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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened to the Coalition of Essential Schools?

They are gone. What began as Ted Sizer’s ground-breaking effort to reform U.S.’s 25,000 high schools over three decades ago, reaching 1000-plus schools by 1997, the year Sizer retired from CES. In 2017, there were less than 100 schools affiliated with CES.

Is this a story of a reform birthed in one educational crisis dying during a later one? Or is it a story of a reform centered on one person who, over time, built an organization that lost ideas and energy while failing to generate sufficient funds after the founder left? Or is it a time-tested story of a reform that succeeded by spreading its progressive gospel far and wide appearing in many other policies, programs, and places?

Where an When Did the Idea Originate?
A former headmaster at Phillips Academy, Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and professor at Brown University, Ted Sizer believed deeply in John Dewey’s concept of “democratic pluralism” and the importance of learning both knowledge and skills through face-to-face interactions with students in smaller settings than existing high schools. These ideas gained increased traction from Sizer experiences as headmaster at Phillips Academy. In 1981 he and a team of researchers received funds to do a five year study of American high schools. They  wrote three books: Theodore Sizer, Horace’s Compromise (1984), Arthur Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David Cohen, The Shopping Mall High School (1985), and Robert Hampel, The Last Little Citadel (1986). From this research, writing of the books, and bringing together like-minded educators, the Coalition was founded in 1987 and spread rapidly across the nation throughout the 1990s (see herehere, and here).

What Does a Coalition School Look Like?

Begun with an initial cohort of 12 high schools across the country, no one model of a secondary school was pushed. Instead, Sizer and his staff formulated 10 principles upon which educators should build schools that fit their setting. These principles were:

1. Learning to use one’s mind well:
The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well. Schools should not be “comprehensive” if such a claim is made at the expense of the school’s central intellectual purpose.

2. Less is more: depth over coverage:
The school’s goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. While these skills and areas will, to varying degrees, reflect the traditional academic disciplines, the program’s design should be shaped by the intellectual and imaginative powers and competencies that the students need, rather than by “subjects” as conventionally defined. The aphorism “less is more” should dominate: curricular decisions should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery and achievement rather than by an effort to merely cover content.

3.Goals apply to all students:
The school’s goals should apply to all students, while the means to these goals will vary as those students themselves vary. School practice should be tailor-made to meet the needs of every group or class of students.

Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent. Efforts should be directed toward a goal that no teacher have direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school. To capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.

5.Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach:
The governing practical metaphor of the school should be “student-as-worker”, rather than the more familiar metaphor of “teacher as deliverer of instructional services.” Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.

6.Demonstration of mastery:
Teaching and learning should be documented and assessed with tools based on student performance of real tasks. Students not yet at appropriate levels of competence should be provided intensive support and resources to assist them quickly to meet standards. Multiple forms of evidence, ranging from ongoing observation of the learner to completion of specific projects, should be used to better understand the learner’s strengths and needs, and to plan for further assistance. Students should have opportunities to exhibit their expertise before family and community. The diploma should be awarded upon a successful final demonstration of mastery for graduation: an “Exhibition.” As the diploma is awarded when earned, the school’s program proceeds with no strict age grading and with no system of “credits earned” by “time spent” in class.

7.A tone of decency and trust:
The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation, of trust, and of decency (fairness, generosity, and tolerance). Incentives appropriate to the school’s particular students and teachers should be emphasized. Families should be key collaborators and vital members of the school community.

8.Commitment to the entire school:
The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first (teachers and scholars in general education) and specialists second (experts in but one particular discipline). Staff should expect multiple obligations (teacher-counselor-manager) and demonstrate a sense of commitment to the entire school.

9.Resources dedicated to teaching and learning:
Ultimate administrative and budget targets should include student loads that promote personalization, substantial time for collective planning by teachers, competitive salaries for staff, and an ultimate per-pupil cost not to exceed that at traditional schools by more than 10 percent. To accomplish this, administrative plans may have to show the phased reduction or elimination of some services now provided to students in many schools.

10.Democracy and equity:
The school should demonstrate non-discriminatory and inclusive policies, practices, and pedagogies. It should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school. The school should honor diversity and build on the strength of its communities, deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity.

These principles echoing Deweyan  ideas of teaching and learning (block scheduling, integrated subjects, cooperative learning, portfolios, and senior projects) dictated that CES schools would be much smaller than comprehensive high schools (average size around 1500 students). CES schools advanced the small high school movement (including schools-within-a-school) receiving a large grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003. Hard as it was to hit the 80 students target per teacher (see 4 above), reduce high school subjects to Humanities and math/science (see 2 above) and students exhibiting mastery in projects they designed (see 6 above), many schools across the U.S. joined CES.

As a result of this flexibility, CES schools differed from one another. Central Park East Secondary School in New York City under Deborah Meier clearly differed from Thayer High School in New Hampshire under Dennis Littky yet both adhered to the above principles as best they could.

For more descriptions of CES schools see herehere, and here.

What Problems Did Coalition Schools Intend To Solve?

The comprehensive high school, a progressive reform introduced in the 1920s, had over subsequent decades become encrusted with problems that undercut the hopes of that generation of reformers and subsequent students, teachers, and principals. Large enrollments, heavy sports programs, rushed daily schedules, and textbook-driven instruction encouraged student anonymity, alienation, and compliant behavior that weakened teacher’s motivation to do ambitious teaching, students’ pursuit of intellectual learning and independent thinking. Sizer laid out all of these problems in Horace’s Compromise (1984) and schools enacting the CES principles sought to solve if not diminish these issues.

CES grew simultaneously with the surging companion reform in the 1990s (driven by donor and federal funds) of dividing large high schools into smaller ones within the same building or as separate schools. Smallness plus organizational arrangements like advisories (15 students meet with a teacher one or more times a week to discuss different issues they face), scheduled time to display exhibitions of work to both school and larger community sought to encourage high-quality intellectual work through building strong relationships between teachers and students and among students.

Did CES Schools Work?

If by “work” one means higher, the same as, or lower test scores than comprehensive high schools, I know of no such studies.

If by “work” one means that different ways of organizing high schools, a Deweyan model complete with language that resonated with teachers and principles about how secondary schools can be–see above principles–and the existence of a variety of such schools across the country in 2018, then surely CES “worked.”

If “work” means reducing considerably student anonymity and isolation in their small high schools, then CES “worked.”

What CES did was provide models of different high schools that were intellectually ambitious in teaching and learning and eventually became part of the charter school movement and growth of portfolios of schools in urban districts over the past decade (see here and here). That too is another definition of “work.”

What Happened to CES?

Sizer and wife Nancy founded the Parker Charter School in Devens (MA) in 1995 both serving as co-principals for one year; After Sizer left the organization in 1997, he went on to do other things close to his heart. Ted Sizer died in 2009. After three decades, CES shut its national office doors in 2018.

Of the three stories I began this look backward at CES, which story best explains what happened?

As a national organization with regional centers, money to fund staff, conferences, and the like required a dependable flow of annual funds. Donors supplied some funding, fees for affiliating with CES, and charging for staff services contributed also but overall a steady and reliable flow of revenue to match expenditures became a yearly hassle especially after Sizer left the organization.

The lack of  dependable  annual financing may also have gone hand-in-hand with another phenomenon.  CES closed due to the spread of its ideas to emerging charters, the growth of small high schools across the country, and schools adopting ideas of ambitious, intellectual teaching and learning from CES practices.

My guess is that all three stories (see second paragraph above) capture pieces of an overall explanation for the birth, evolution of, and disappearance of CES.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...