-free compared to tensions between faculty and administration or teachers and students) only deteriorate with time. Successful Essential schools, say these observers, “cannot afford to focus purely on philosophical or pedagogical issues, or even structural concerns.” Instead, right from the start they must give plenty of political attention to making everyone feel part of the new picture.

What techniques prove effective for getting this kind of whole-school participation going? “The evidence is that during the first year of planning, teachers need to move outside the school structure if they are to talk about ideas of teaching and learning,” says CES’s Bob McCarthy. Many Essential schools, for example, schedule a one- or two-day staff retreat where teachers are introduced to the Nine Common Principles and encouraged to brainstorm about ways they fit into their practice. (See figure 1) Other schools systematically send teachers to regional symposia, introductory workshops, or other offerings of CES or regional and Re:Learning efforts. “By the second year,” McCarthy says, “they begin to build the conversation into their ordinary school structure–through faculty meetings, study groups, or task forces to report back to the whole staff.”

But having a direct, clear, and productive conversation about matters on which people disagree strongly is a skill that does not come easily, especially in a profession as isolating as the classroom teacher’s. For this reason, some contend that any staff efforts must include training in discussion and decision- making skills. This is a key focus of national programs such as the Citibank Faculty and the Thomson Fellows, which trains Coalition teachers and administrators in facilitation skills they then use in extended work with one or two client schools. Some schools also use consensus training or team-building workshops to get at the same problem.

Many schools, especially those involved in the Coalition’s Trek experience, have used two excellent videotapes to spark their initial reexamining of values and priorities. “The Power of Vision” and “The Business of Paradigms,” both hosted by Joel Barker, are available at discounted rates to educational organizations through Charthouse International Learning Corporation (1-800-328- 3789). Other schools have taken advantage of “coalition-building” workshops and materials available through the Education Commission of the States, which specifically aim to bring more of the community into the conversation.

Calling on every teacher to contribute something to the effort has proved an effective way tostrengthen communication and unity for many schools. When the move to whole-school involvement finally did come at Westbury, says coordinator Karen Owen, all teachers of core subjects joined teams. The ones who had already been involved with Essential School ideas were urged to continue, “but with teachers who were brand new to it, we only asked that they meet and talk to each other as professionals about their kids,” Owen says. “They didn’t have to do interdisciplinary work or anything else, just meet and learn how to work as a team. For the most part teachers were so excited to have a team to rely on–to share students, share problems, and offer suggestions–that they actually did more, even though they weren’t required to.” This year Westbury moved further, asking every team to talk about how it would handle attendance, discipline, and interdisciplinary questions. Elective teachers are not on core teams, Owen says, but they are often asked in to give input about students, and they dominate the committee that is writing the proposal for graduation exhibitions. “Many of the elective fields are performance oriented, such as industrial technology, home economics, music, and physical education,” says Owen. “They can really help along some of the more academic teachers.”

What to Talk About?

Once the climate for conversation is secure and teachers feel encouraged to talk freely, what do they talk about? “One of the big differences between the Coalition and other restructuring movements,” says Bob McCarthy, “is that it offers substantive and intellectual content. In that sense the Nine Common Principles provide a new structure for change–an intellectual structure.”

Hashing out what those common principles mean–rephrasing them, noting where they are already being realized in a school, identifying what would be hardest or easiest about translating them into practice–is one of the most effective ways to get the Essential School conversation going, CES staff people say. Another way into the conversation is to ask every teacher, especially those who have not been in the vanguard of change, to help shape the answer to “What do we want our students to know and be able to do on graduation?” At Parkway South High School, near St. Louis, Missouri, a Danforth Foundation planning grant of $100,000 freed more than a dozen teachers for two hours daily to hash out a set of six interdisciplinary “proficiency areas” the whole faculty could agree on as graduation requirements. Elected by their departments, few of these teachers were already deeply involved with Essential School ideas, and principal Craig Larson had no guarantee that the group would eventually integrate those ideas into the graduation guidelines. “They had more to read and absorb at the start because they were unfamiliar with the concepts,” he said. “But in the end their enthusiasm carried more weight with their departments, because they could identify and sympathize with people who were suspicious of the new ideas.” Going back again and again to their colleagues for feedback, these teachers worked and reworked the proficiency guidelines until they had articulated not only the minimum graduation requirements but a higher level, called “mastery,” as well. Subcommittees also studied other areas of change, like proposed schedule changes and advisory groups. This year, against considerable odds, this 2,000-student suburban high school has made several significant steps toward whole-school involvement with Essential schooling.

Sometimes a school comes to the Essential School conversation indirectly, through another movement that reflects many of the same ideas. Over the course of three years, for instance, some 30 to 40 teachers from the Croton-Harmon school district in New York’s Hudson River Valley have been released for fourteen school days a year to attend a workshop about writing across the curriculum. The experience challenged their assumptions about teaching and learning in ways that were sometimes uncomfortable, says Croton-Harmon High School’s Chris Louth, who now coordinates the Essential School effort there. “But it sent a clear message that this was time valued by the school district. And the aim was always to talk out our responses, to make the writing workshop reflect our own thoughts.” When principal Sherry King invited teachers to start talking about Essential School ideas, “they fit right into what we had already been talking about,” Louth says. Pueblo County’s school district does something similar by sending dozens of personnel, from principals to custodians, for training in the consensus method of making decisions. “It makes talking about everything from school change to labor disputes a much better experience for everybody,” says principal Dick Amman.

Where Does Talk Get You?

Early results from the Coalition’s pilot study in the Taking Stock effort suggest that teachers linked with Essential School efforts do talk more with each other about the ideas of teaching and learning than their colleagues in traditional school structures. But conversation IS merely sentimental if it does not result in real improvement at the classroom level–if students are not more deeply engaged because of what their teachers are doing with Essential School ideas. “A lot can talk the talk,” Bob McCarthy cautions, “but not many can walk the walk.”

Aside from pointing to specific schools’ increased student success–both on quantifiable levels like attendance and in more intangible aspects like engagement and school climate–how can you tell if conversation will make any difference in the long run? Some evidence comes from looking at other movements of classroom change–the practice of teaming teachers in middle school, for example, or the “whole language” trend that links reading and writing across the disciplines. In both cases, only when teachers really began to talk about the new ideas–and to change their practices because they believed that kids would do better that way–did the movement really take hold and spread. “It doesn’t really matter if these ideas originate at the university level or the classroom level,” says CES senior researcher Rick Lear. “But if teachers don’t talk about it and come to believe in it, no matter how good an idea is, the actual practice won’t change–and ultimately student achievement won’t change either. Talk enables structural changes.”

To be effective, a conversation among teachers has to continue, creating new norms and rebuilding consensus as time goes by. “People keep asking me, “How are things going?” Craig Larson says. “It’s tempting to give an easy answer: ?We planned for three years and now we’ve changed this and that, and everything’s fine.’ But the real answer is that collaboration and change never end–it has to go on all the time.”

Talk travels, from schoolhouse to statehouse, from the academy to the classroom and back. When he speaks of his “conversation among friends,” Ted Sizer is actually aiming to bring alive a new national discourse, in which ideas about teaching and learning are slowly shifting at every level. He jokes with Sizer, Bob McCarthy says, about holding that conversation with a bullhorn among 10,000 friends at St. Louis’s Busch Stadium, as the Essential Schools effort gains momentum. But school change does not happen in a stadium, no matter how inspiring the speech. It happens at levels at once more modest and more enduring, between individual people involved in teaching and learning, as they begin to talk freely to each other, and to trust that if they speak their voices will be heard.