(Houghton Mifflin, $14)
Few people feel at home in a hospital examination room, surrounded by sterile, sinister-looking equipment. Or in a courtroom, where the somber, whispered rituals and plodding procedures are impenetrable to all but the members of the strange sect who inhabit the place. Everyone, on the other hand, remembers their high school days, and that’s why most people think they have a pretty good idea of what goes on in American classrooms. Often, they’re wrong.
In Horace’s Compromise, Ted Sizer takes this most familiar of institutions—the high school—and makes those who think they know what teachers do and how schools work see that the whole thing is a lot more complicated than they realize. He also argues that much of what goes on in high schools doesn’t really make sense and needs to be changed—a message that rings as true today as it did 16 years ago when the book was first published. Despite years of “reform,” high schools, especially those in urban areas, have changed little over the years, and improving them remains one of the toughest challenges in American education.
Sizer uses humor and an anthropologist’s curiosity to question the most basic aspects of high school. Seen through his fresh eyes, high schools emerge as strange—even bizarre—places. He turns upside down many of our most common assumptions. Take coaches, for example: “Ironically,” he writes, “it is the athletic coach, often arrogantly dismissed by some academic instructors as a kind of dumb ox, unworthy of being called a real teacher, who may be a school’s most effective teacher of skills.” And I have always been grateful to Sizer for doing the math on what really goes into a teacher’s “six-hour” workday. I often want to give this book—and have, in a couple of instances—to people who complain about how easy teachers have it.
Sizer’s description of the devastating compromises that Horace, his semifictional English teacher, must make every day to meet the endless demands placed on him are, to me, the heart of the book and its most passionate argument. Teaching class, grading papers, planning lessons, taking attendance, monitoring hallways, overseeing extracurricular activities, attending meetings, developing curricula: “For this, Horace is paid a wage enjoyed by age-mates in semiskilled and low-pressure blue-collar jobs and by novices, 25 years his junior, in some other white-collar professions.” In this regard as well, not much has changed since 1984.
The book is part of a literature that has helped shape the reform agenda of the last decade and a half. In particular, reformers zeroed in on Sizer’s and others’ complaint that schools weren’t asking enough of their students or spelling out what was expected of them. “Very few high schools,” Sizer writes in Horace, “ever give their students a clear long-term academic goal and an equally clear signal that it’s the student’s responsibility to get there.”
State policymakers have spent the better part of the 1990s addressing the culture of mediocrity present in so many high schools. Most states now have standards for what students should know, tests to determine whether students and schools are meeting those standards, and ways of holding them accountable if they aren’t.
Yet there is far more to the message of Horace’s Compromise than this, and much of the complexity of Sizer’s argument has been overlooked—at least until recently—in the rush to standardize education. He warns, for example, of the dangers of relying too heavily on testing—particularly a single test: “A variety of examinations and exhibitions,” he argues in the book, “will be necessary for reasons of fairness.”
But Sizer has an even larger problem with the standards movement. He believes that for standards to work they must arise from schools themselves, not state bureaucracies. Given the huge diversity across the education landscape, he writes, policymakers need to trust principals and teachers to decide what is best for their students.
Sizer’s solution, however, may not be realistic, particularly given his own account of a teacher’s harried work life. Teachers as busy as Horace may not have the time for such a complex process as standards setting, and it is by no means certain that schools have the capacity to take on such a task.
Still, standards will not work without teachers on board. In a February speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley called for a “midcourse review” of the standards movement, one of many recent signs that greater flexibility and sophistication are needed to make this large-scale effort succeed. Sounding a lot like Sizer, Riley even went so far as to say, “If all of our efforts to raise standards get reduced to one test, we’ve gotten it wrong.”
Meanwhile, the recent attention—from President Clinton on down—to issues of teacher pay and preparation may be a sign that policymakers and others are rediscovering what Sizer made clear in Horace back in 1984: “Improving American secondary education absolutely depends on improving the conditions of work and the respect for teachers. No new technology, training scheme, licensure revision, or new curriculum will suffice.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2000 edition of Teacher as Horace’s Compromise