Review of Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms: An Ethnographic View of the Coalition of Essential Schools

by Donna E. Muncey, Patrick J. McQuillan
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms: An Ethnographic View of the Coalition of Essential Schools
Book Author
Donna E. Muncey, Patrick J. McQuillan
Book Publisher
Yale University Press
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Philip A. Cusick
American Journal of Education
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December 19th, 2012


Review Essay
The Coalition Goes to School
Philip A. Cusick, Michigan State University
Donna E. Muncey and Patrick J. McQuillan offer us a firsthand account of events in eight secondary schools that took seriously Ted Sizer's ideas of reform. Sizer had arranged for these two (then) anthropology1 education students, to carry on a five-year-independent and indepen- dently funded-study from 1986 to 1991 of "how (Sizer's) principles were interpreted by students, teachers and administrators . . .and how are they implemented" (p. 14). The book is a series of well-written case studies, each an account of what happened in six public schools, one private school, and one publicly funded school of choice.
An oft-told story: Ted Sizer, Andover headmaster, Harvard dean, educational researcher, developing his reformist ideas in an early 1980s study of high schools, articulating them in Horace's Compromise (Sizer 1984) and promulgating them in his Coalition of Essential Schools, affiliated (like Sizer) with Brown University. A few ideas, modest funding, and a small staff, some schools willing to try the ideas, more funding, more schools and staff; the joining-in 1988of the Coalition with the Education Commission of the States, on to the present-day Coalition, a national enterprise that has gener- ated over $100 million for school reform and counts thousands of schools among its adherents. Sizer has consistently demonstrated his intelligence, commitment, organizational savvy, and political astuteness.
And great timing, starting his Coalition as he did right on the heels of the A Nation At Risk (1983), the report of the National Commission on excellence in education. The commission was set up in 1982 by
Donna E. Muncey and Patrick J. McQuillan, Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms: An Ethnographic View of the Coalition of Essential Schools. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996), x+319 pp.; appendix, notes, bibliography, indexes. $30.00 (cloth).
American Journal of Education 105 (February 1997)
O 1997 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved
0195-6744/97/0502-0004$01 .OO
February 1997 21 1 then Secretary of Education T. H. Bell to address "the widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system" (p. 1). The report described secondary schools with declining test scores, a miscellaneous and incoherent curriculum, fewer students electing harder courses, and teachers drawn from the least able college graduates. The commission concluded that "our society and its educa- tional institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling" (pp. 5-6) and that our inferior educational system had literally put the country at risk. The commission concluded with a set of recommendations that, in a straightforward and outspoken way, told secondary schools to tighten up and toughen up, or, as commission member Jay Sommer said at a public hearing in May 1982, "MTe've had enough equality; now we want some quality."
In fairness, the schools that the commission reported on were trying to make sense of a student population that had doubled between 1957 and 1977 and of the obligations they had incurred in the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson-with just a little slight of hand- convinced Republican senators that they could solve the problems associated with poverty by giving money to education. President John- son made what James Burnham (1964) calls the classic liberal argu- ment: Evil results from ignorance, and the evils of poverty, crime, and welfare can be cured by educating the children of the poor who are not only themselves poor, but who are more prone to crime and wel- fare. The resulting Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) gave schools more money and encouraged states and local districts to give schools more money. Along with integration, it gave the schools and school people a renewed mission: to educate all, particularly those who in former times might not have come to school or might not have stayed if they had come. That mission-when mixed in with militant teachers, authority-questioning students, and administrators no longer sure of their positions-presented secondary schools with a perplexing set of overlapping problems.
Expanding the curriculum with electives was a partial answer to several of the problems. Expansion proceeded from the assumption
PHILIPA. CUSICKis professor of educational administration at Michi- gan State University. He is the author of Inside High School (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973), The Egalitarian Ideal and the American High School (New York: Longman, 1983), and The Educational System: Its Nature and Logic (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992).
