Horace’s School

February 01, 1992 7 min read

Nearly 10 years ago, many teachers felt a sharp pang of recognition on reading about the travails of Horace Smith: a fictional English teacher at Franklin High School who worried about the educational compromises he was forced to make in a system that was not serving him or his students well.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Horace knew that he had too many students to teach, a curriculum that covered too many topics in too little depth, a grade structure that erroneously treated all youngsters of the same age alike, and a day fragmented into too many parts. Most importantly, he knew that he expected too little of his students.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>But faced with a rigid and bureaucratic educational system, Horace compromised: “Give a little, get along.’'

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Now, almost a decade later, the author of Horace’s Compromise has written a powerful new book about what teachers can do to get out of this trap. The book is Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School; the author is Theodore Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and former headmaster of Phillips Academy and dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Horace’s School is drawn from Sizer’s experiences over the past eight years as chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network that he created in 1984 to help teachers who wanted to carry out his principles for effective education. Sizer first outlined those principles in Horace’s Compromise, which was based on more than two years of field research in a cross section of American high schools. Since then, Sizer’s coalition has grown to become one of the largest and most prominent of the nation’s school reform groups, reaching out to educators in more than 200 schools in 23 states.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Coalition schools do not all look alike; they are based on the premise that good schools differ because students differ. But while there is no one model of a coalition school, they all share a set of common characteristics. In coalition schools, for example, teachers cover fewer topics in greater depth, work with no more than 80 youngsters at a time, coach more and lecture less, and design the curriculum and instruction around the notion that students--not teachers--do the essential work in schools.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Sizer wrote Horace’s School to show educators that such coalition principles are possible in practice. “It’s difficult,’' he warns, “but it’s quite doable. And it is exhilarating when, in fact, the kids move on and learn.’'

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Most of the book takes the form of a dialogue between the 59-year-old Horace and the other fictitious teachers, parents, students, and administrators who have been appointed to serve on the Committee to Redesign Franklin High and Middle Schools. The characters are a composite of the hundreds of teachers and principals Sizer has worked with over the past eight years. The committee has been given just 18 months to complete its work. And Horace has been appointed its chairman.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>As these educators struggle during a series of meetings to think through what a “better and more powerful school’’ would look like, Sizer invites readers to go through the “painful process’’ of rethinking American education.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>The book provides a much more detailed exposition than did Sizer’s earlier work of what coalition principles might look like in one particular school. For example, it includes a proposed budget and schedule that shows how a large high school could be reorganized so that each teacher is responsible for no more than 80 students. “In doing the research for Horace’s Compromise,’' he says, “I listened to kids more than teachers. In this next round, I’ve been listening to teachers. So, this is much more of a teacher’s book than a kid’s book.’'

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>According to Sizer, the school reforms of the 1980s barely touched Horace and his colleagues. In 1991, they still had too many classes, too many students, too much material to cover, and too little time. If anything, the soft-spoken but insistent Brown scholar asserts, the reforms made things worse--by mandating more of the same.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>To be effective, Sizer argues, schools should be entirely reorganized, based on a new vision of what a thoughtful and informed high school graduate would look like. Schools would then design a series of “exhibitions’’ that enable students to display such qualities. Successful completion of the exhibitions--rather than “seat time’'-- would become the basis for a high school diploma. And providing the resources and support that students need to perform well on such exhibitions would become the framework for the curriculum.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Unlike traditional tests, the exhibitions would occur over an extended period of time. They would challenge students to use their knowledge in realistic situations, not just regurgitate facts. And they would provide opportunities for extended “dialogues’’ between teachers and students.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Everything else in the school-- ranging from what is taught, to how teachers spend their time, to how the school day is structured-- would be designed by faculty members to help students perform well on such tasks. Examples of what these exhibitions might look like are included at the end of each chapter of Horace’s School. (See page 24.)

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>"Until we understand clearly just what [students] should do with their minds and hearts, and what standards they should meet,’' Sizer explains, “it is difficult to design a sensible school.’'

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Thinking through such questions, Sizer believes, would result in a simpler and more focused school with the same high standards and common curriculum for all students.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>In a more productive school, he speculates, most students could complete the exhibitions by age 16 and spend their last few years participating in advanced course work, structured apprenticeships, and substantial independent study. Students in such a school would assume far greater responsibility for their own education and for the school as a whole. Sizer suggests, for example, that students be responsible for maintaining the building and operating the cafeteria. “The irony is the responsibility we give kids outside of school compared with the amount of responsibility inside of school,’' Sizer asserts. “The kid is assistant manager at McDonald’s in the evening but has a hall pass in school’’ to go to the library.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>To help create this kind of learning environment, Sizer advocates the “unqualified’’ delegation of authority from states and school districts to individual schools. Each school should be free to design its own curriculum and exhibitions, select its own faculty, and spend its money as it sees fit.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Within schools, the sharp distinction between teachers and administrators would end, with teachers assuming far greater responsibility for how schools operate. And to the “maximum feasible extent,’' parents and their children and teachers would be able to choose their school. “Being able to choose one’s school,’' Sizer asserts, “provides a powerful incentive for families, students, and teachers.’'

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Sizer is worried that the current push to install national standards and examinations could run headlong into his efforts to create distinctive school communities. Such examinations, he fears, would result in an even more rigid and homogeneous education system than the one we now have--a system much less likely to take into account the needs of individual students and their parents.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>Horace’s School is, in essence, a plea for Americans to respect the character of in- dividual schools and of the students and parents that they serve. It is also a cry for teachers to make schools “thoughtful places’’ that respect and develop intellectual habits of mind.

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>The following excerpt is from a chapter entitled “Learning by Using.’' In it, Sizer explores the importance of engaging students in the hard work of using their minds. As he notes in the chapter, “students must do the work themselves if they are to learn. We can so arrange things that they will be disposed to do that work; we cannot force them to do it.’'

<&FT3><&SZ10.0><&LS4><&CD100>The chapter introduces readers to many of the colorful figures who serve on Horace’s Committee on Redesign. These include Green, a popular but intense 35-year-old science teacher whose nickname stems from the Boston Celtics jacket she always wears; Patches, a smart and influential history teacher who was initially skeptical about the committee’s work; Margaret, a tall, silver-haired French teacher “stuffed with good sense and principle’'; Coach, a balding and genial “symbol of Franklin’s athletic successes’’ and a highly respected health teacher; the Visitor, a retired teacher and part-time education professor who has agreed to act as a friendly observer and critic of the committee’s work; two students; a young English teacher; a school board member; and the school’s new principal. Lynn Olson

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Horace’s School