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The Teacher As Coach:Fewer Facts, More Learning

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HORACE'S COMPROMISE: The Dilemma of the American High School, by Theodore R. Sizer, will be published early next year by Houghton Mifflin Company.

It is the first of three reports based on a five-year study of American high schools co-sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Commission on Education Issues of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Mr. Sizer, the director of the study and a former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, visited 80 schools in the United States and Australia during 1981 and 1982 in attempt to get "the essential 'feel' of high schools." The book presents Mr. Sizer's findings and his recommendations for reforming the schools.

The second volume of the study, to be published later in 1984, will consist of a series of essays by Robert Hampel on the history of the American high school since 1940; the third volume, by Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen, will examine "critical themes" that arose from the authors' visits to 15 high schools during the 1981-82 school year. It will also be published later next year.

Mr. Sizer, who is also a former headmaster of the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., spoke last week with Associate Editor Thomas Toch about HORACE'S COMPROMISE and the current efforts to reform the nation's public schools.

QOne central observation of your report is that "we should expect students to learn more while being taught less." What do you mean?

AMy impression is that, with our great emphasis on coverage, the kids know a lot of facts, a lot of names, but they don't know how to use them very well. ... What the youngsters can't do is use things, take the data and put them to some constructive purpose. ... The development of such skills takes time, and you can't cover as much if you expect them to know something thoroughly.

QYou are implying that the schools should teach fewer things.

AYou teach fewer things, but in the long run, you learn more. ... The long-range academic power of a child would be greatly enhanced by expecting less coverage earlier, but an awful lot more thoroughness.

QYou observe that students and teachers in high schools are party to a "conspiracy of the least." Explain that idea.

AAn overworked teacher (and in most high schools, teachers are overworked) and a student who is asked to sit and absorb things for five or six periods in a row, have limited energy. And a youngster in a class will bargain--tacitly, rarely explicitly. He will say to the teacher, ''I will be orderly, I will go along with you, if you don't push me very hard." And the teacher will act as though to say: "Look, students, you play along with my minimal requirements, and I will keep them indeed minimal."

QIs this a widespread situation?

AYes. Not because people are irresponsible or evil, but because it is almost a requirement of a system that expects so much of teachers and kids in a short time. That kind of treaty is almost inevitable in such circumstances.

QHow should the schools go about breaking that treaty?

ABy reducing the number of individual students that teachers are responsible for and by greatly simplifying the school day and calendar.

QHow would you accomplish these things?

ABy organizing the subjects of study into a few groupings, and then having a relatively small number of periods per day. Maybe as few as two, each a couple of hours long.

QWhy do you describe schools as "bureaucratic hierarchies"? And why do you say that "the structure of schools is getting in the way of children's learning"?

AIt really starts with the obvious point that individuals differ, that neither you nor I learn at the same rate or in the same way. As a result, if standardized courses are imposed on us, you or I, or both of us, will suffer. ... Schools are hierarchical bureaucracies in the sense that they regulate and specify the means of education. Such regulations--like four years of English or 52,000 minutes of a subject a year--simply overlook the fact that humans differ, and by standardizing things, seriously undermine the ability of some kids to learn well."

QGiven that situation, are you satisfied with the reforms being proposed by the states?

AThey are well intentioned, but so rigid as to deny the reality of human differences.

QHow are they rigid?

ABy specifing the precise amount of time that something is to be taught, and by assuming that many things are to be taught concurrently. To continue this large number of different subjects--all to be run together in the same day--is to guarantee the frenetic pace of the school and the waste that comes from that, as John Goodlad's research admirably demonstrates.

QWhat message would you send to those gathering in Indianapolis next month for the national forum on education?

AThe control of standards has got to come through an insistence on performance, rather than on how the performance is to be developed. That is, a focus on ends, rather than on means.

QHow would you accomplish this rearranging of priorities?

