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CES Develops Engaged Students Who Demonstrate Their Learning

The Coalition of Essential Schools believes that helping students master certain essential skills and basic knowledge and requiring them to demonstrate mastery of those skills will help them succeed in life, and it wants to share its philosophy with others. Included: A description of the CES approach.

The Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) thinks it has a good formula for creating motivated, accomplished students: Set high expectations. Place them in small, personalized learning environments with teacher-coaches. Give them the groundwork so they can demonstrate their learning through presentations and traditional assessments.

A leader of the small-school movement and one of the oldest school reform organizations in the U.S., CES has released DVDs showing students putting CES practices into action. In EssentialVisions Disc 2: Student Achievement viewers watch teams of students at Quest High School in Humble, Texas, prepare and finally present senior projects that examine an issue in depth. Students also are required to prepare and implement a sustainable social action plan related to their topic. Quests program is based on the CES approach to learning, developed around Common Principles .

CES works with schools to help them implement its practices so students become more autonomous, accomplished learners. Students who attend these programs also score well on standardized test and have a high rate of college attendance, according to CES.

CES director Lewis Cohen talked with Education World about the CES philosophy of learning and why he thinks it could benefit all students.

Lewis Cohen

Education World: What is unique about the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) approach to learning?

Lewis Cohen: In this era where teacher-proofing schools is seen as the key to improvement, the Coalition of Essential Schools believes that the individuals who make up a school community -- not the curriculum, technology, or any other magic bullets -- hold the key to excellence. At a time when educational reform efforts are looking to business, the military, or anywhere but professional educators, CES remains fully committed to its belief that practitioners, students, and parents -- those closest to the learning -- are best able to define what needs to be done.

CESs approach to learning is distinct for its focus on the intellectual core of schooling at the expense of so-called extras. That core is summed up in the first of the ten CES Common Principles: The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well. The specifics of curriculum and content are left to the values and needs of the communities in which CES schools are located and the interests and passions of the students and adults that make up these school communities.

CES believes relationships are central to schools and that it is vital for students and adults to really know each other well so that curriculum and instruction can be responsive to the strengths and challenges of each student. CES focuses on depth over coverage, emphasizing the intellectual and imaginative competencies students need rather than conventionally defined subjects. CES schools allow student mastery to guide curricular decisions rather than coverage of content.

Above all CES remains committed to the notion that schools form the bedrock of democratic society. Schools must operate in a fashion that allows students to see adults engaging in meaningful deliberation and disagreement on substantive matters. They must function as democratic communities, creating space for student voice on questions that truly matter. Ultimately, they must provide students the tools to be able to make a difference in the life of their communities.

"CES focuses on depth over coverage, emphasizing the intellectual and imaginative competencies students need rather than conventionally defined subjects."
EW: Most people agree that smaller schools are better -- but just because a school is smaller doesnt mean its more successful. What are the other key ingredients to school reform?

Cohen: Small size is really only a facilitating condition for changing the nature of the interaction between students and teachers and among teachers themselves. Small size allows the students and adults in the school to know each other well. Knowing students well in turn means knowing their individual strengths and challenges.

The trick, then, is having the flexibility to adapt curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of particular students. We know that learning is an active process and small size allows for teachers to find different ways to engage students around their interests. Thus, a key ingredient for reform is providing school sites the autonomy to make decisions over curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Further, sites need autonomy over budget and staffing in order to ensure they have the flexibility to deploy resources in a manner consistent with the particular needs of their students and staff. On this last point, there is also the need for schools to address the question of equity by being able to direct resources to those most in need.

Small size also enables another key ingredient of school reform: teacher collaboration. Just as students should no longer be able to slip by anonymously, teachers must end their individual isolation in their classroom and become part of a collaborative learning community. The sharing of practice and critical friendship are vital to the growth of teacher practice. Further collaboration allows for a shared and deeper understanding of ones students and their needs.

The small" has become problematic shorthand for the school reform efforts CES champions. Small is a reference to structural changes and many who embrace this work are often focused on these issues to the exclusion of that which matters, namely changing what goes on in the classroom.

EW: What are some of the obstacles to converting schools to the CES approach?

Cohen: Perhaps the greatest obstacle for schools seeking to follow the CES approach is the lack of preparation for teachers to create a student-centered classroom. Many teachers have no exposure to anything but traditional approaches to instruction. Too much teacher preparation still focuses on content delivery or classroom management. What is needed is a serious effort to create learner-centered schools and classrooms where teachers have been trained as teachers of students rather than, say, teachers of Shakespeare or chemistry.

"The teacher must become an expert in the process of knowing and act as coach or adviser guiding students through the exploration process rather the providing the content."
This effort requires doing the hard work of giving teachers the wherewithal to develop curricula with multiple access points, or to truly embed core content into project-based learning, or to facilitate group work. Until we accept that there is no magic curriculum or other teacher-proofing scheme and really focus on revolutionizing the practice of teaching to the needs of todays students and society, we will be unable to fully realize the promise we believe is embodied in the CES Common Principles.

EW: Watching students from Quest present their senior exhibitions was impressive. What do elementary and middle schools need to do to prepare students to do that level of work?

Cohen: The key to any successful exhibition, regardless of age or grade level, is that it is grounded in what the school wishes its students to become and that there is a mutual understanding of how the exhibition represents a manifestation of that vision. Because these exhibitions are integrative acts that require students to synthesize and apply knowledge from across content areas, younger children need to be exposed early on to a thinking" curriculum that encourages creativity, problem-solving, exploration, and teamwork.

Indeed, youngsters in elementary and middle schools do their best learning when theyre practicing and performing real tasks, using their hands, manipulating objects, getting dirty, and communicating their discoveries with adults and peers. As a consequence, teachers must be prepared to assist students in areas that may be outside the teachers own expertise. The teacher must become an expert in the process of knowing" and act as coach" or adviser guiding students through the exploration process rather the providing the content. They must give students -- even those at a young age -- the means to manage their own learning initiatives including tools for planning the investigation.

EW: How do students from these types of schools perform on standardized tests?

Cohen: Over the last 20 years, studies have been conducted on various CES schools. The studies show fairly consistently that schools designed on the CES Common Principles outperform comparable schools on standardized tests and other traditional measures. Schools in 17 states that embraced the CES approach through the Comprehensive School Reform process showed gains on their state achievement tests and a narrowing of the so-called achievement gap.

Another recent study of a group of CES schools in Boston shows that students in these schools perform better than district averages in a number of measures, from attendance to standardized tests. In addition, specific CES schools that use exhibitions have shown higher graduation rates and college-bound rates than their counterparts.

This e-interview with Lewis Cohen is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 04/25/2007