Academic journal article Journal of Thought

The Centrality of Context: Ted Sizer and the High Flying Adventure of Common Principle Six

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

The Centrality of Context: Ted Sizer and the High Flying Adventure of Common Principle Six

Article excerpt

The Coalition of Essential Schools' Common Principles (1984), which grew out of the findings of A Study of High Schools and followed the publication of Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School, (1) were intended as a rallying point for school reform and a kind of constitution for exemplary school practice as Theodore R. Sizer imagined it. In the years since, the Common Principles have had a wide and varied impact on American K-12 education--deep in some places and much less clear in others. In contexts that share Sizer's vision of democratic localism (See Michael Katz), (2) the Common Principles have provided guidance for the founding of new schools and the transformation of existing schools. Such schools, connected by the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), (3) have found, in the Common Principles and the CES network, a source of learning and political clout. (4) In this arena, the Common Principles have served their intended purpose and proven remarkably resilient over many years.

At the same time, the Common Principles have entered education policy discussion, collided and combined with many other reform agendas, and re-surfaced in the world of practice in unpredictable ways. Disconnected from their animating context, the Common Principles have sometimes been reduced to instrumentalities--advisory, block scheduling, performance-based assessment--and have calcified into "models" to be "implemented" with no clear rationale. Understanding this bifurcation of Sizer's legacy (fidelity to principles in some places, instrumental adoption in others) illuminates the central role of context in Sizer's school reform agenda and, more generally, the work of school improvement.

An exploration of the path of just one of the Common Principles illustrates this dynamic. Number Six among the Ten Common Principles is "Diploma by exhibition," also described in early CES literature as "demonstration of mastery" and "the students' demonstration that they can do important things." (5) For two public schools in Massachusetts, this principle is alive and well. Mission Hill Elementary School in Roxbury was founded by Sizer's CES colleague Deborah Meier as a Boston Pilot School in 1995 and serves students from kindergarten through grade eight. (6) Before graduating from the school, each student must present his or her work in six formal presentations, called exhibitions, to teachers, students, parents, and outside community members. In each exhibition, the student presents and defends work that he or she has completed in one of the school's six domains of learning: History, Literature and Writing, The Arts, Mathematics, Science and Technology, and "Beyond the Classroom" (documented learning experiences outside of school). The exhibitions are evidence-based, consisting of the student's actual work, such as essays, lab reports, and math problems, which are carefully selected and placed in a portfolio. Student work must meet demanding criteria. For example, the required evidence for Mathematics, as posted on the school's website, is as follows:

(1) A portfolio of four problems students have solved at appropriate levels of mathematical skill, one in each of the strands: number sense, data and statistics, geometry, and patterns and functions. (2) Evidence of mastery of appropriate mathematical terms and facts (the "basics"). (3) Evidence of basic competency as measured by a standardized test. (7)

Because a successful exhibition requires well developed oral presentation skills and because an acceptable portfolio requires critical thinking skills, daily classroom work folds oral expression and critical thinking into "the basics" in a seamless manner.

Another example is The Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, founded by Nancy Faust Sizer, Ted Sizer, and several colleagues (8) in 1995 as one of the State's first Commonwealth charter schools. (9) The Parker School serves students from grade seven through high school graduation, drawing from over 40 towns in eastern and central Massachusetts. …

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