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Connections: Hope or Despair?

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In Ted Sizer's ideal world, schools would be humane places--places small enough for teachers and students to know and care about each other; places where people know the joy of hard work and learning; places that reflect the highest virtues and values of a compassionate, democratic society. He has worked diligently for many years to create such schools ("The Essential Ted Sizer").

In Horace's Hope, the final book of his trilogy about high school English teacher Horace Smith, Sizer no longer speaks through his fictional alter ego. After a brief opening appearance, Horace yields the stage to Sizer. In the first chapter, Sizer describes a visit to an urban high school he had visited 13 years earlier, just as he was about to launch the Coalition of Essential Schools. The school was bad then and had not improved; the community around it had gotten worse. And no one seemed to care. A lifetime of struggle to make schools better, and the change is mostly for the worse. Filled with sadness and anger, Sizer writes of wavering between hope and despair. But ever the optimist, he (like Horace) comes down on the side of hope--a decision writer David Ruenzel likens to "a desperate gamble."

Maribeth Vander Weele, the subject of David Hill's story "Chicago Hope" is also something of an idealist who is making a career of trying to improve schools. As an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, she spent five years exposing the corruption, greed, and incompetence that blights Chicago's public school system. Vander Weele's desire to change things for the better even influences her dreams. She tells Hill, "I would actually have nightmares of trying to protect children from gunfire or going into a mansion and finding this hidden room with all these forgotten children and helping them through these passages."

Frustrated that her bombshell investigative stories seemed to fall on deaf ears, Vander Weele accepted an offer last year to become the district's chief of investigations--a sort of top cop determined to ferret out the widespread wrongdoing that takes a sinful toll on Chicago schoolchildren. It was a "golden opportunity," she says, to help "turn around one of the worst school systems in America."

Chicago is far from alone. What is happening in schools in America's large cities is one of the great scandals of the 20th century. And it is not so much a failure of the system as it is a human failure. Real people--with faces and names--neglect their duties, abuse the trust put in them, and even criminally exploit the system for their own gain. More often than not, they go unnoticed and unpunished. And our children pay a terrible toll. Shame on us!

When Ted Sizer tells in Horace's Hope of revisiting the failing inner-city high school, he notes that the school system's only response to this social devastation was to intensify standardized testing--one of the enduring evils of the system.

Sizer's concerns about standardized testing were manifest last winter in Fairfield, Connecticut. As Drew Lindsay reports in "Whodunit," Stratfield School, one of the nation's best elementary schools, is under investigation because district officials found thousands of erasures on the answer sheets of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. They suspected tampering and forwarded the sheets to the test publisher where researchers confirmed the suspicions and recommended that district officials investigate. "The evidence clearly and conclusively indicates that tampering occurred," the company wrote. The incident made national headlines and sparked concern and controversy among Fairfield's residents. The reputation of the schools, after all, is a key factor in bringing residents and business to the community.

The case may never be solved, but that is less important than what it says about our values and our expectations for schools. We Americans place enormous importance on the results of norm-referenced multiple-choice tests that tell us virtually nothing about children's abilities or the quality of education they receive. The primary function of this testing is to sort and compare children. That's a practice that has disgraced public education for most of the past century. It is a corruption of Ted Sizer's ideal school, and we are all complicit in it.

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