Sizer Says School Restructuring Is Essential To Improved Quality
The quality of education in American high schools will not change without a complete overhaul of their structure, methods, and goals, according to Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the group that is conducting "A Study of High Schools" for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Independent Schools.
Although a restructuring of this type would be politically very difficult, Mr. Sizer wrote this month in an education journal, "the hard fact remains that there is no serious way to improve high schools without revamping their structure," which he called an "organizing framework [that] dates from the late 19th century and persists today with remarkable consistency across all regions of the country and across public and private sectors."
The structure of most high schools is unproductive, according to Mr. Sizer: "The daily activities, academic and otherwise, in which a typical high school student engages are numerous: five or six classes on widely differing topics taken in a random sequence are mixed with some nonacademic activity and lots of usually frenetic socializing."
'Higher-Order Thinking Skills'
He recommends a curriculum that emphasizes the teaching of "higher-order thinking skills" to produce students who know how to learn. Such a change would involve scrapping, among other things, grading by age groups and "the fractionated curriculum that the high schools have inherited from the 1890's."
Mr. Sizer says "... high-school reform will start as an effort in exploratory engineering, designing and testing new structures appropriate to the adolescents, the teachers, and the culture of the 1980's."
"Such a strategy of 'model' schools will bring us back to the 'alternative school' approach of the 1960's, but this time the 'alternatives' will not be spinoffs," he says. "Rather, they will be experiments that ultimately should affect the central system--indeed, that should replace it."
Mr. Sizer, who has been dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., is producing a book based on his year-long observations of over 50 high schools.
The book, which is not yet completed, will be one of three to emerge from "A Study of High Schools."
Mr. Sizer says the article appearing in the June issue of The Phi Delta Kappan is based on "a couple of the ideas on which we are working," but "is not really a summary" of his study.
Mr. Sizer touches on a variety of problems with the operation and goals of high schools, and discusses some changes that might be involved in solving them. Among the ideas he offers are these:
High schools need a shorter, better-defined list of goals that could result in "shelving the long-standing claims of certain subject areas," such as driver education, and curtailing time allowed for such activities as interscholastic athletic trips.
Students who enter high school unable to read, write, and cipher adequately will have to concentrate exclusively on these subjects until they master them, Mr. Sizer argues. Until these skills are mastered, studying much else is wasteful.
Until "mastery of subject matter" determines whether or not a student receives a diploma, there will be little incentive for achievement. There ought to be some kind of culminating exam to emphasize learning.
Students are rarely expected to educate themselves, Mr. Sizer says. They are "delivered a service" and are expected to bear few responsibilities in school. But a central goal of schools is to enable students to teach themselves and to wish to do so after they graduate. "What stays with us, if we're lucky, is the knowledge of how to gain knowledge," Mr. Sizer says. This requires serious independent work, and a "less is more" approach that perhaps covers less subject matter but with greater depth. 'Dialectical Teaching'
Mr. Sizer contends that the pace needs to be slowed in many high schools, with larger blocks of time devoted to "the kind of dialectical teaching that is a necessary part of helping adolescents learn to think clearly and constructively."
Grouping students in grades by age must cease, he thinks; students must be allowed to progress at their own rates, with instruction adapted to different students' learning styles.
"To adapt our school structures to a more complicated view of learning will be a bureaucrats' nightmare," Mr. Sizer admits, "but adapt they must."
Mastery of the basic core of high-school work--whatever the means--should be the goal for every student. Diversions from this goal, through such practices as "early tracking" into vocational education, must be resisted.
Teachers need lighter student loads "to help students learn higher-order thinking skills." This could be accomplished, in Mr. Sizer's view, by having a greater proportion of a school's staff members teach, and having teachers who are less specialized.
Teachers, he argues, need more autonomy; more freedom to control their own and their students' schedules and programs; and the possibility of a "career that gradually develops, with more responsibility and compensation following experience and demonstrated excellence. This requires differentiated staffing within teaching and salaries that follow this differentiation."