212 American Journal of Education that students were interested in something, and it was the schools'job to find and build on those interests. Teachers-most often with the backing of administrators and parentladvocates-created electives around students' supposed interests, and students could then make up their education from among the electives. And since there is no theoretical limit to the students' interests, the number of electives, or the way electives were handled in classrooms, the expanded curriculum removed from the schools the onus of making pejorative judgments about students, particularly those that schools were trying hardest to retain. A teacher could choose what to teach; a student could choose what to call her education. The elective curriculum solved several of the schools' problems.
And created as many more problems, among them an unintelligible structure that left teachers isolated from colleagues, staffs unable to address common concerns, administrators whose only answer was to expand the set of offerings, and students without any central notion of education. Powell, Farrar, and Cohen (1985) termed the structure a shopping mall; Sedlak et al. (1986) said it sold students short; Grant (1988) said it prevented the emergence of ethos; Cusick (1983) said egalitarianism was out of control. Enter Sizer, impeccably credentialed; enter Horace-not the Roman poet from whom the middle-aged find yet hope and inspiration-but Sizer's quasi-fictional high school teacher who compromises his teaching in order to make sense of his overloaded life; enter Horace? Compromise (1984), its concluding princi- ples, and Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools that said to teachers and administrators, "Here are some suggestions; we know this isn't easy; let's do it together." All of that was enormously appealing to those who knew their schools were out of control and were looking for direction and assistance.
Sizer's principles are not new. They recall Huxley's (1900) education for a useful life, Newman's (1942) liberal education, Dewey's (1915) enfranchised and educated citizenry, and Adler's (1982)-whose Paideia group Sizer served on in 198 1 -notions of quality and equality. Coalition principles emphasize universal education, common intellec- tual purpose, engagement, and evidence of mastery by students, who themselves are to do the work of learning. Schools should have a simple and flexible structure; planning and decision malung should be done collectively by administrators and teachers; extraneous elements such as sports, activities, and electives should be judged on their contri- bution to the school's essential purpose. An astute and committed reformer and a serious set of ideas; a combination the education world does not see every day. And a ready market consisting of teachers and administrators who were discouraged by what they saw around them
February 1997 213 and/or had their own ideas about reform and needed help in articulat- ing them.
But how does one achieve common purpose in secondary schools where behind an orderly and uniform appearance there exists a broad range of individual accommodations? Students operate from different ideas about learning and have different educational experiences. Teachers, backed by parent/advocates with an interest in such things as music, sports, foreign language, honors, or special education, run their own programs and compete for students and resources to carry on their fragment of the curriculum. Reformers enter this arena with a notion of school as communtiy and teachers as communards, but find not the absence of ideas, not a faculty crying for togetherness, but a surfeit of ideas and a set of individuals, many of whom have carved out a piece of the curriculum, and who view the reformer as another competitor for students and resources. If the reformer's ideas are attractive, he may be allowed to try them out with a few teachers and students, to create a school within a school, as it were. The re- former gets part of what he or she wants; the students gets another elective; and, paradoxically, the curriculum gets expanded in another direction.
Four of Muncey and McQuillan's case studies are of schools-within- schools built around Coalition ideas. At Lewis High, an urban, primar- ily black school, a few interested teachers started with a commitment from the principal and 116 handpicked ninth graders who were in- structed in mathematics, science, social studies, and English-the essential subjects-within a block schedule. At Russell, a similar urban school, also in an eastern city, a few teachers selected 104 students. There, Coalition faculty, including a paid coordinator, organized the essential subjects into blocks with classes meeting for double periods every other day and with teachers instructing two blocks a day, super- vising study hall for their own students three times a week, and having seven nonteaching periods a week for common planning, often with professors from a nearby university. At Evans Hill, a small school serving a wealthy community, a year of faculty discussion generated an interdisciplinary program of English, history, and art for ninth graders. Coalition efforts were, over four years? extended to one-third of the school's 450 students. At Silas Ridge, an urban and comprehen- sive school with a five-tiered curriculum, four disciplinary teachers and one coordinator organized four sections of ninth graders around the essential subjects after a year and a half of planning.
