Published Online:

The Essential Ted Sizer

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

"Ted has a respect for others that makes it very difficult for people to see him as an enemy."

Paula Evans
The Annenberg Institute

In his ability to accept criticism with grace, even ‚ elan, Ted Sizer is a lot like Horace Smith, his "nonfictional fictional" English teacher at suburban Franklin High School who "during times of duress is able to keep his balance and not let life get the better of him." Horace, whom we first meet in Horace's Compromise, endures trouble with calm circumspection, rising above petty squabbles to bring bickering colleagues together. He's by nature a conciliator. Students trust him and seek his counsel outside the classroom.

As goes Horace, so goes Sizer. Paula Evans, the director of professional development at the Annenberg Institute and someone who has taught classes with Sizer at Brown, says, "Some of the students would characterize me as 'mom' and Ted as 'God.' They're almost reverential in their respect for him. He has an open-door policy for everyone who wants to talk with him, and he can actually carry on a conversation with 150 students."

Sizer is an unusual public figure in that he seems to have no enemies, even among those who strongly disagree with his views. For this, Evans credits his ability to listen to ideas different from his own. "It's not that Ted feels that all ideas are equal or that he's about to change his stripes," she says. "It's rather that Ted has a respect for others that makes it very difficult for people to see him as an enemy. I've never, ever, heard him call anyone stupid. I think it has to do with his sense of the human condition, his belief that he has a basic responsibility to other people."

Patricia Wasley, an author and researcher for the Coalition of Essential Schools, says, "Ted has an amazing ability to tolerate criticism. It has to do with his inherent optimism. He allows people to raise negative aspects because he feels they can be worked through. He's just not self-protective as so many people are." She recalls a meeting at which the conservative education critic and gadfly Chester Finn attacked the coalition for its "softness." His invective made everyone squirm but Sizer, who sat in a corner with an amused smile on his face.

Yet as similar as Sizer and Horace may be in temperament, they have different backgrounds. For starters, Horace is a creature of the public school. When we first meet him in Horace's Compromise, he's 53 (about the age of Sizer at the time), an "old pro" who has spent 28 years trying to get his students to grapple with the likes of Shakespeare. To make ends meet, he works part time at a family liquor store. His daughter, a first-year associate at a law firm, out-earns him. Everything about Horace's daily environment is classic public school: the bells, the announcements over the public-address system, the vinyl-covered sofas and chairs in the faculty lounge, the teacher chitchat.

Sizer, on the other hand, is quintessentially prep, as befits someone who has spent much of his life in elite boarding schools and Ivy League universities. He has a way of looking tweedy even when he is not wearing tweeds. He has been described as "Kennedyesque," which isn't much of a stretch. He is erudite and charming and has a great capacity for putting people at ease.

A self-described "faculty brat," Sizer is the son of a Yale University art-history professor, the last of six children. He was born in New Haven, Conn., but was raised on a family farm in northern New England by his mother and a German refugee when his father went off to serve in World War II. Later, after attending the Pomfret School, a small boarding school in Connecticut, and then Yale, Sizer also served in the military--during the Korean War. Stationed in Germany, he was an artillery training officer. It was his first experience teaching, and he learned something about the importance of high expectations. "The idea that you could use an excuse for not learning was unthinkable," Sizer says. "No one would think of saying, 'Well, he doesn't speak much English, only Spanish, so go easy on him,' or 'He doesn't know how to add.'"

After his discharge, Sizer taught in Australia for a year and then returned to the United States, enrolling at Harvard where he eventually received a Ph.D. in education and American history. Sizer's thesis, perhaps more than anything else, launched him on his current path. It was on late 19th-century school reform in general and the work of the Committee of Ten in particular.

"Make an argument on philosophical grounds, and it won't get into the newspaper. Talk about test scores or how many teenage mothers wear size 6 shoes, and it will end up on page one."

Ted Sizer

Chaired by Harvard President Charles Eliot, the Committee of Ten released an influential report in 1893 arguing that high schools should develop and discipline the minds of their students by focusing on academic subject matter. Students, the committee stated, should take at least four years of English and foreign language and three years each of history, mathematics, and science. All students should take college-preparatory coursework, even though the committee acknowledged that only a small percentage would go on to higher education. The goal was for all youngsters to be exposed to the same demanding subjects, all taught in more or less the same way. "The argument in the report itself is pedestrian," Sizer says. "It's not a sonorous, persuasive argument."

The report included a chart of the ideal high school curriculum, listing, with a watchmaker's precision, the subjects and the number of periods per week each course should be taught. "What school people did is take this chart and put it into place so that this thing called 'the period' begins to reign," Sizer says. "A subject taught five periods a week is supposedly more important than one taught three periods a week."

