Education Opinion

On Lame Horses and Tortoises

By Theodore R. Sizer — June 25, 1997 | Corrected: February 24, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: The credit line that accompanied this Commentary should have reflected the fact that Mr. Sizer resigned as the director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform last year and is now a university professor emeritus at Brown University.

A recent issue of this publication had a page-one story headlined “Teachers Need Nuts, Bolts of Reforms, Experts Say,” April 30, 1997. The article quotes a teacher: “There is no model for me to make a prediction about. How can we put into practice a design that has not been developed, explained, or modeled for us?” An expert is quoted: “It is unfair and unrealistic to expect America’s overburdened teachers to reinvent their roles and redesign their organizations without providing explicit and proven means of doing so.” The article goes on to report that “one of the programs that have taken the heaviest hits for providing schools with only vague reform principles is the Coalition of Essential Schools.” An expert is quoted as saying that “perhaps less than 5 percent of elementary or secondary schools in the entire country ... have the capacity to translate reform guided by general principles into reality.”

Good grief.

To my eye, the give-'em-the-nuts- and-bolts strategy is a very threadbare conception of reform.

Have we been backing a lame horse? Apparently so, some authorities think. Our sin is that we don’t prescribe. Teachers, it has seemed to some others over the last couple of decades, are to put the bolts in at the right times and at the correct rate, all according to someone else’s plan. Outsiders will then find a test or, better yet, make one up that fits their specific agenda, teach the teachers to drill the kids at meeting it, and--presto!--we have “reform.” The children, well drilled, do well on the test--and test scores are the name of the educational game. We thereby have “proof” that the children are truly educated, ready to take on the 21st century.

However, it is unworthy to parody such an argument, however tempting it may be. The stakes are too high.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

To my eye, the give-'em-the-nuts-and-bolts strategy is a very threadbare conception of reform. Our objective should be a child’s deep understanding of the world and a habitual readiness to act effectively on that understanding. Our strategy, therefore, should focus not only on what a child can do in an immediate testing situation but equally on the intellectual habits that youngster develops. Kids have to know things and perform basic academic operations, yes; but they ultimately have to be able to use those skills, to understand and to be in the habit of such understanding. It is not enough to know about Lewis and Clark. Students need to understand why they did what they did and why Jefferson sponsored them, to connect this, say, to the convictions lying behind the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and to ponder humankind’s willingness to take huge risks to satisfy a yen to explore in a disciplined, sustained way. Youngsters need to understand risk-takers’ dreams and perhaps be inspired by them.

Tightly orchestrated routines lead poorly toward the teaching of habits. Habits--the willingness to use one’s mind well when no one is looking--spring from incentives which require nurturing, one unique student at a time. Good teachers know this. Parents with some money dig deep in their pockets to pay for just this service in private schools, and those with children at affluent public schools insist on it. Such personalization is damnably “inefficient.” It is also inescapable, given the differences among students. And “thinking well by habit” emerges gradually, peeking out here and there. Every day must be test day.

Good teaching and learning are rarely linear, neat, predictable. The serendipities and distractions and fascinations that crowd into every classroom conspire against that.

All this does not mean that every teacher starts from scratch with every child. Of course no one should have to reinvent the wheel. That is why the Coalition of Essential Schools has gone to extravagant lengths to connect teachers and schools for the sharing of all sorts of ideas and “models"--as good examples. That is why we publish our newsletter, Horace, and have materials such as the exhibitions collection widely available. That is why we have a fall forum, which is a massive swap shop. That is why I wrote and published Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope. That is why books by Donna Muncey, Patrick McQuillan, Joe McDonald, Patricia Wasley, and others have been sponsored by the Coalition of Essential Schools. That is why the coalition’s e-mail traffic grows exponentially. We have at hand honest stories of the process of change, endless examples of real student work for us to ponder. All these challenge us, inform us, open our eyes. This activity of sharing our work, provoking each other with it, is different, however, from telling us precisely what we ought to do.

I hope we can resist the newly rediscovered old Progressive trick of imposed, systematic “reform,” where “success” is measured primarily, even exclusively, by one sort or another of standardized test, where the route to high “scores” is wholly orchestrated from outside the school, and where the worth of a child and of a school is ultimately judged on the basis of such profoundly limited scores. We need systems of accountability far more subtle, humble, and fair than that. Good teaching and learning are rarely linear, neat, predictable. The serendipities and distractions and fascinations that crowd into every classroom (if students are allowed to raise their heads) conspire against that. Learningand therefore teachingis messy, but messy does not mean bad any more than orderly means good.