Coalition principles are about structure and direction, not content and method, and Coalition efforts are not only geared to the particular school, they often gather in ideas that are being bandied about the
2 14 American Journal of Education larger system. At Lewis, teachers did their own counseling, and worked on attendance and competency exams. At Russell, they wrestled with getting students to generate their own ideas. They also worked on not failing students, but giving them repeated opportunities to do the work right and then exhibit their knowledge. In both of these primarily black, urban schools, teachers worked to get students to think in terms of college: "We're dealing with a lot of kids who have no history of college anywhere in the family . . . we take them on tours of college campuses; I would not insist that they go to college but I want the doors to be open when they get there" (p. 29). In Evans Hill, where there was both a school-within-a-school and a whole-school effort, the interdisciplinary approach lead to assignments such as reading The Grapes of Wrath while studying the Great Depression. Art was added as students illustrated their ideas about history and literature. At Silas Ridge, Coalition teachers reconceptualized history and English and made plans to extend their efforts to the rest of the school. In all schools, teachers tried to interrelate flexible schedules, personalized approaches, and final exhibitions.
Notable too was the presence of constructivist learning theories that encourage students to make individual sense of academic material and, from the beginning, to make connections that were (in former times) reserved for advanced classes. "It will be up to you to decide what the major periods of U.S. history are" (p. 199). "We looked at the criminal justice system and how it will impact upon your life if you get involved in it" (p. 29). As well as personalizing academic material, students were asked to do their learning in social settings, to cooperate with others, critique one another's work, participate in joint projects, discussions, debates, mock trials. In the Evans Hill's senate, students and faculty on equal terms discussed attendance policies, athletic eligibility, and smoking. Also evident was the effort to have students think like prac- titioners of the discipline, math students to think like mathematicians, and English students to think like writers. History students were to be their own historians, to "define history for themselves . . . assess their place . . . in history . . . to explore the world of life-as-lived" (p. 198). "What did the fall of Rome sound and feel like? Try to describe it. . . . Why did it feel that way?" (p. 173). And in all schools, teachers worked on affect: "We tell our students 'you are special' . . . the students feel that this is their program . . . they feel better about themselves and want to do their best" (p. 28). "We know our students better so we can be much more creative with them" (p. 51).
Students responded to the increased attention. "(Teachers) don't write you off; they really care about how you're doing. I had the chicken pox in my junior year . . . and the teachers all called to check
February 1997 215
up on me . . . they really cared" (p. 52). But constructivist learning is not easy with students accustomed to classes wherein teacher knows, teacher tells; student listens, student learns. Muncey and McQuillan describe the tug-of-war in a history class in Russell taught by a trio of teacher, student teacher, and university professor who would not ac- cept assignments until they were acceptable. Students were irate: "Why not tell us . . . at the beginning of the course? Your paperwork is confusing. After we do it one way, you tell us it's wrong . . . it makes us mad and we're so confused we might not do it" (p. 201). "That's a lot of work . . . the teachers don't explain it enough. I'm not doing it. How come it's not clear?" (p. 202). "Last year I answered questions in a book and took tests; now I have to read books, find important events and dates, do an oral history and write essays" (p. 213). "I don't even know where to start" (p. 195). One student, upon receiving an incomplete, said, "But I turned it in on time." The instructor gave a lengthy analogy about a manufacturer who had to redo his product until it was acceptable to the purchaser. The girl responded: "Yes, I know, but I turned it in on time" (pp. 204-5). When a teacher tried to teach The Scarlet Letter via original sources, students "complained loudly and openly . . . 'What are they saying?' 'I can't understand anything' 'This is stupid'; 'it makes no sense"' (p. 21 1).
In the end there was some compromising. Teachers "lowered their expectations about the amount and type of work students would do"
(p. 210), abandoned the deferred grade policy, and allowed students to do assignments in class. In some cases they resorted to multiple choice and matching tests. "Which of the following was not a provision of the Missouri Compromise?" (p. 210). But some Russell students said the class was their best learning experience, that by the end of the year they came to understand what the instructors were trying to do and were themselves doing higher-quality work. Several reported that they learned a great deal from and enjoyed the class.
