The power of the Coalition of Essential Schools “common principles”

Last week I was in Providence, Rhode Island to attend the final Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum, the annual conference for the organization that’s been running for over 30 years.  It was the final forum because CES, as an organization, is formally dissolving at the end of this calendar year.  I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let me share a quick history of my personal connection to CES.

Midway through my first year of teaching, frustrated by what I felt was ineffective teaching exacerbated by seeing 125 students in six class periods, a friend recommended I read Horace’s Compromise by the late Ted Sizer.  This book was my first introduction to Sizer, and it led me to discover CES—an organization he helped to found at Brown University in 1984—and to CES’s “common principles”, which include ideas like these:

The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well.  The school’s goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge.  Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent.  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.”  Teaching and learning should be documented and assessed with tools based on student performance of real tasks.

These principles are what connect CES schools and educators, and seeing them for the first time, they seemed so common-sensical and compelling to me as a new teacher.  Yet in my current school, much of what happened in classrooms and many of the decisions made by the school’s leadership seemed in conflict with these principles.  After failing to convince my principal that there was a better way of teaching and learning for our students and teachers–a way grounded in the CES principles–I committed to myself that one day I’d help to create a school based on the CES principles.  In the preceding years, I took a course from Sizer in graduate school, taught at a CES school in Massachusetts, and then was lucky enough to end up at ANCS, where we have been affiliated with CES since 2009.

The simple power of the CES principles is that they are a guide, not a prescription.  ANCS and other CES schools have not had to follow a specific program or model.  There’s not a CES contract we’ve had to sign.  Instead, we all use the common principles as our compass when making decisions about what is best for our students and families and teachers in our own particular contexts with our own particular interpretation of the principles.  Therefore, no two CES schools are exactly alike.  And each CES school may even evolve from one year to the next as the principles get re-interpreted in light of current trends and technologies.

For a variety of reasons, the CES board determined that now was the time to close up the national office after one final forum and “year of demonstration”.  And though there was certainly a hint of sadness at the conference this past weekend, the fact that there are now so many schools around the world influenced by the CES principles helped to demonstrate why a national office and organization is maybe not as important as it once was.  ANCS and other CES schools will continue to do real and meaningful work guided by these common principles and that’s what will sustain them more than an annual conference or a website will.  In fact, the principles are embedded in our school’s mission statement.

Though I won’t ever again travel to a Fall Forum, I remain committed to the belief—borne out by nearly 20 years of my own experience as well as research by others—that the CES principles can help us create engaging, democratic, and inspiring learning communities for our young people.

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Matt Underwood

Matt Underwood is in his 12th year at ANCS. He served as the Principal for the school’s middle campus from 2007-2013 and has been in the role of Executive Director since April 2011. As Executive Director, Mr. Underwood works with the school’s leadership team and Governing Board of Directors to carry out the school’s mission and strategic plan.

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