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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

A Matter of (10) Principles

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Nearly 30 years ago, I went to a conference sponsored by a then-little-known organization, the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). There, at a workshop on the seemingly mundane topic of scheduling, I found affirmation that I was not alone.
I attended the workshop because Fenway High School in Boston, where I was codirector, was mired in discussions about how to break out of the 7-periods-per-day, 43-minutes-per-class structure. We were stuck in the rhetoric of Carnegie units. We had argued for more than a year about how our schedule could better engage students and meet their needs.
We already taught an interdisciplinary first-period class for all students called Social Issues. Half of the units were chosen by students and covered topics like family issues, violence, and popular music. Half were on faculty-chosen topics, such as the nuclear threat, AIDS/HIV, and the war in El Salvador. And we noticed something happening. Students came to Social Issues class on time. They cared deeply about the subject matter.
At the CES conference, I learned that our Social Issues class reflected one of the coalition's 10 common principles—student as worker, teacher as coach. (For a description of all the principles, see ".") The class had been born out of my school's belief that because students needed to learn how to learn, teachers should not be the sole deliverers of information. At the conference, I discovered that other educators around the United States thought similarly. I felt liberated. And Fenway High School became an early Coalition of Essential Schools member.
The 10 common principles continue to make sense for me as a framework for thinking about what can work in schools. But today, a new wave of school reformers generally ignores these principles. At best, the reformers consider the principles irrelevant; at worst, they see them as valuable only for upper-middle-class or private school kids.
This current wave of reformers embraces a new narrative, which can be summarized as "no excuses." No excuses based on poverty, family background, or poor skills—schools will close the achievement gap against all odds. And some do, for some kids. But I worry about the long-term repercussions of this new wave of reform.

The Principles in Action

The Coalition of Essential Schools common principles, I believe, offer a better alternative. The CES network includes hundreds of schools and more than two dozen affiliate centers. One of these schools is Boston Arts Academy, which I founded in 1998 on the basis of the CES principles. No other art school in the United States began this way. Here are a few of the ways in which Boston Arts Academy puts these principles into action.
First, our faculty adopted the principle of commitment to the entire school, not just to their particular slice. We expressed it like this:
The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first (teachers and scholars in general education) and specialists second (experts in one particular discipline). Staff should expect multiple obligations (teacher-counselor-manager) and a sense of commitment to the entire school.
We wanted our students to have excellent art teachers who helped them learn their craft but who also taught them writing and reading. So dancers and musicians, painters and actors all have to learn the history of their art form while they are learning the intricacies of their craft.
Another principle that we found essential was establishing a tone of decency and trust. Much of arts training, or training in any competitive field, is filled with cutthroat reminders that only the best, the brightest, or the fittest will succeed. As a learning institution, we believed that we could create strong artists (and scholars and citizens) by embracing the CES explanation of this principle: "The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation, of trust, and of decency (fairness, generosity, and tolerance)." We believed that if we held high expectations for students without threatening them, we could help them balance their passions for the arts with both academic and civic pursuits and thus create the conditions for success in high school and beyond.
One of our earliest curricular innovations was the senior grant project, in which 12th grade students had to write a grant proposal that addressed a community issue of the student's choice. Using their artistic and academic skills, each student developed a project that responded to his or her chosen issue. Over the years, students have created projects that address homelessness, eating disorders, lack of after-school arts programs for middle schoolers, incarceration of teens, racism in policing, and cancer awareness. Alumni often comment that the process of researching and writing about an issue that mattered to them had a lasting impact. Many alumni find themselves still involved in the issues that they wrote about in high school.
At school assemblies, I would often appeal for students to become more than stellar artists or scholars. I wanted graduates who would sit on the boards of our local museums, symphony orchestras, and other arts and community organizations. Yes, it mattered whether students went on to college and successful careers in the arts. But more important was their ability to play a role in shaping a better community. That goal is what our senior grant project underscored.
The Coalition of Essential Schools principle demonstration of mastery emphasizes that students should present "exhibitions" that demonstrate their readiness for graduation. Boston Arts Academy students demonstrate their strengths in a series of exhibitions, reviews, and critiques in both academic and arts classes. Each of these assessments has an audience of peers, parents and caregivers, professionals, and other staff to give feedback that helps our students deepen their grasp of concepts.

