Published Online:

The Essential Ted Sizer

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

While appealing in theory, the exhibitions are difficult to put into practice.

He listens to a description of a member school that has implemented the external structures but not the spirit of the coalition's reforms--it has block scheduling, schools within the school, and time for teacher development, and yet the classrooms are mostly bleak, dispirited places. Asked whether the scenario is a common one, he says, "Oh yeah, it makes you want to weep. When I go into a school, I always look for two things: the student load [per teacher] and student work. 'Don't tell me about your top 10 percent,' I tell schools. I want to see the work of each serious student. If you can't show me student work, or if you have 150 students per teacher, then forget it. You have a long way to go. The schools that go down to a human scale see the results. That's no longer a theory."

Student exhibitions are, according to Sizer, "the Achilles' heel" of the coalition's reform initiative. Teachers, schools, and the general public are locked into standardized testing. They have a hard time understanding that only through exhibitions can students demonstrate their skill and knowledge. Yet Sizer remains committed to exhibitions. Without them, the coalition reforms would be hopelessly diluted. "Why do we at the coalition put so much emphasis on exhibitions?" Sizer asks. "Well, the answer is that if you can get the student work up there, the incompetent will be utterly exposed."

While appealing in theory, the exhibitions are difficult to put into practice. Muncey and McQuillan describe students eager to undertake ambitious projects who then lose their enthusiasm as they're beset with illness, extracurricular activities, and sheer laziness. The end results, with some notable exceptions, are mediocre. "What I end up getting," one teacher told the authors, "is a bunch of last-minute pieces of exhibitions from students, and they are not what I wanted. I wanted them to be developed over time." Many teachers--either confused over the standards or afraid to hurt feelings--just let things slide.

Sizer acknowledges that exhibitions are tricky but insists they can be effectively implemented. "We learned a lot about exhibitions in the first five years of the coalition," he says. "What you've got to do is not just exhibit but exhibit against some discussed standard. And for that you bring in outsiders. What is good enough? You're an engineer at a Wang laboratory, tell me what you think. Is it good enough? So what you do is make the work absolutely public. Can there still be pandering? Yeah, but the odds against it are much higher. Bob Mackin"--the principal at Souhegan High School in New Hampshire--"will tell you that every year the standard of the work will come up because every year the public perception of what is good work changes. The first year, he wanted to weep--people were afraid to criticize. We know how that goes because we've taught. You have a student whose mother dies of cancer or whosefather runs off with the maid. You say, 'Sure, I'll give you another week.' Is that caring? Yeah. Is it legitimate caring? Maybe not. But this work wouldn't be interesting if you didn't have these very interesting judgment calls."

Sizer suggests that respectful skepticism should be the goal of schooling.

It's getting toward evening now, a couple of hours after the Annenberg symposium, and as the conversation slows, Sizer digresses a bit. He refers to an article he's read on how the nation's media are essentially controlled by four conglomerates. Textbook publishing, he says, is controlled by six. "Who controls the flow of information is tremendously important," he explains. "Where's the public square? I don't think we're beginning to understand that we're a monochromatic culture. We're not multicultural but unicultural. Maybe the public school shouldn't be a place of common beliefs but a place that makes us respectfully skeptical."

In Horace's Hope, Sizer suggests that respectful skepticism should be the goal of schooling. Only by honing such skepticism, he argues, can citizens wend their way through the false platitudes and sophistries spun by politicians, a pandering media, and disingenuous school officials. For Sizer, school should always be about the life of the mind. Only the well-trained mind can manage the somewhat paradoxical task of respecting a wide range of ideas while yet remaining skeptical of their veracity. Skepticism without respect lapses into cynicism; respect devoid of skepticism becomes dangerous absolutism.

But respectful skepticism is an intellectual endeavor, and our high schools have never been particularly hospitable to anything intellectual, as one principal made clear in a comment to Muncey and McQuillan. "Haven't they read Anti-Intellectualism in America?" the principal asked, referring to coalition leaders. "That's what the community wants."

Henry Levin, a professor of education at Stanford University and the director of the Accelerated Schools Project, says much the same thing. Levin admires Sizer and agrees with most of his nine principles, but he suggests that Sizer is a bit too idealistic. "Ted is what I'd call an East Coast intellectual," Levin says. "He believes ideas will carry the day, and when he addresses teachers, his speeches are idea-laden. While I share most of Ted's goals, we differ in that I believe schools need a process to achieve their goals. It's analogous to what happened in Eastern Europe. The fall of communism didn't guarantee democracy. Democracy is a process as well as a set of ideas, and if you're going to build democracy, you have to put a process in place."

The Accelerated Schools Project now has more than 1,000 schools in 40 states. Although it isn't nearly as well-known as the coalition, it is successful, Levin claims, on account of the process he has established. The project, he points out, trains teachers and has formal assessments. "The coalition, on the other hand, is very reluctant to tell people how to get there," Levin says. "Ted believes that if you respect people and give them powerful ideas, they'll come through."

Sizer insists that the coalition is in a relatively better position now than it was five years ago.

The majority of high schools have always been more about football teams and glee clubs than intellectual activity, and it sometimes seems as if the real Achilles' heel of Sizer's reform plan is not the exhibitions but his apparent faith that the typical high school can one day be driven by the life of the mind. After all, many people think schools are already far too skeptical of mainstream values. Does Sizer really believe that respectful skepticism might one day be a welcome ingredient of the school curriculum?

"Unthinkable!" Sizer says facetiously. "But who would have thought six years ago that a Democratic president would be for charter schools? So, hey, if you're just patient and use common language ... "

At this juncture in his life--as he leaves Annenberg and steps back from the daily grind at the coalition--has Sizer at all lost faith in the reform process? "No," he says, "because I was trained as a historian, thank God. Most experiments take a long time because if they're serious experiments, it is always a struggle to get people to think differently about their work."

Sizer insists that the coalition is in a relatively better position now than it was five years ago. We are, Sizer believes, in a time of fear and high confusion, which he, optimistic as always, says is the "beginning of wisdom." Old certainties are toppling, and in the new climate of freedom, fresh ideas can finally be explored without trepidation. It is a matter, he says, of getting people who "know what the hell they're doing" and then achieving a critical mass so they can become a force. This is the long-term strategy.

"No one said it was going to be easy," Sizer concludes. "I mean, it's easy to say that schools should be for educating and not sorting kids, but it involves a radical shift in attitudes. You can't just say track them, bring out the bell curve, or whatever. It's going to take time. After all, the whole idea of compulsory education was attacked in the 1880s as a kind of communist plot.

"Is it fun to lose much of the time?" he asks. "No. Do you get disillusioned some of the time? You'd better believe it. But what's the alternative? It's not like we're on some kind of bizarre course. The merit of what we're trying to do is so obvious."

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