ABy urging state governments, initially, at least, to set up exhibitions for diplomas and to say to schools systems and kids in the school systems: "If you want to get a state honors diploma, you can take a set of examinations or exhibitions." This would reinforce the standards and expectations that a state might have in mind and will indirectly raise the standards of the schools.

We've seen this again and again and again with the Advanced Placement exams [of the College Board]. The existence of an ap course, teachers and principals have told me, has had the effect of raising the expectations of an entire department or area. The point is to emphasize the carrot, rather than the stick. So much now--regulation, enforcement--is being done with the stick, pushing toward minimums.

QYou are suggesting that, rather than requiring three years of this or that subject instead of two, the states implement a broad system of mastery learning?

AThat's correct. The only important thing is how well a person knows math, not how long he or she has sat in a classroom.

QHow does the curriculum have to be reshaped to accommodate this notion?

AIt has to be simplified and focused. Some things are going to have to give way.

QSuch as?

AIn most subjects, the number of things that are covered. We won't be able to cover as many dates in history courses, for example, in order that the things that are studied are fully absorbed. The amount of information a youngster absorbs has got to be reduced, in order for a youngster to develop the intellectual skills that lie behind that data.

QWhat's the role of the teacher under the scheme that you are proposing?

AFar more that of a coach than that of a lecturer. And this involves a very substantial change for many teachers. As John Goodlad's research shows again, so much of school is telling--teachers telling students. And as John Dewey and many before and since have argued, people learn things on the basis of their having done them. Teachers are going to have to learn to spend their time coaching youngsters to do things, rather than merely telling them things. That's tough, but absolutely necessary.

QIs there enough talent within the existing teaching force to make this shift?

AMy impression, having visited some 80 schools, is that the talent is there, maybe not in the numbers we would like. But I have yet to visit a school in this country where I didn't find the basic core of a first-rate staff.

QWhat is the proper role of the federal government in this current move to reform the schools?

AThere are at least two. One is an information role, where the federal government makes sure that good ideas and effective practices that are going on in one part of the country can be understood in another. ... There is also the kind of information represented by the National Assessment [of Educational Progress], which is very important for all of us to have. The second particular function of the federal government is the support of research and development. We need to do some serious experimenting in the restructuring of schools, and it is the proper role of the federal government to support such ventures.

QYou note in your study that, in spite of the decentralization of governance in American education, schools are in most ways strikingly similar. Doesn't that observation call into question the argument of those who are urging increased local control of schools on the grounds that it promotes experimentation and creative problem-solving?

AIt is ironic that a nation of highly decentralized authority ends up with high-school structures so similar. But one has to look behind that fact and ask why schools are so similar. American secondary education has gone through explosive growth since the Second World War, where not only were we coping with the largest age cohort ever to go through the system, but at the same time we were dramatically increasing the percentage of the cohort that was served by secondary education. When you are faced with rapid growth of that kind, it is characteristic to seize on what seems to have worked well in the past and copy it. ...

But that doesn't mean that that is always the response, and we have different conditions now, where there aren't as many as kids. The pressure now is to find ways to make the schools more productive, at the same cost. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to expect local authorities to use their freedom to adapt to that priority.

QBut, given the sameness of high schools in the country, are you hopeful that such change can take place?

AI'm both hopeful and unhopeful. Unhopeful because I find very little challenging of the basic assumptions under which the high school operates--such old chestnuts as "age-grading" and the acceptance of the academic departments of English, math, and so forth. ... Unless people seriously question these assumptions, I don't have much hope for reform. On the other hand, I've found a core of people who are uncomfortable with the status quo.

QIn summary, what do you feel your report adds to the studies already under discussion?

AI hope it reinforces the notion that learning is a humane process and that none of us is exactly the same. Thus, I hope it undermines some of the simplistic remedies that try to solve the problem of low standards by standardization. Schools are more complicated than many of the current reform proposals imply.

They imply reform is easy by turning to standardized solutions: "Every school will offer the following things in the following way." That is simple and bureaucratically neat, but it's pedogogically disastrous. The more you standardize, the lower the standards will be.

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