R.I.P. Coalition of Essential Schools

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, February 16, 2017

When was the last time you heard anything about the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES)? Have you ever? According to the headline of an Education Week article posted January 20, 2017, “Iconic School-Reform Group Ends 33-Year Run.” The article lead identifies the CES as “a progressively oriented school reform network” that “will cease its national operations by the end of the month.”

Legendary education practitioner, author and academic Theodore Sizer founded the CES in 1984 while working as a professor at Brown University. Sizer drew the organization’s motivating ideas from his seminal book published the same year, Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.  The CES reform plan rested on nine school-level principles (a tenth was added in 1997), including learning to use one’s mind well, depth over coverage, personalization, demonstration of mastery, commitment to the entire school, and democracy and equity. The CES sought to facilitate the adoption of the principles by individual schools, as well as their flexible and democratic implementation within their respective local contexts. The CES approach also emphasized teacher professionalization, including direct, significant participation in restructured school governance.

In an Education Week article published in May 1985 headlined, “Essential Schools: Putting Theory into Practice,” Sizer was quoted as saying that CES included eight schools, but more than 300 had initiated contact. Several high-profile schools and educators, such as the Central Park East school led by its principal, Deborah Meier, joined the effort. The CES soon took off in the national reform era sparked by A Nation at Risk (1983).

Like many broadly appealing—if amorphously evolving—reform movements, it seems that the CES mostly relied on anecdotal evidence to buttress its highly appealing ideas, apparently garnering little yet mixed scholarly attention. (See here for a 1995 article when the CES network included over 900 schools.) In any event, the CES expanded as it rode the reform wave of the mid-1980s well into the 1990s. The CES established a regularly published journal, Horace. Sizer completed a Horace book trilogy with Horace’s School (1992) and Horace’s Hope (1996). Also in 1996 Yale University Press published Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms, a book based on five years of ethnographic research into eight representative CES schools. The CES in addition formed regional centers to handle the network’s growth, leaving the national organization to serve as the public face of CES and to coordinate regional efforts. The CES at its peak involved more than 1,000 schools.[1]

In the first decade of the new century, however, state and federal education reform policy shifted decisively against the CES. Despite new initiatives and a Gates Foundation grant, the CES in 2009 claimed hundreds of fewer coalition schools, albeit still a substantial total of 600. According to Deborah Meier, who is now the CES executive board vice-chair, the CES faced funding and mission challenges for several years before the “‘decision was made that it was better to close than to fade out like we were doing.’” That determination came in late 2015, with the organizational wind-down year of 2016 billed as “the year of demonstration.” The final annual CES conference occurred in December.

Through article quotations, CES executive board president George Wood argues that the objective was not to maintain the organization indefinitely, but to promote conversations about how to improve students’ learning experiences and to refocus attention on the classroom lives of teachers and children. The CES succeeded in Wood’s view because, even if unknown by many, a number of its practices and concepts are now commonly accepted in schools. Mark Tucker, National Center on Education and the Economy president and CEO, agrees, explaining that many educational ideas animating the work of the CES existed before and will continue after it (although some CES principles, like deep learning, “now live under different names and movements”). And, indeed, a diverse set of schools asserting CES affiliation and practices remain.  These range from traditional public schools to charter and private schools (see here, here, and here for examples).[2]

Whatever its legacy in the long run, the rise and decline of the CES suggests a larger, far more mundane lesson. As is often lamented, school reforms come into and go out of fashion with accelerating frequency. But maybe all school reforms—even the broadly ambitious, most promising, and seemingly robust—are path determined because, after all, the truism is true: school reform is hard, and sustaining reform is harder still. Perhaps the truly surprising fact about the life trajectory of the CES is that it lasted as long as it did.

Contact Dirk: zuschla2@msu.edu

[1] Theodore Sizer died in October, 2009. Although he had retired as CES executive director in 1997, his obituaries emphasized that work. See here and here, with a 2014 assessment of Sizer’s legacy through the school reform impact of the CES here.

[2] On the other hand, judging from its website, the Michigan CES, a once high-visibility affiliate, is inactive if not defunct, although the nature and timing of its demise is unclear.


The following two tabs change content below.
Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.