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Robert L. Sinclair

Professor of Education
Director, National Coalition for Equality in Learning

January 1996


The obligation to educate all children of all families, and do it well, is as crucial as any of our democratic principles. This means that educators in our elementary and secondary schools have the major responsibility of ensuring that the opportunity to obtain a quality education is made available to all on equal terms. To this end, today's school leaders are successful in creating conditions that help a significant portion of young people learn at high levels of accomplishment. Yet, among informed citizens and caring educators there is a growing concern for the increasing number of youngsters who are not benefiting fully from their school experiences, and there is mounting dissatisfaction about the many students who are failing to learn what schools are expected to teach. Further, thoughtful Americans are troubled by the realization that children who are marginal in their learning and disconnected from the conditions created to help them succeed in school often come from poverty, and disproportionately from African American, Hispanic, and Native American families. The National Coalition for Equality in Learning was created to help educators attack this compelling problem of inequity that persists in too many of our nation's public schools.

National Coalition for Equality in Learning

The significance of our growing success is that we have been able to come so far over the past five years in realizing our promise as a grass-roots effort for improving student learning, while still maintaining a sense of urgency. Specifically, the National Coalition is finding that it is possible to rekindle the desire of educators to reach and teach all students; even those who for various reasons do not fit and are underachieving or failing. It is possible to renew leadership and strengthen problem solving in local settings so that unsuccessful youngsters are helped to return to productive learning. This is an important finding of our work.

The National Coalition for Equality in Learning is anchored securely in seven varied cities across the United States, including Apple Valley, MN; Boulder, CO; Montgomery, AL; Plymouth Meeting, PA; San Francisco, CA; Spring, TX; and Victoria, TX. Also, New Orleans, LA, is an affiliate member. These eight "Learning Communities" and about 80 demographically different elementary and secondary schools form a national laboratory for important experiments in school improvement. The schools were selected because of their strong desire to help all students learn well and because of their diversity. They are representative of the stubborn economic realities and serious social challenges that confront American public education. Because the National Coalition is a microcosm of pressing problems and slim resources that characterize American education, the progress that is made in these schools may help others to better understand the conditions for effective learning that need to be created so that all children of all families receive a quality education on equal terms.

Problem Solving in Local Schools

Educators in the National Coalition have created many different conditions to help young people learn well. Our findings show that there is no one way to solve learning problems. Yet, there is a common expectation held by all members. As more students succeed in their school learning, educators will become even stronger in their commitment to equality and even more skilled in creating conditions for effective learning. This means that problem solving that takes place to help students improve their learning may also become a source for strengthening leadership of the professional educators. It is the reflection on the experience of problem solving that may direct careful thought and guide wise action for improving learning of students and teachers alike. In simple terms, educators are becoming skilled at using the practice of creative intelligence to identify and solve important problems in student learning.

Our work together over the years has taught us that when a youngster is having difficulty, it is necessary to study that student and the conditions that seriously affect his or her learning. Some of these crucial conditions are inside the individual while others are external to the student. Labeling a student as "learning disabled," "at-risk," or "slow," because of a few symptoms of their problem is not productive. Rather, we have found that improvement is likely to result when educators understand the student as a unique person with assets as well as limitations. Educators in the National Coalition believe that the more we understand the learning problem and why it is occurring, the more likely we are to create conditions that will solve it. Our quiet success across the country comes to each school and more youth because we now realize that insight into the nature of the particular learning problem gives directions to the specific solutions.

Teachers, parents, and principals in each school enter into spirited dialogue about the progress of their students, collect specific data about strengths and weaknesses in student learning, agree on specific priorities for improvement, devise and try out solutions, and monitor results. This problem solving process is becoming part of the ongoing way of thinking and acting of educators working in local schools. It is reasonable to conclude that problem solving is now a systemic part of improvement in many National Coalition schools.

We are making significant progress engaging schools in this process of creating conditions that help students correct the difficulties they are encountering in their efforts to learn. We conclude that significant and lasting improvements may result when educators in local schools identify problems that seem to interfere with the learning of the students in that school, and attack the problems with the resources that can be obtained in that school community. We are finding that local school problem solving promotes careful thought about all students and builds a community of professionals who help each other try to help children.

