The Essential School Network and How It Grew

The Coalition of Essential Schools is itself a network, which Theodore Sizer conceived as “a conversation among friends” about his Nine Common Principles. Such conversation flowed readily among the dozen original members schools and among the 150 participants at the first Fall Forum, held in Providence, Rhode Island in 1986. As the membership grew-to 50 schools by 1988, more than 100 schools by 1990, and more than 200 schools by 1995-school people began working together to support and strengthen each other’s efforts. Essential school teams signed up for CES-sponsored “Treks,” which created cross-school groups of “critical friends” to support each other’s change efforts. More than 125 teachers received intensive professional development at Brown University during the four years of the Citibank Faculty program, and they, along with several dozen principals from the Thomson Fellows program, now constitute a network of practitioners, a nationwide “faculty,” who work toward Essential school change. A similar program prepared math and science teachers to work with colleagues.

As the number of schools joining the Coalition rose, the number of schools less formally affiliated with CES and its ideas ballooned past the 1,000 mark. Over 3,700 people jammed the 1995 Fall Forum in New York. The five-year Re:Learning initiative ultimately spawned local Essential school networks in twelve states, comprising anywhere from a dozen to several hundred schools. Grassroots networks, such as the Center for Collaborative Education in New York City, began attracting like-minded school people who meet regularly for discussion and professional development. Independent school districts, such as Jefferson County, Kentucky and Broward County, Florida, supported Essential school efforts and built active local school networks, further swelling the Coalition’s ranks.

Not surprisingly, the Coalition’s very success rendered the “conversation among friends” less personal and direct. Successful networks run the risk of overextending, Columbia University professor Ann Lieberman points out-losing control over their intellectual quality and diminishing the sense of ownership on the part of an increasingly dispersed membership. Recognizing this, the Coalition has begun restructuring itself to seat its crucial functions- including governance, fundraising and professional development-in regional Centers around the country. Restoring a more manageable scale to the Essential School network, CES’s “Futures Committee” decided, would not only enrich and enliven its work but also enable more direct and honest accountability among its member schools. And it will allow local practitioners, through representation from the Centers at a twice-yearly national congress, greater influence on the Coalition’s national agenda.

As a growing web of like-minded school reform initiatives increases its political clout through a “network of networks,” Essential schools aim to strengthen and deepen the “near in” connections that most directly influence student achievement. Today the Coalition’s strength is located not in Providence but in small regional networks of schools that use the “critical friend” strategy to advance the Nine Common Principles. Several dozen Essential school teachers are being trained to coach Critical Friends Groups (CFG) by the Annenberg Institute’s new National School Reform Faculty; back home, they work with school-based CFGs to keep the quality of student work at center stage.

Along with Harvard University’s Project Zero, Yale’s School Development Project, and Education Development Center, the Coalition belongs to a network of ATLAS Communities that embrace the goals of all four groups. And it has joined with the League of Professional Schools, the schools involved in the Annenberg Challenge, the National Writing Project, the Breadloaf Rural Teachers Initiative, and many other school reform networks in using the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University as a forum for sharing resources and amassing political weight.