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Coalition of Essential Schools' Common Principles

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The Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) was founded in 1984 with the financial support of several national foundations as a secondary school reform organization. It built on the research conducted during the preceding five years by Theodore R. Sizer, Arthur G. Powell, and their colleagues in A Study of High Schools, research that was cosponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). The study's findings appeared in three volumes, Horace's Compromise (1984), The Shopping Mall High School (1985), and The Last Little Citadel (1986). The coalition was based at Brown University where Sizer was a professor and served as its chairman. NASSP and NAIS continued as cosponsors.

In light of the research, which had reflected the necessarily local character of effective secondary schools, CES avoided creating a "model" school design to be "implemented." Rather, CES set out nine "common principles," drafted by Sizer, that appeared to be essential in the functioning of a worthy high school. While each CES school accepts responsibility to address the practical implications of all of the principles, the shape of the expression of those ideas is developed with the character and strengths of that particular locality in mind. CES would assist with the process of adapting the principles to immediate situations by gathering all the schools into a "coalition" from which each school could systematically learn from others. The staff at Brown chronicled and assisted these associated local efforts; regularly issued a newsletter, Horace, which recounted good practices as they took form in individual schools; and authorized and obtained the funding of an independent ethnographic study, which focused on the process in which schools engaged in this effort at rethinking and restructuring, and of several field studies directed by Patricia A. Wasley.

In summary, the nine common principles are:

  1. The school should focus on helping adolescents learn to use their minds well. The schools should not attempt to be "comprehensive."
  2. The school's goals shall be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge…. "Less IsMore" should dominate.
  3. The school's goals should apply to all students.
  4. Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent … no teacher (should) have direct responsibility for more than 80 students … decisions (about) the use of students' and teachers' time and the choice of teaching materials … must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.
  5. The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker.
  6. The diploma shall be awarded upon a successful demonstration of mastery–an "Exhibition" … that may be jointly administered by the faculty and higher authorities…. As the diploma is awarded when earned, the school's program proceeds with no age grading.
  7. The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation … of trust … and of decency …. Parents should be treated asessential collaborators.
  8. The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first and specialists second.
  9. Ultimate administrative and budget targets should include … substantial time for collective planning by teachers, competitive salaries for staff and an ultimate per pupil cost … not [to] exceed those at traditional schools by more than ten percent.

In 1998 a tenth common principle was added: "the school should demonstrate … inclusive policies (and) model democratic practices … explicitly challenging all forms of inequity and discrimination" (Coalition of Essential Schools pamphlet, The Ten Common Principles, 1998).

The initial group of twelve schools included several that have gained substantial public visibility, such as Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, New York, designed and launched by Deborah Meier; and Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire, "redesigned" by Dennis Littky. Others such as the R. L. Paschal Essential School in Fort Worth, Texas, a small, autonomous unit embedded within the larger Paschal High School, survived and flourished by keeping a very low profile. As others joined, many had difficulty with what emerged as the two hardest principles to put into effect, the diploma based on a public "Exhibition" and the "no more than 80-1 student-teacher ratio." The Brown-based staff observed and reported on these matters, for example, in the former case with workshops, pamphlets, and books by Grant Wiggins and Joseph McDonald; and in the latter with Sizer's Horace's School (the chronicle of a fictional school, drawn with CES experience in mind, in employing the common principles) and Horace's Hope (the author's take on what he had seen and what independent evidence arising from the work suggested). Overall, the instability of leadership and of the "system's" own directions made the prospect of quick, uncontroversial, and sustained reform difficult.

From 1988 to 1993 CES engaged in a major joint effort with the Education Commission of the States and several of its member states in the Re:Learning project, an effort to connect the grassroots work of Essential Schools with policy reform consistent with CES and CES-like efforts. A substantive and positive residue of Re:Learning was the creation of state-based "centers," usually funded by a mix of private and public money, to forward the work. Political instability, however, made major, highly visible, coordinated restructuring "from the schoolhouse to the state house" largely unsuccessful. In 1990 CES joined the ATLAS Communities Project, one of the New American School efforts, joining with Yale University's School Development Project, directed by James Comer; Harvard Project Zero, directed by Howard Gardner; and the Education Development Center, led by Janet Whitla. ATLAS activities have been funded largely at the federal and district levels.

In 1997 and on the retirement of Sizer from Brown University, CES, now numbering more than 1,000 members, established itself as a not-for-profit organization based in Oakland, California. Much of the close-in work earlier carried out by the Brown staff was shifted to state and regional "centers," these being themselves not-for-profit entities. An executive board, drawn from the member schools and the centers, directs CES's national voice, coordination, and program assessment efforts. A major independent study of "fully articulated" Essential schools (that is, those that have been able to actualize all the common principles) was underway in the early twenty-first century.


HAMPEL, ROBERT L. 1986. The Last Little Citadel: American High Schools since 1940. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

KAMMERAAD-CAMPBELL, SUSAN. 1989. Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

MACMULLEN, MARGARET M. 1996. Taking Stock of a School Reform Effort: A Research Collection and Analysis. Providence, RI: Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

MEIER, DEBORAH. 1995. The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem. Boston: Beacon.

MUNCEY, DONNA E., and MCQUILLAN, PATRICK J. 1996. Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

NEHRING, JAMES. 2002. Upstart Startup: Creating and Sustaining a Public Charter School. New York: Teachers College Press.

POWELL, ARTHUR G.; FARRAR, ELEANOR; and COHEN, DAVID K. 1985. The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

SIZER, THEODORE R. 1984. Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

SIZER, THEODORE R. 1992. Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

SIZER, THEODORE R. 1996. Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

WASLEY, PATRICIA A. 1994. Stirring the Chalkdust. New York: Teachers College Press.

WASLEY, PATRICIA A.; HAMPEL, ROBERT L.; and CLARK, RICHARD W. 1997. Kids and School Reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


James S. Coleman (1926–1995) - Career, Contributions and Controversies, Redefining American Education, Contribution to Education [next] [back] Coalition of Essential Schools

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