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September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

Launching Paideia in Chattanooga

Instructional Strategies
A crisis of confidence in public education has observers wondering whether public schools are preparing all students to succeed in either the work force or in post-secondary education. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, these concerns have resulted in a growing commitment to the Paideia School Model as a springboard for broad reform efforts.

Community Support for Reform

In 1983, Jack Murrah of Chattanooga's Lyndhurst Foundation read The Paideia Proposal by philosopher Mortimer Adler (1982). Inspired by Adler's belief in the value of a single-track, liberal arts education to prepare students for work, citizenship, and lifelong learning, Murrah decided to bring parents, business leaders, and civic leaders together for a series of meetings to discuss Paideia.
In 1984, a group of 150 parents, interested citizens, and friends of public education lobbied Chattanooga's Board of Education to implement Paideia in Chattanooga. According to Murrah: At that time, no one including the board fully understood what this would mean. There was such a low level of confidence in urban schools that it seemed very difficult to turn our schools around. We wanted to start the school under the best possible conditions with unusual teachers and enthusiastic students, but we were not interested in creating a new magnet school for its own sake. We wanted a school that would be a step for change, not a stop.
With the board's approval and support from the Lyndhurst Foundation, a committee outlined the necessary steps to develop a Paideia school for Chattanooga students. First, the group hired Steve Prigohzy as the school's planner, promoter, and educational leader. Prigohzy looked for teachers who were lifelong learners themselves. “I would ask teachers to talk to me about a book they were reading that I shouldn't miss. I wanted people who were acting out their curiosity about the world,” he said. Prigohzy also sought teachers whose appreciation for discourse would sustain the school as a community of learners. Limited public confidence, especially in the city's middle schools, influenced the planning.
Next, the steering committee began to recruit students for the new citywide Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. Admission would be on a first-come, first-served basis. Beyond that, the school would be racially integrated with student enrollment to reflect no more than 70 percent of any one racial group, given the 60 percent African-American and 40 percent white enrollment in the district as a whole. All parents were asked to commit themselves to two hours of volunteer work each month and two parent-teacher conferences each year. That first year approximately 800 parents applied for the school's 400 openings.

Expanding Paideia

When the arts and sciences school opened in 1986, it generated so much interest that almost immediately parent demand resulted in expansion. In the fall of 1988, it expanded to grade 10, and added K–4 under the direction of Mary Ann Holt, founding principal of the lower grades.
As demand persisted, parents and interested citizens again went before the Chattanooga Board of Education and requested authorization to develop a second school that would replicate the Paideia approach. In response, in September 1991, the district opened the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts for grades K–6, with an additional grade being added each year to create a K–8 school by the fall of 1993. Word-of-mouth advertising has made these public schools the most sought after in the Chattanooga area. Likewise, these schools have stimulated renewed confidence in public education among business and civic leaders.

Meaningful Curriculum for All

As called for in The Paideia Proposal, the Paideia course of study is general, liberal, and holistic, with a foreign language the only elective in a curriculum that prepares all students for post-secondary education. Further, the curriculum rests on Paideia's three columns of learning—didactic teaching, Socratic questioning, and coaching—with the goal of 80 percent of learning being student-centered. Contrary to the worries of Adler's critics of a decade ago, the Chattanooga curriculum is not mired in the Great Books of the past. Rather, readings include contemporary literature, adolescent fiction, classics, and articles related to multicultural issues and current events. Many assignments engage multiple learning modes and emphasize cooperative projects. In addition, student participation in Math Counts, university-sponsored mathematics contests, the statewide model United Nations, extracurricular activities in the arts, and community service highlights the value that Paideia places on active learning.
Perhaps the most innovative feature of these schools is the weekly seminar in which each teacher leads a heterogeneous student group in a discussion of an important text. Socratic questioning and dialogue challenge all students to consider such questions as “What is justice?” and to base their answers on evidence drawn from assigned readings. “These are hard questions for everyone,” said Edna Varner, principal of Chattanooga Middle School for Paideia and Performing Arts. “They demand a lot of thinking, and no one is bored.”
Curriculum reform has taken many forms during the last century, and in most cases, the changes have been transitory. Part of the reason that the problems persist may be that educators have changed the content and delivery of the curriculum without confronting the underlying expectations driving the system. Perhaps the clearest example is tracking schemes (overt and covert) that deter low-income and minority students from taking such courses as advanced math or science (Oakes 1990). The Paideia model takes the opposite position: given a meaningful curriculum and enough time, all students can learn each and every subject.
Chattanooga's Paideia schools challenge the habit of differentiating a curriculum for different students and help all students succeed academically in a curriculum that prepares them for post-secondary education. The outcomes of this type of instructional approach represent nationally significant educational change.

