In 1984, the Coalition of Essential Schools came into being. From an initial group of twelve charter schools that embraced common principles of practice, the Coalition grew within two years to a membership of fifty-six schools nationwide. By 1992, less than a decade after Ted Sizer conceived of the Coalition, 120 Coalition schools were in existence and another 172 were either planning on becoming members or were discussing the common principles (and presumably exploring the eventual possibility of Coalition membership). In less than ten years, Sizer's reform effort had spread to almost three hundred schools across the country. Today, the Coalition is involved with over nine hundred private, parochial, public, urban, suburban, and rural schools across the United States.
Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms: An Ethnographic View of the Coalition of Essential Schools
, by Donna Muncey and Patrick McQuillan, is an effort to deepen our understanding of this important and wide-ranging educational reform effort. It is about the difficulties that accompany any effort to shape change in schools and the ways in which the Coalition has become, and remained, a prominent player in the education reform movement.
Ted Sizer codified his thoughts about what constitutes good schooling in the nine Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. These nine principles are, briefly, that school focus should be on helping adolescents learn to use their minds well; school goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills; goals should apply to all students; teaching and learning should be personalized; the governing metaphor for schools should be student-as-worker; entry to secondary school should be on the basis of competence in language and mathematics, and a high school diploma should be in recognition of mastery of central skills as demonstrated by an exhibition; the school should stress the values of unanxious expectation, trust, and decency; the principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists before specialists; and school budgets should include substantial time for collective planning by teachers and should not exceed per-pupil costs at traditional schools by more than 10 percent. Each Coalition member embraces these nine principles in theory, or at least indicates a commitment to school change based on these principles. However, each member also interprets them according to the particularities of their school's composition and context. In this way, the Coalition insists on local control and autonomy, while recognizing and emphasizing a commonality that ties all members together.
This book grew out of five years of ethnographic research, begun in 1986 and concluded in 1991, conducted in eight Coalition schools: six public, one private, and one newly created secondary school. Schools were selected to be representative of the diversity in member schools at the onset of the study. The research sought to understand generally how the Coalition's nine common principles were understood and implemented in these schools. Data was gathered through observations of classes and school events; interviews with students, teachers, and administrators; a survey completed by fifteen hundred students; and related school documents. In addition, the authors attended Coalition staff meetings, conferences, workshops, and interviewed Coalition staff members.
The book focuses on educational change at two levels: school-based change and classroom-based change. It opens with an exploration of institutional perspectives on educational reform, presenting five case studies, which are then analyzed comparatively. In this discussion of the school as the unit of change, the authors conclude by identifying four issues impeding reform found in all the schools they studied: "lack of consensus about the need for reform, political strains generated by change efforts, time constraints, and tension between deepening understanding and sophistication of reform and broadening participation in these efforts" (p. 148).
Although the authors note that change proved difficult, they also acknowledge a pervasive Coalition benefit. Consistent among all study sites was "increased reflection on philosophy and practice among faculty and administrators" (p. 148), a not insignificant result of this change effort. The second section of the book examines how schoolwide change might prompt and support individual change efforts. Separate chapters explore a teacher's efforts to change his teaching practice, resistant students' negotiations about the terms of their learning, several teachers' understandings and subsequent utilization of active learning in their classrooms, and two principals' struggles to define their own roles and leadership styles during the process of school change.
The authors conclude with some general lessons about school reform, extracted as their work unfolded. They examine the political tensions that emerge both within and around any reform effort and acknowledge that strong leadership and the ability to learn from previous change efforts is essential to the maintenance of any effort to prompt institutional reform. Citing the Coalition's efforts within the context of education reform in this country, the authors explore the Coalition's place, and by extension the place of any educational reform effort, within the values and accepted practices of U.S. education. They insist that any attempt to change schools must be understood within our cultural values, especially the premium Americans place on success. Acknowledging that many of the lessons of school reform have been "disappointing and occasionally painful" in a "society that esteems success," the authors leave us with some cautionary notes and a bit of advice. With optimism that this study will serve to "clarify and deepen the education community's understanding of the change process and help reformers and educators create a more satisfying system," the authors conclude:
There are no quick fixes or miracle panaceas for American education. We urge ongoing and future reform efforts to study closely and learn from the experiences of these Coalition schools — including those some might consider disappointments — rather than dismissing them on the way to catching the next wave of educational change. (p. 295)