The Coalition of Essential Schools share a common set of beliefs about the purpose and practice of schooling, known as the CES Common Principles.
I have restated these ten principles down below in bold, and to each one of them I have added commentary of my own in itallics. You will quickly see that I’m not as convinced as the CES that their principles are based on a valid reading of how children will best learn. In fact, I leave little of their language untouched and still whole.
Also, if we assume for the moment that there are such “common principles,” I would insist that the number of them not be limited to 10, nor even to 100. For learning is only in small part what goes on in the school. Learning is much, much more. Learning is life, and life is learning, and you can no more reduce learning to a set of principles than you can life itself. The coalition ought to have been content to simple recommend some changes in school practices, reform a few abuses, because there’s no lack of such in our schools. The coalition ought not to have tried to impose their own partial vision of what schooling is all about on the rest of us. For we, if we’ve thought much about it, have other, and no less valid ideas of what school should and could be at best.
1. 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.
[The problem that I find with this is that it’s simply too vague, open to too many interpretations, and as such not much help to the teacher or school administrator, let alone the student. “Helping young people to learn to use their minds well.” Of course, but what does that mean in regard to what you do in the classroom? Rather I would say that students ought to read a lot, and do a lot of work with numbers and as soon as possible with mathematical symbols. And if students are properly taught, if they learn to read well and to handle algebraic symbols, they will in the process be using their minds well, for that’s exactly what these sorts of activities demand of them. No need to say “use their minds well,” and in any case that’s never an answer for the teacher who wants to know what to do Monday.]
2. 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.
[I have even more problems with this one. The first sentence implies that the student will not master some of the essential skills, or perhaps it means that there are only a limited number of essential skills? In either case who on earth could say with confidence that these are the essential skills, and these others are not essential? For example, reading a musical score is or is not an essential skill? How about being able to break down a diesel engine? I could very well accept that one’s education should primarily consist of learning to read musical scores and being able to diagnose the problem and then repair a diesel engine, that these both were essential skills. And for both of these pursuits doesn’t one make good use of one’s mind? Furthermore, if you ever met a diesel mechanic who spent his spare time reading Mozart opera scores would it ever occur to you to say that he wasn’t educated? Rather might you not say that here was an educated man?
But there’s a lot else wrong with number two. For who is prepared to say what a student needs? It turned out that my own son needed most to learn to swim, for it’s through that activity that he has lived most intensely in his adult years. With us he almost never swam, but played basketball, that which he never plays now. Also, we “made” him speak French all his life, and he is now bilingual, but if you asked today he probably wouldn’t say he needed that language. He probably would tell us that if he needed an additional language it would be (and should have been) either Arabic, Hindi, or Mandarin, for now he finds himself traveling among the peoples who speak these languages, as much, or more, as among those who speak English and French.]
3. 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.
[I suppose this principle stems most of all from the authors wanting to be inclusive, for now-a-days that’s what one is supposed to be. As in “everyone should go to college.”
But at the same time if the means to these goals vary, and if school practices should be tailor-made to fit the students, how will the school’s goals ever be successfully applied to all the students, except on paper as in this list of principles?]
4. 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.
[Because teachers used to see 120-150 different students in one day’s time, this seems like a real reduction in teacher responsibilities, enabling more one on one time between student and teacher. For of course if teachers have daily contact with fewer students these fewer students will or should get more of their teacher’s time. O.K.
But what has this to do with the other common sensical statement in the same paragraph that the choice of teaching materials etc. be in the hands of principal and staff? This shows how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction if this even has to be said about the governance of our schools. Is it really different from saying that parenting ought to be done by parents than to say that teachers and principal ought to make together “the decisions regarding the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of materials?”]
5. 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, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.
[This is the first principle that I would wholeheartedly agree with, although I’d say “learner” rather than “worker,” simply because for most people the word worker doesn’t refer to students in school. No sense in battling with language usage. There are enough problems without creating new ones in regard to the meanings of words. But I do agree that school should mostly be about students who are learning and about teachers who are helping them to learn. In other words, students should be going to school because they want to learn something, not simply to spend x hours doing what they’re told before they’re sprung loose in order do what they want later. So yes, I’m all in favor of students teaching themselves. In Russian the word meaning to teach is ssss (sorry, I haven’t figured out how to get cyrillic letters into my Blog); and to learn, it’s ssssss, or to teach oneself. So in Russian there’s only teaching (or only learning). And it was with their educational system (and in particular with their mathematics and Physics) that the Russians living in the former Soviet Union had their greatest successes.]
6. 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 those 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. The emphasis is on the students’ demonstration that they can do important things.
[Here, I believe, we run smack up against the greatest problem with the principles. According to this principle the student will not be tested in the usual manner (although in order to determine the student’s “appropriate level of competence” what other means is there?) but will be asked to demonstrate his or her knowledge to the entire school community. But this is a “performance,” acting, theater, showmanship, and draws on other skills than the knowledge of a subject matter. Real knowledge of that kind can only be “demonstrated,” if at all, over a long period of time, staying with a task, staying in school, finishing school, going on to college, and graduating from college, successfully holding down a job, certainly not in a half hour or so of showing and telling in front of the other students and school community members. The “exhibition” will at best only reflect the preparation for that single happening, certainly not tell us what the student has learned of the entire subject, any more than the correct answer to a single test question will be an accurate reflection of what the student knows. I’ve witnessed these exhibitions, and have been impressed occasionally with the real ability of some students to communicate well on their feet in front of an audience. Many others don’t have this ability and it’s at best tedious, and at worst embarrassing to sit through the entire exhibition.]
7. The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation (“I won’t threaten you but I expect much of you”), of trust (until abused) and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance). Incentives appropriate to the school’s particular students and teachers should be emphasized. Parents should be key collaborators and vital members of the school community.
[Of course, but this was not less true, or should have been true, of the traditional school. Who would ever deny the essential place of trust, decency, fairness, generosity, tolerance et al. in any community, including that of the school?
Parents welcomed in the school? Well that depends on the parents. There are some parents that you would never want to see in the school, let alone as “key collaborators and vital members of the school community.”]
8. 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 a sense of commitment to the entire school.
[I would reverse this, at least as regards the teachers. Teachers should perceive themselves first and foremost as knowledgeable in a particular discipline (let’s avoid the word “specialist” which has the wrong connotation for a community of learners). It is the teacher’s particular knowledge, whether it’s being able to read musical scores or being able to take down a diesel engine, that will first and most powerfully reach the student. Generalists are not apt to touch the students, because students can’t be generalists, and therefore probably can’t understand generalists, whereas they can become quite knowledgeable in one particular subject area, especially when the teacher is their role model, and as a result feel close to that teacher and profit from that closeness.]
9. Ultimate administrative and budget targets should include, in addition to total student loads per teacher of 80 or fewer pupils on the high school and middle school levels and 20 or fewer on the elementary level, 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 students in many traditional schools.
[If the Essential Schools Movement hasn’t been more successful it’s probably because of this principle, number 9. For if the reform, whatever it might be, is going to cost more it’s going to lose the interest of many communities simply because of that. And if the reform also means eliminating some positions it’s going to lose even more interest and support. It there are two things that entrenched powers don’t want it’s budget increases and program cuts.]
10. 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.
[This number 10 is of little or no interest. It’s simply being politically correct, kowtowing to the authorities. It would stave off such things as an IRS investigation or a suit by a disgruntled parent, townsperson, or other.]