Muncey and McQuillan balance accounts of schools-within-schools with accounts of individual teachers who split off teaching reforms from organizational reforms, who carried on Coalition efforts alone. In the private Barrett High, Neil Allen adopted Coalition ideas because he saw students "bored by the material, bored with themselves, bored by the teachers . . . unresponsive and uninvolved" (p. 177). Allen agreed that organizational change was important but found that he had no time to teach, renew his teaching, and team with other teachers. "I slice time. I meet with one teacher over lunch when we can catch each other, or I try to stop by his office. It is almost always . . . free periods, off moments, sometimes between classes" (p. 171). Believing too that "one should leave a teacher alone in the classroom and let
216 American Journal of Education the teacher teach" (p. 182), Allen, in his own classroom, experimented with peer editing, student-centered seminar learning, interdisciplinary courses, and personalized-affective approaches. "Interpret Macbeth in terms of Machiavelli" (p. 181). Allen too found resistance to his pleas that students open their minds. Trying to get students to "make history rather than study history," he asked: "What did it feel like to be alive then?" Student: "Will there be one or two finals?" Allen: "English and History will be taught as one subject." Student: "What about grades?" (p. 172).
But Allen found that students would personalize lessons about the early Middle Ages that talked of sex, family relations, and-particu- larly for students who themselves came from large, ethnic families- matters of inheritance. Allen drew energy and strength from his re- newed efforts but admitted that "the students hated it; they saw it correctly as more work for them" (p. 269). It was also more work for him: "When I get tired or pushed, I go back to the old habits" (p. 185). But the students gave his and their efforts high grades: "'There's much more work.' 'More "reading and writing."' 'It's not as boring as it was last year.' 'I usually don't want to go to history class. Now I just go and I don't even realize I'm doing history"' (p. 180).
For Laura Gardner, also of Barrett High, teaching from Coalition principles meant teaching students about Greco-Roman wars by asking them what they wanted to know about war and giving them Studs Terkel's accounts of World War 11. Remembering that what counted was students' learning (not her teaching), she also asked their groups to do their own interpreting of the material. She guided, provided resources, structured discussions, set tasks, asked questions. For Alice Mathis at Evans Hill, teaching from Coalition principles meant giving students a case study of a troubled marriage that helped them think about the differences between Hobbes and Rousseau, between liberal and conservative positions. Both teachers worked to support students' inquiry rather than direct students' work.
Colleagues of teachers who taught in Coalition ways were tolerant- even supportive-as long as the effort did not effect the structure or the agreed-upon division of students and resources. But having been socialized into the elective system and having competed for the better students and more interesting classes, non-Coalition teachers resented Coalition programs that received administrative backing, handpicked students, extra resources, and extra planning time. At Lewis, where the Coalition had special status, relatively junior Coalition faculty were protected from transfer and were given students with a history of passing and good attendance. When much of the building was closed for asbestos removal, Coalition staff were given their own section of
February 1997 2 17 the replacement facility; other teachers shared rooms. At Russell, skep- ticism of "university types," faculty conflict with the principal who supported the Coalition, the fact that the Coalition staff were given the desirable students and more resources, and the perception that Coalition teachers had a lighter load-they did but Coalition practices need extra planning-kept Russell's school-within-a-school isolated.
Elliston's faculty initially supported the commitment without com- ment, but enrollment decline sharpened the perception that "the Co- alition would eliminate . . . electives. Therefore, jobs and departments will be cut or eliminated" (p. 77). Some teachers took Coalition ideas as a criticism of their practice. Others questioned whether the "process approach to learning (ignores content)" (p. 75). The Coalition steering committee was joined by teachers trying to protect their own interests, and Coalition discusssions bogged down in debates about the meaning of Coalition principles. Suspicious of one another, of Coalition staff, of the principal who was accused of supporting the Coalition to pad his resume, the faculty and the school decided there was no good answer to their initial question, "Why should we join the Coalition?"
"If it ain't broke, why fix it?" sank the Coalition effort at Evans Hill as well. Faculty resentment of the program was involved with resentment of Mary Ellen Smith, the principal, who saw the Coalition as a way to infuse this traditional and successful school with new ideas. When she left (for personal reasons), she was replaced by a principal who, while a Coalition supporter, believed that Evans Hill was a Coali- tion school, not a school with a Coalition program. He encouraged the whole faculty to be involved in Coalition decisions, and opponents, who saw the Coalition as a competitor-again for a declining number of students-took the opportunity to sink the program. Similar prob- lems caused the demise of the effort at Silas Ridge, where younger Coalition teachers from Ivy League colleges who had been hired by the principal upset the policy of "wait your turn for the better classes." The principal, admitting "you can't always do change on top of every- thing else" (p. 245), drew back. The issue was thrown to the faculty; opponents took over the discourse; the program ended.
Muncey and McQuillan contrast the behavior of the principals at Elliston, Silas Ridge, and Evans Hill with that of the principal of the Wade School. Helen Markham, a longtime and respected elementary administrator in a large urban district, was "distressed by the boredom, anonymity, and of lack of challenge that the students reported after moving into the city's public secondary schools" (p. 210) and set up her own school along Coalition guidelines: A pared-down curriculum, 450 diverse and urban students, a simple and flexible structure, 80:l student-teacher ratio, an advisory group for each 15 students, team
2 18 American Journal of Education teaching, internships, parent teacher conferences, oral and written exhibitions, students' defining their own topics and doing their own research, demonstrations, community service, and regular visits to uni- versities, where students began to think of themselves as candidates for higher education. The student and her learning were the center of instruction. Team discussions were exhausting and often contentious, "We've got to do something with the kids on Monday and this arguing could go on forever" (p. 143). But "we have backups, we have sup- port . . . 1 can relax for a little bit, I don't have to get crazy, I'm not in this all alone" (p. 143).
And at Wade it worked. Student behavior, assignment completion, graduation, college acceptance, student aspirations all rose above the expectations of neighboring schools with similar students. The mes- sage is that the Coalition principles work best in schools where the structure is kept simple and student learning is given precedence, where a politically astute principal protects the school from the larger bureaucracy, where the faculty-like the principal and the parents- are committed to the program and the students are brought into the discourse about their own learning. Unlike Elliston, Evans Hill, and Silas Ridge, where students already did well, where they applied to and got accepted at prestigious colleges, and where teachers and par- ents were already pleased with the school, Wade's Coalition effort had room to grow. The Coalition also worked in Green Valley, a small- town high school with a high dropout rate, failing students, underpaid and unhappy teachers. Another dedicated principal, Stuart Tucker, combined Coalition ideas with his sound political instincts and a school unsuccessful enough to offer fertile ground for reform.
Refusing the traditional principal role, Stuart, with the help of the entire faculty, organized a school with faculty advocates for each stu- dent, block scheduling, and apprenticeships, and gave teachers "total freedom to develop curricula, design schedules, and organize their students" (p. 253).An unusual man, Stuart hung onto his job by taking the school board to court, even fomenting an election in which his supporters took control of the board. Green Valley's Coalition effort grew and prospered because the principal would not give it up. Again, in this successful Coalition effort, a key was the principal who brought in and supported the Coalition vision, who protected the Coalition effort from faculty infighting, who was personally secure and able to make decisions. Of these successful schools, one was small because of its location, another purposely kept small, and the third was a larger school that needed an idea.