The Paideia Approach

  • Students all study the same rigorous, single-track curriculum.

  • Teachers match teaching to students' individual learning styles.

  • Curriculum exceeds the minimum state requirements.

  • The multicultural curriculum crosses subject domains.

  • In every discipline three kinds of teaching and learning are thoroughly integrated. They are:

    • didactic teaching (lecture)

    • Socratic seminar (a question and discussion process)

    • coaching (skill development in small groups with teachers or tutors)

  • In addition to regular classes, all students participate in a more formal weekly seminar led by a teacher/moderator; seminars focus on literary or other creative works.


Indicators of Success

As Chattanooga's first two Paideia schools have already demonstrated, segregation, low test scores, parent apathy, poor attendance, high dropout rates, and poor facilities need not be synonymous with urban schools. Students are accepted at these Paideia schools on a first-come, first-served basis with the requirement that the student body comes equally from the city's three zones. The school's population roughly reflects the metropolitan community population: 40 percent male, 60 percent female; 39 percent minority, 61 percent white. Attendance rates of 98 percent, the highest in the district, show that students are engaged and committed. According to Hope Hamilton, a 12th grade student: Paideia is the ideal education. It gives you a broad intellectual perspective. You understand more cultures than your own. It gives you a chance to express your ideas. You can be yourself most of all, and express yourself any way you want to as long as you are reasonable.A Paideian education has made other things possible in my life. Emory University wouldn't have even thought about me if I hadn't taken pre-calculus, calculus, and physics. One thing bothers me though. Classmates from my elementary days (we live in a poor neighborhood) have children now. It makes me wonder if I would have had a child too if I hadn't had the opportunity through Paideia to make education a priority in my life.
Paideia remains unique among many alternatives. Its insistence on an education that values the life of the mind and that cherishes dialogue as a means to deepen students' understanding of ideas puts the focus for reform squarely on teaching and learning. Paideia is also one of the few school reform models that explicitly advocates equal access to a high quality, single-track liberal arts curriculum as key to realizing these values. As a result, in 1993 and 1994, 100 percent of its graduating seniors enrolled in post-secondary education, according to Bill Kennedy, principal/director.

Introducing Paideia to Zoned Schools

By 1992, the popularity of the two Paideia schools had become legendary. Local newspapers carried photographs of parents camped out in the cold waiting to register their children for available openings. Because the district did not want to limit Paideia's curriculum to its citywide magnet schools, leaders closed three of its poorest performing elementary, middle, and high schools, each with a majority African-American enrollment, and reopened them as Paideia schools. These schools, known as the Phoenix Paideia schools, also include a fine and performing arts magnet feature. All staff positions were declared vacant. Everyone who wanted a teaching or leadership position had to apply, and a group of community members and Paideia teachers and administrators from the original magnet schools served on the selection committee. The zoned population continued to attend the new Phoenix Paideia schools while others were admitted on a space available basis. These schools showed a rapid increase in enrollment.
While recognizing the challenge of a greater student diversity in the zoned schools, Harry Reynolds, superintendent of schools, was convinced that “the model is doable no matter where you are.” However, district leaders see Paideia as just one type of change strategy. Other schools have begun to adapt some Paideian features, including foreign language learning and Socratic seminars, to build on their own success.
In this sense, Paideia in Chattanooga is the first step, not the last, in districtwide reform. With overall confidence in public schools on the increase, the success of Paideia frees other schools to find their own way to greater academic effectiveness. As Reynolds said, “Paideia is only one model for improving student achievement districtwide and preparing all for post-secondary education.” Paideia, then, raises expectations that all Chattanooga's schools can meet these ends.
Paideia continues to be valued as a successful teaching and learning model for Chattanooga. Thanks to the help of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, all 11 of Chattanooga's middle schools have now planned reform that emphasizes high academic content and equips all teachers with Paideia's seminar techniques and alternative assessment tools. Chattanooga is leading the way in reform to a single-track, high-quality education to guarantee the success of all students. As American educator Robert Maynard Hutchins once said, “The best education for the best is the best education for all!”

Adler, M. (1982). The Paideia Proposal. New York: Macmillan.

Oakes, J. (1990). Multiplying Inequalities: The Effects of Race, Social Class, and Tracking on Opportunities to Learn Science and Mathematics. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation.

Cynthia M. Gettys has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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