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The Essential Ted Sizer

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In a way, Horace's Compromise is an attack on the whole bell-ringing madness of the American high school.

In 1979, Sizer received a research grant to, as he puts it, "superintendent this quiet discussion of why high schools are the way they are." The project was called, unassumingly, "A Study of High Schools." A couple of years later, with additional support from foundations, Sizer was able to resign from Phillips Academy to pursue the study full time. The study eventually produced three books, each of which is still read today: Powell's The Shopping Mall High School, Hampel's The Last Little Citadel, and Sizer's Horace's Compromise. "The funders then said, 'OK, we have your critique of high schools, now what can we do that's positive?'" Sizer says. "So we sought out schools that were in a position to act on common sense ideas." In 1984, the Coalition of Essential Schools was born.

Sizer hoped the coalition schools would place their trust in teachers like his Horace Smith--dedicated front-line people who had a fighting chance of bringing about change. Despite the daily grind at Franklin High School, Horace is "proud, respected, and committed to his practice." In fact, he loves teaching, though he's always frustrated by having too little time to work with too many kids. He'd like to collaborate more with his colleagues, prepare more thoroughly for his classes, and assign more writing. Instead, largely for the sake of sheer self-preservation, he makes "devastating compromises," doing at the very least an adequate job but always falling far short of his own ideals.

In a way, Horace's Compromise is an attack on the whole bell-ringing madness of the American high school. The blaring announcements, the frenetic rush from class to class, the droning on of teachers' voices in drowsy classrooms--it's all described by Sizer as a conspiracy against even the possibility of meaningful learning. But Horace, like Sizer, never gives in to despair. There's that constitutional optimism, that stick-to-itiveness. He presses on with his Shakespeare, his Theater Club, daring to believe that one day things will be better.

Horace's perseverance begins to pay dividends in Horace's School, Sizer's 1992 follow-up book. Here, Horace has begun to introduce his creator's reform ideas. He works closely with his fellow teachers, patiently chipping away at those most resistant to change. Eventually, the teachers agree on a handful of basic educational principles--the coalition's nine principles--that they will attempt to put into practice. Horace will have his students cover less material but in much greater depth ("less is more"); he will place his students at the center of classroom activities instead of himself ("student as worker" and "teacher as coach"), he will have his students demonstrate what they can actually do instead of taking the typical cram-and-forget-it tests ("diploma by exhibition"). Horace's career, his school, and his students' performance all appear to be on an upswing.

As author, Sizer tries to maintain his customary optimism, but here, too, it feels harder-earned.

But in Horace's Hope, the final book in the Horace trilogy (published in September by Houghton Mifflin), there is a subtle but noticeable change in Sizer's tone and content. Most obviously, Horace Smith pretty much vanishes from the text, relegated, for the most part, to a rather breezy prologue. Here Sizer tells us that Horace is still at the business of school reform, pushing himself and others to improve their classroom practice. "In recent years," Sizer writes, "there has been some movement. Some of the plans for Franklin High School did take root, ones that addressed the most nagging compromises. People like Horace in other Franklin High Schools appeared ready to move beyond their restlessness, and they found unexpected support among some parents of their students." But that is about it for Horace. It's little more than a cameo appearance.

More significant, perhaps, is a new sense of pessimism that creeps into the text. Sizer's old villain, the system, is back with a vengeance, doing its best to stop school reform in its tracks. "The system doesn't act on common sense," Sizer says. "It operates on the enormous weight of inherited condition and the disinterest of the policy community. It just doesn't understand the issues or how change really works."

Horace, however, is stubborn; he has "hope" for the future. But set against Sizer's account of a growing backlash--national standards are in the works, policymakers are cutting school funding--Horace's hopefulness seems more like a desperate gamble.

As author, Sizer tries to maintain his customary optimism, but here, too, it feels harder-earned, less robust. This is particularly evident in the first chapter, "A Story Where Nothing Happens." Revisiting in 1994 several schools he had visited 13 years earlier, Sizer finds the same benumbing routines, the same complicit acceptance of low standards, and even (in at least one case) the same textbooks.

Writing about one such high school, Sizer uses the ominous word "conspiracy" to describe the way teachers and students enable each other. Here, teachers pay homage to learning in word, not deed; the real business is to keep the lid on the simmering chaos. The enrollment is half what it was when Sizer visited in 1981, but otherwise the school is pretty much the same. Now, however, the surrounding community is far poorer and more violent; the industry that once supplied locals with jobs is gone. And the response of the school system to this social devastation, a somewhat incredulous Sizer notes, is to intensify standardized testing.

When Sizer and Horace peer into the abyss, it is to fish out a few rays of light.

Standardized testing is one of Sizer's old enemies, embodying as it does the evils of a system dedicated to sorting and measuring kids as opposed to educating them. "There is little correlation," Sizer says, "between the [test scores] we make so much of and future behavior. What happens to a youngster 10 years out of school? Unless we find out how schooling connects with peoples' lives down the road, we shouldn't take these indices seriously at all."

The institutional drabness, the compromises, the emphasis on bubbling in answers--it's enough to induce a fatal loss of confidence. But like Horace, who believes the failing educational system is a vacuum that "could be constructively filled," Sizer in the end rebounds. He recovers his faith in subsequent chapters, talking about the success of certain coalition schools and the habits of mind he wants kids to acquire. He re-emphasizes the need for exhibitions, the importance of teachers getting to know each of their students. There are still fits of anger, spells of doubt, but as he gains momentum he manages, in true Sizer fashion, to turn negatives into positives, weaknesses into strengths. Yes, there's massive confusion in the schools about what should be done, but out of the befuddlement will arise grassroots reform. Yes, people feel a deep antipathy toward the status quo, but this can spur democracy.

When Sizer and Horace peer into the abyss, it is to fish out a few rays of light. "In dark days," the book concludes, "such light brings hope."

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