Muncey and McQuillan's book adds substantially to the long line of
ethnographic research in secondary schools. The authors worked hard
February 1997 219 and paid attention to their task, and they present us with excellent accounts of events in secondary schools that allied with Sizer and tried out his principles. They balance accounts of teachers with accounts of students; accounts of groups with accounts of individuals. Schools and classrooms are real; events familiar; descriptions crisp and de- tailed; dialogue comes right off the page. People who know schools and teaching will find themselves right in the middle of Silas Ridge, Russell, Green Valley, Elliston, and Wade. And according to Muncey and McQuillan, Coalition efforts work, and the effort and concentra- tion they generate focuses the energies of teachers and students. Work- ing from Coalition ideas, schools can reform.
Ethnographers often concentrate on the specific and leave the gen- eral to the reader. So, too, with Muncey and McQuillan, who offer clarity and precision to events in schools, and an interesting analysis of the events they describe, but leave to readers the task of assessing the Coalition's overall contribution. And after reading the book, one may conclude that where Coalition ideas worked best-in Wade, Green Valley, Lewis, and sometimes Russell-they were freed from seniority rules, unions, state departments of education, and specialty certification. Coalition efforts did not fail in classrooms or in relation- ships between teachers and students; they failed when they were over- whelmed by faculty insecurity, which was in turn brought about by an elective curriculum and subsequent competition for students and resources. So, not only do Sizer's ideas work, but when they fail, they do so for all the reasons Horace compromised his teaching. Schools are too big, too bureaucratic; no one is in charge, and matters of importance (like students' learning) are allowed to go unaddressed while the faculty argues about its specialities, its prerogatives. Politics overwhelm reform. Muncey and McQuillan's book is an affirmative for Sizer's ideas and his Coalition. It is also an affirmative for choice and for charter schools, for schools with a simple and flexible structure and an empowered principal who hires on the basis of commitment and keeps the school enrollment to 450 students; where parents partic- ipate as a condition for their child's admission and where the faculty keeps student learning in the center.
But Sizer's success should not be measured against the unlikely event that America adopts a system of quasi-independent publicly funded schools, free from the bureaucratic safeguards (each implemented for what at the time seemed a good reason). Instead, one must add Muncey and McQuillan's descriptions which ended in 1991 to what is going on in schools in 1996. One who does that can see that Sizer's ideas have been taken seriously. Cooperative teaching with common planning time, university people in the classrooms, block scheduling,
220 American Journal of Education constructivist learning, integrated subjects, portfolios, senior projects and demonstrations, teachers sharing strategies at conferences and workshops are everywhere. None of the ideas were Sizer's alone, but he was among those who said, "Let's build schools around educational rather than organizational ideas," and he was the one who helped some actual schools do that and so refocus their efforts on student learning.
That we now talk and think about secondary schools differently is clear. Not clear is whether this talking and thinking will lead to the quality called for by the National Commission in 1983. But "we tried that; it didn't work, and now we're back to the old way" is not what is going on. Secondary schools and the way teachers-especially younger emerging teachers-think and talk about curriculum, teaching, and structure has changed in the last 15 years. And to some impossible- to-estimate degree, the credit goes to Sizer, with his ideas, tenacity, and Coalition, and also to researchers like Muncey and McQuillan, who proved that Sizer's ideas make sense.
Adler, Mortimer J. The Padeia Proposal: An Educational Man@sto. New York: Macmillan, 1982.
A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.: Na- tional Commission on Excellence in Education, U.S. Department of Educa- tion, 1983.
Burnham, James. ofthe West. New York: Day, 1964.
Cusick, Philip A. The Egalitarian Ideal and the American High School. New York:
Longman, 1983. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1915. Grant, Gerald P. The World We Created at Hamilton High. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1988. Huxley, Thomas. A Liberal Education. Girard, Kan.: Haldeman-Julius, 1900. Newman, John H. Cardinal. "The Idea of a University." In The College Suruey
ofEnglish Literature, edited by Alexander Witherspoon. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1942.
Powell, Arthur, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen. The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
Sedlak, Michael, Christopher Wheeler, Diana Pullan, and Philip A. Cusick. Selling Students Short. New York: Teachers College Press, 1986. Sizer, Theodore. Horace's Compromise. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
February 1997 22 1
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