A Vision For Better Schools

February 01, 1992 3 min read

Back in the mid-1980s, not long after he published Horace’s Compromise, Theodore Sizer was describing to a group of prominent educators and policymakers his plans for his recently created “Coalition of Essential Schools.’' He said he hoped to recruit between five and 12 schools over the next few years that would be guided by his philosophy of education and would implement his ideas about how a school should be organized and run. He expected the project would take at least 10 years and require even longer before showing real results.

In the face of a newly proclaimed crisis in public education, Sizer’s very modest aspirations seemed embarrassingly inadequate to hold back the much heralded “rising tide of mediocrity.’'

Now, just eight years after its creation, there are some 200 schools in 23 states involved in his Coalition of Essential Schools, and the list of those interested in joining grows steadily. The U.S. Secretary of Education, governors, lawmakers, and business moguls interested in school reform seek Sizer’s advice.

Sizer is not a university professor who peers down from his loft in the ivory tower to pontificate about the nature of schooling. Much of what he thinks about schools he has learned from working closely with the people in them. Horace’s Compromise followed two years of field study in a cross section of American high schools. Horace’s School (a chapter of which begins on page 20) is based largely on Sizer’s daily involvement for the past eight years with the member schools in his coalition.

With his historian’s eye and ear, Sizer has captured the essence of teachers who know and lament that the traditional routines of their schools virtually guarantee painful professional compromises. In the years following the publication of Horace’s Compromise, Sizer says, he received scores of letters from teachers that began with some variation of: “I am Horace, a high school teacher. Let me tell you how it hurts.’'

In Horace’s School, released in mid-January, Sizer addresses the frustrations of those despairing teachers. Horace and a committee charged with rethinking Franklin High School bring their compromises into the light. And in a process of honest self-scrutiny, they begin to envision a different kind of school-- one that embodies the principles of Sizer’s coalition; one that doesn’t demand professional compromises.

It is only in the context of the traditional high school that Sizer’s philosophy of schooling seems radical. The nine principles that bind his Essential Schools would be viewed as common sense--even truisms--in any other context.

For example: The school should focus on helping adolescents learn to use their minds well. Goals should be simple, and each student should master essential skills and be competent in certain areas of knowledge. Goals should apply to all students. Teaching and learning should be personalized as much as possible. The governing metaphor should be student as worker rather than teacher as deliverer of instructional services.

But the complexities and subtleties of those ideas, and the challenges they pose to the orthodox model of schooling, emerge on virtually every page of Horace’s School. One cannot help but wonder what would result if every school in the nation went through the process that Horace leads Franklin High through.

There might seem to be little to connect Horace with the other feature story in this issue, “Spare The Child?,’' beginning on page 16. But one of the principles of an Essential School states: “The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress the values of unanxious expectation (‘I won’t threaten you, but I expect much of you’), of trust (unless it is abused), and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity, and tolerance).’'

More than a million American schoolchildren experience some sort of physical punishment each year. For thousands of teachers, it is a necessary tool for maintaining discipline; but thousands of others think of it as a condoned form of child abuse.

In the kind of schools that Horace and his committee envision, disciplinary problems should be minimal. Misbehavior, more often than not, occurs when students are not engaged, when they are bored. In Horace’s school, students will be treated as adults, responsible in large measure for their own education, engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and skills that they perceive to be relevant to their lives and their futures.

In coming issues, Teacher will look at Sizer’s philosophy in action. Next month, we visit Fenway Middle College High School in Boston. In the spring, we will report on a very different Essential School. Individuality is a hallmark of the coalition.

Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as A Vision For Better Schools