Premises for Thought and Action

Our efforts in the National Coalition for Equality in Learning show that those professional educators who are closest to students are key leaders for improving learning. School staffs can identify problems in learning, and they can design and implement conditions for helping students succeed. Rather than give educators simple recipes for what should be done to solve complex problems in their schools, we encourage dialogues in individual schools that lead to identification and solution of significant learning problems. Our participation in such dialogues, and our observations of effective solutions created in local schools, reveal the following set of premises that may be used to guide thoughts and actions for improving learning.
Possibly serious consideration of these premises may help educators and citizens realize that the improvement of school conditions so that more students may learn at higher levels of accomplishment will not result from forces exerted by federal or state legislation, national commission recommendations, or even school district policies. Dialogue about these premises may lead educators to understand that the commonly accepted strategy of using pressure from outside the school to bring about change usually creates a slick veneer of minor adjustments that leaves the underlying structure intact. We are discovering that packaged solutions that come from a distance seldom connect with specific learning problems in the local setting. Also, forward looking educators tend to resent solutions that are imposed from outside because these solutions seeking a problem are typically insensitive to the complex reality that persists in schools and classrooms.1 The result is a facade of new names over old programs that continue to function as they have for years. Rather than solving real problems, these thin surfaces and false fronts often contribute to a further disconnection between students and the necessary conditions to help them learn.

In schools that do improve the learning of their students, there is a community of educators who work together to solve learning problems. They understand that meaningful and lasting improvements need to be grown in local soil. Solutions to persistent problems come from those creative educators who, in concert with parents and interested members of the community, unravel the difficulties individuals are having in their learning. We are convinced that the major efforts for ensuring all students with a quality education on equal terms take place in the context of the local school environment, not in the halls of higher education or the corridors of government office buildings. Ralph W. Tyler reminds us, however, that there is no single serious educational problem to be found in all schools. Hence, there is no single solution to the problems of improving the learning of students which is effective with all schools. Each school needs to identify its own significant educational problems and develop a solution that is based on the resources it can employ. 2

There is mounting evidence that any school environment is a source for increasing learning and a force for hindering learning. The different interactions between the school environment and the students may contribute to productive learning for some individuals while for others it may result in a struggle to make sense out of conditions that block their academic progress. The resulting differences in academic performance may lead educators to think that one type of student is superior to another type of student. This thinking is misguided. We are discovering that differences in learning have more to do with the quality of interactions between individuals and the school environment than with the students having significantly unequal capacities for learning.

Over time, students who continue to experience an unproductive relationship with the school environment may become marginal in their learning. Simply put, the prevailing physical, social, and intellectual conditions do not encourage these students on the margins to learn well. Unfortunately, this marginal status is sometimes used as a justification for excluding certain individuals from conditions that may provide access to quality learning. Sinclair and Ghory suggest that determining why these students are not succeeding and how they can be helped to learn will guide the next serious effort to improve our nation's schools.3

Continuing to have significant numbers of students fail in their learning poses unacceptable risks to our democracy, and dooms far too many of our young citizens to unproductive and unfulfilling lives. One crucial priority for improving conditions for learning is to find ways to better serve children and youth who have not found sufficient reasons or means for academic success available to them in the past. Possibly serious concern for those who do not fit will help us discover conditions for greater equality in American education. We are not equally guilty of the problems of inequality that some children experience in our schools, but we are equally responsible for creating conditions in schools that help all youngsters realize their personal and academic promise.


1. Sarason, S. (1990). The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It's Too Late ? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2. Tyler, R. W. (1992). Improving School Effectiveness. Amherst, MA: National Coalition for Equality in Learning Press.

3. Sinclair, R. L., & Ghory, W. J. (1987). Reaching Marginal Students: A Primary Concern For School Renewal. Chicago, IL: McCutchan Publishing Corporation. ..N! !Retriev.e_Iaconlearn.htmlTEXTHtMlTEXTHtMlc #=|e_Ia! !Spectre.foda! !Spectre.foda[! !NCEL_co.rre*  J @ J A J)  J- A J2  J6 A J? @ JD  Jh @ Jl A Jo  Js A Jt  Jx A J  J A J  J A J  J A J  J A J  J A J @ J  JI @ JM A JY @ J]  J @ J A J @ J  J    J    J    J    J    J    J    J    J   J    J    J    J    J   J   J    J    J    J    J    J    J    J    J    J    J