The Committee of Ten had a double-edged goal: It wanted to promote academic rigor, but, more important, it wanted to bring order to a rapidly developing national school system lacking uniform standards. The committee's report was, in essence, a war against chaos. But along with the rage for order, Sizer asserts, came "the mechanizationof schooling, the reduction of serious schooling to the mere passage of time. They thought if you studied Latin five days a week, something good will come out of it."

The legacy of the committee and its chart and periods, Sizer says, is that no one in education today takes anything seriously unless there's a number attached. "Make an argument on philosophical grounds, and it won't get into the newspaper," he says. "Talk about test scores or how many teenage mothers wear size 6 shoes, and it will end up on Page One."

The experience of the Committee of Ten showed Sizer that the impact of specific reforms is often far different than what is envisioned. The committee had hoped to initiate a more intellectual approach to schooling, but many schools, Sizer says, simply became "clones of the committee's detailed report."

As far as Sizer is concerned, any blueprint for reform is almost hopelessly contingent. The penthouse may end up looking like a basement apartment, just as the committee's goal of rigor and standards ended up as seat time. This is why Sizer has always insisted that teachers should be involved in the creation of the blueprint; if it's handed down to them, they'll treat it like a court summons. It is also why Sizer is fearful of the current movement toward national education standards.

After earning his Ph.D., Sizer became an assistant professor of education at Harvard. Then in 1964, at the age of 31, he was named--thanks to what he modestly characterizes as a "stroke of fortune"--the dean of the Harvard graduate school of education. It was, Sizer says, an extraordinary time; he shared the coffeepot with such intellectual heavyweights as Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer.

But toward the end of the '60s, Sizer was already thinking about moving on. Being dean during that turbulent decade was exhausting. Besides, he wanted to get out of the ivory tower and into the trenches--that is, into a real school. Academic work couldn't substitute for real experience. "I felt utterly spurious as a dean," Sizer says. "I'd get these phone calls from newspapers asking me what I thought about 'x' or 'y' in schools. I was supposed to know, but I didn't."

Sizer wanted to become a high school principal, in part because his wife taught high school and his kids were about to enroll. "I had this romantic idea about how our family would be going to high school together," Sizer says. First he thought about becoming a public school principal but found he lacked the appropriate credentials. So he did the next best thing: He became headmaster of a private school--the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

For Sizer, knowing a lot is never more than the first step. The real goal is for kids to use resourcefully what they know, which requires a very different kind of teaching.

While the academy had plenty of star teachers and precocious students from prominent families, it was, according to Sizer, hardly different from public schools in terms of structure and approach. "The flaws in private and public schools are very similar," Sizer says. "One thing about the private sector is how slavishly it copies the public. Every 47 minutes the bell rings--hell, it's all the same. Private enterprise, entrepreneurialism--baloney."

Sizer describes much of the teaching at Phillips as spectacular, but spectacular in an old-fashioned way. "It was pretty much, 'Sit down, and I'll tell you what you need to know.' It was about as good as that mode gets. But there wasn't the expectation that the kids would have to use any of what they were taught down the line. So the kids knew a lot of things but couldn't necessarily use them. But boy, they knew a lot of things in a wonderful way."

In thinking about school reform, Sizer has never been interested in bringing the educational practices of Phillips Academy--if such a thing were even possible--to the rest of the nation's schools. For Sizer, knowing a lot is never more than the first step. The real goal is for kids to use resourcefully what they know, which requires a different kind of teaching--a teaching that puts the student on center stage.

Although Sizer may claim that private schools imitate the public, he knows better than anyone that Phillips Academy kids have a key advantage over almost all their public school counterparts: namely, a smaller, more intimate school setting where teachers can come to know all their students well. When he was mapping out what would become "the nine principles" of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Sizer termed this key quality "personalization."

A few of the nine principles, like aphorisms from a winning political campaign, have entered the mainstream of educational discourse: "less is more," "student as worker," "teacher as coach," "diploma by exhibition." But according to Arthur Powell, one of Sizer's oldest friends and colleagues and the principal author of the 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School, "personalization" is the nucleus upon which the other principles cohere. Only if teachers get to know their students well, reversing the anonymity that has characterized the high school, can they address students' individual strengths and weaknesses.

"The key to the whole coalition idea," Powell says, "is to get the numbers down, to get adults who are models working closely with kids so they can be impacted by something besides pop culture and the mass media. We're in essence telling kids, 'You can't just sit in the back of the classroom; we're going to treat you as an important person with something to say.' The kid has to be visible, to do something, not just be a spectator where he's watching someone else perform."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented