posted on March 22, 2018 by Tony Monfiletto
Thirty years ago I found myself at a Coalition of Essential Schools conference. I was a college student and It was the annual Fall Forum and it was being held in Albuquerque. My parents were teachers and they were close friends with Don Whatley the former head of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation (AFT) who let me join him as his guest. I didn’t really understand why my parents wanted me to go, or why Don cared enough to invite me, but I’m glad I went. It was an exciting time to be a teacher and the Coalition of Essential Schools focus on personalized learning for students had captured everyone’s imagination.
A lot has happened since that Fall Forum in Albuquerque. CES has struggled to remain relevant in the age of technology, standardization, and high stakes testing. Their core values of equity, using one’s mind well, and local control have lost their luster as the locus of power has migrated to Washington DC, state capitals, and district central offices. However, I believe we are coming full circle as now that we’ve been bitten by the unintended consequences of master planning where its common to expect every student to be on the same page in the same book at the same time as every other student.
In December 2014, I participated in a three day meeting with a group of “Emerging Harbor Master” organizations from around the country convened by Education Cities. These groups are committed to creating new schools based in Personalized Learning. The meetings began with design sessions that worked backward from the desires expressed by students. In most cases, we derived schools that are remarkably like those envisioned by Ted Sizer 30 years ago. In other words, we returned to a basic theory that schooling is an intensely human exercise that demands high touch and personalized approaches with young people by teachers. In our case, technology was a tool that helped teachers work with students to guide their own learning.
Our policy environment is being driven by the Common Core Standards. Some complain about it, but I see it as a recognition that CES had it right all along. The standards attempt to measure if a student can “use their mind well.” After attempting to solve the education reform crisis through heavy handed command and control structures, with a goal toward “teacher-proofing curriculum,” we now may be seeing the wisdom of school design and practice that is driven by locally. The 10 Common Principles are a set of values that can be adapted to a new imperative that young people be prepared for an unknown future and that places a on adaptability rather than knowledge acquisition.
Perhaps it is time to give the 10 Common Principles a fresh look. Technology, the gains in neuroscience research, and a new appreciation for social end emotion development of students make vital that we solve the school design challenge. It would be a mistake to think that we can simply layer personalization on top of outdated structures. Instead, I suggest that we start with re-visiting the great work of the past because we’ve learned so much about how to run great schools since the 90s when CES pioneered the small school movement.
The Leadership High School Network in Albuquerque, the High Tech High network in California, and Big Picture Learning around the country are all examples of modern adaptation of CES principles. Let’s be careful to avoid the easy fixes that neglect the fundamentals that were so well articulated 30 years ago. Young people differ and only highly skilled teachers working in schools that can address their unique cognitive and social and emotional development needs can prepare them for the future.