The Essential Schools Movement

The Coalition of Essential Schools arose as a fortress against the apathy of the American secondary education system.

Founded by Theodore Sizer, the Coalition has grown from twelve to well over 600 member schools. The essential schools movement envisions the school as a place of personalized learning between teacher and student using content-based dialogue.

In 1984, after working with Arthur G. Powell and colleagues in the five-year study “A Study of High Schools,” professional educator Ted Sizer published his seminal work “Horace’s Compromise,” a quasi-fictional book rebelling against the listlessness of the public education system.

Sizer offered a new vision of education, one with the teacher as a coach and mentor, not merely a giver of information, and the student as a motivated, self-taught worker, not simply a regurgitator of information. The book listed nine key principles; a tenth was added in the 1990s. These principles remain the cornerstone of the essential schools movement. An essential school focuses on depth of information, not breadth, and emphasizes learning to use one’s mind well rather than rote memorization. Students must display their academic aptitude in a public “demonstration of mastery” prior to graduation. Students are part of a committed student body, bonded under democracy and equity.

The essential schools movement has generated much controversy. The Coalition’s adherence to personalization and regionalization is not always welcome in an era of standardized testing and regulated curriculums. Essential schools usually design curriculums based on ambiguous goals such as critical thinking, and rating the growth of a student’s critical thinking can be difficult indeed. Furthermore, teachers have testified that developing individualized curriculums by school is an exhausting task, especially in math and science. While rewarding, customizing instruction has proven an overwhelming undertaking.

The movement has garnered attention with flagship schools like Francis W. Parker Charter School in Massachusetts and Central Park East Secondary School in New York, and the success of nineteen Boston essential schools that beat district average scores on standardized tests by 9-26 percent. However, whether the essential school model can be systematically implemented successfully as a pervasive educational reform remains to be seen.

thursday, september 23. 2021 - (week 38)