Democracy and Equity Are Key

As I think about how to improve schools, I keep returning to the Coalition of Essential Schools' 10th principle, democracy and equity, which states that schools should model democratic practices that involve everyone. This principle requires putting actual stakes in the ground—deciding who is responsible for what. You can't just float through the days or the years. If we want kids to participate in a democratic society, then we have to teach them how to participate—and give them lots of opportunities to do so.
Every school year at Boston Arts Academy begins with a rigorous interrogation of how the school lives its mission. What does it mean to all stakeholders and why? How do we teach this mission statement? What does the word diverse mean to all of us? What about democratic society?
For example, students observe the site manager (custodian) of the school being involved as a member of the community as opposed to being relegated to support staff. Students who see the janitor or custodian participate in a panel discussion or an assembly are getting a meaningful lesson about overcoming class divides.
When students see adults debating about their differences of opinion regarding curriculum or policies, then the students will recognize that these are issues of consequence. At Boston Arts Academy, therefore, students are part of discussions about curriculum. They are active participants in designing courses for the experiential intersessions that take place between semesters, including serving as teachers or coteachers. Anne Clark, Boston Arts Academy's headmaster, observes,
I think a leader's role is to keep focused on questions. The mistake is to impose an answer. If you always say, "Now we are doing this," you will get compliance, but that works only for a short time. You should do your work to build consensus. If someone has a better idea, I'll cede my idea. You have to be willing to have your ideas shot down.
Anne also believes that creating a great school involves supporting the ability of students to execute their ideas. She recalls that students wanted to institute a discipline process called restorative justice. Students felt that they needed to figure out ways to hold one another more accountable for their behavior. It took time to convince and then train all the faculty in this new method, which focuses on owning behaviors instead of on punishment, but Anne is convinced that it was worth the effort. "We have a stronger culture and shared understanding of purpose than ever before."

Evidence: The Principles Work

Does having a sense of control in one's own schooling matter to young people? Eighty percent of the students who start with us as freshmen graduate in four years as seniors—one of the highest rates in Boston's public schools. Of that graduating group, 94 percent either go on to college; go directly into careers in the arts (for example, to dance companies); or enter the military. In a 2009 study of Boston Arts Academy alumni from 2002 to 2008, we found that 64 percent were still in college or had already finished. This compares favorably with national data for all demographic groups, which show that only 56 percent of students who enter colleges and universities finish within six years.
A recent discussion with a young black male alumnus helped me understand what accounts for our graduates' success. Franco recalled the roller coaster of his middle school years—lots of standing in lines, doing what adults told him, and wondering if he would ever get out, or even live to see another day. "Just walking home from the bus stop was always an adventure for me," Franco said with a wry laugh. As a middle schooler, he was scrawny and picked on by the older kids. He was, however, part of an after-school program that did hip hop dancing, and he was very good.
His teacher took him to auditions at Boston Arts Academy, and when he was accepted, he began to feel that life was worth living. But graduating from middle school was a struggle. Franco graduated (barely) and came to Boston Arts with very low reading scores. There he learned that hip hop was only one form of dance. He had to study ballet and modern dance and take classes for hours. He was always tired and hungry, yet his body loved the exertion and his mind was awake when he was moving.
At one point, his teacher, Mr. McLaughlin, pulled together a group of young men—mostly students of color—to create an experimental piece called "Speak." The development process began with students listening to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. McLaughlin asked his dancers to respond with movement to the hope and agony expressed by these two leaders. Then the students shared their own stories and experiences growing up. As the students developed their gestural responses, a piece emerged that reflected themes of mistrust, prejudice, injustice, poverty, and fear.
For Franco, the work of collaborating on the piece was life-changing. "I have never felt so strong and powerful as when we were working on this piece," he said. "Just the fact that Mr. McLaughlin would share so much with us made us work so hard. … He has the experience of many years of dancing and choreographing. But he trusted us with his emotions and his ideas. That means a lot." Franco's reflection on his teacher's process demonstrates an empathy often absent in adolescents consumed by their own rocky journeys toward adulthood.
Franco has finished an associate's degree and is teaching dance and choreographing for young people. He works at the same dance studio he attended as a middle school student. He is still in touch with his former teacher.
Franco's story confirms the importance of positive relationships between teachers and students—relationships that take time and dedication. Including students' previous experiences and their viewpoints and opinions about curriculum and school issues also matters. When students are invited into the problem-solving process, they come up with all sorts of creative solutions. But when schools ignore the daily issues and threats facing students who come from neighborhoods plagued by poverty and violence, school can seem irrelevant.
In my experience, questions of democracy and equity matter deeply to young people and engage them intellectually, creatively, and socially. Tacking these issues helps students feel ownership of their learning and gain the skills to succeed in college, career, and life. It teaches them the importance of the big picture, whereas current accountability-based reforms tend merely to teach them the importance of filling in circles on standardized tests. A reexamination of the Coalition of Essential Schools' 10 common principles might well be a way to think more clearly about how to improve our schools.
End Notes

1 Harvard Graduate School of Education. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Author.

 Linda F. Nathan is executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, which is a consulting partner with Conservatory Lab Charter School, and cofounder of the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leaders. She was the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, Boston's only public high school for the visual and performing arts. Nathan is the author of The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test (Beacon Press, 2009) and When Grit Isn't Enough (Beacon Press, 2017).

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