What also bothers me about the argument that “we” (whoever that is) need to tell teachers (and parents) in detail what to do is its short-sightedness. Training up teachers to carry out something that someone else has fully developed gives those teachers no experience in matching their work to the learning of their particular students. Further, that “something” will itself be transient (if history is any guide), meaning that today’s remedy may be scotched tomorrow. A faculty unskilled in handling for itself the most important elements of its work will be incapable of moving responsibly with the times.

But, the argument goes, the teachers are “overburdened,” and thus must let outside experts do their curricular and pedagogical thinking for them. Yes, teachers are overburdened: Horace has had to compromise too much. Maybe, however, the remedy for this condition is to lessen the burden rather than to take decisions away from teachers. Especially in secondary schools, this usually requires substantial shifting (usually the limiting) of priorities, bringing the student load per teacher down to a level where serious teaching can happen. We in the coalition know both that such can be done and that it is distressingly difficult to accomplish, even if the need for the rearrangements is blatantly obvious. But it can be done, when authorities have had the backbone to support significant restructuring. It has been done. And the kids show the benefit.

There should be three questions for the reform and the assessment of schooling. First, are the criteria and instruments for the assessment of children, schools, and school systems clear, unequivocally fair, and demonstrably correlated with likely useful intellectual activity in the students’ future lives? (If not, don’t administer them.) Second, have the systems (administrations and unions) of which the schools and children are a part provided the necessary conditions for effective work and guaranteed stability to pursue it? (If not, get on with that reform, or change the way the “system,” so obviously stuck, is controlled.) Third, has each school seized the opportunity provided by that new structure to teach well, and do the children reflect that powerful teaching? (If not, help the school; and if this does not work, shut it down.) All three are necessary. They work together--we all know, for example, the justified fury we feel when someone else mocks us for not teaching at once, say, 150 distracted adolescents to write well in groups of 35 meeting for snippets of time over the course of a week, or when a child we know well is “given” scores which do not reflect her competence or incompetence.

Devices for quick 'indicators' of learning have their attraction. However, they are the tactic of the hare, looking for a quick and decisive solution.

Most repellent to me in the line of argument reported in Education Week is the clear, if implicit, assumption that teachers cannot be trusted with their own craft. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy here, of course. Impose routines on a job, thus trivializing it, and those who hold that job will act accordingly--that is, doing that work and no more, “working to the rule.” Most important, many good folk will avoid the profession, or leave it early. What well-educated person wants a career that belittles his or her integrity and authority?

We are told that only 5 percent of the schools have the capacity to reform themselves. One wonders from where this extraordinary number comes. But let it be. I suppose that British generals in the late 1770s said the same sorts of things about the colonials’ rabble army.

Ijust watched a stunning performance of “Antigone” staged by 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. It had the awkwardnesses of that age, but it displayed its wonderfully aware exuberance, too. At the play’s end, the audience stayed put and the cast remained on stage, allowing talk across some 200 folk of all ages about the play and what it meant. Did the actors “merely act” or did they “become their characters”? The students’ description of their shift from “following direction” to “becoming” Creon or Antigone showed remarkable understanding, powerful empathy. They themselves struggled with the dilemmas which are the heart of the play, dilemmas which speak intensely to our own times. They were learning well.

This kind of deep, complex work does not arise from prescripted scenarios. It emerges from the entwining of particular people, old and young, with particular ideas. “Antigone” worked with this group of kids. At another time and with another group of kids, the director might have chosen another drama. Only the people on the spot would know what might be best. This “Antigone” was as respectful as it was demanding, representative of the heart of powerful secondary education. The understanding achieved is fuel for the next challenge. And that understanding remains in part mysterious, difficult to define, even more difficult to measure. It is unlikely to be provoked in kids by robot teachers. And it is not that teachers don’t have access to the “material": The play “Antigone” has been there for us to use, in one form or another, for 2,500 years.

We remove the immediate and particular quality from schooling at our peril. Those very nuts and bolts--the “regularities” of schooling--are what catch or repel, interest or bore, youngsters. Kids of all income levels dream and are ripe for inspiration. The adults closest to the children are the most important in coaching the demanding work--the critical nuts and bolts--that follows upon inspiration, child by child. These adults must be powerful, authoritative, and not “overburdened” people. They cannot dodge these decisions and serve the children well. Force them to teach someone else’s prescribed plan, and you cheapen them. Persist in the forcing and the teaching force will shrivel in commitment and imagination.

Devices for quick “indicators” of learning have their attraction. However, they are the tactic of the hare, looking for a quick and decisive solution. But building communities of responsible people is slow work, worthy of the tortoise. Only the schools which arise from such careful crafting will provide students who possess the powerful and often subtle learnings required in our modern society. The Coalition of Essential Schools and others who espouse this philosophy must never apologize for being a tortoise.

A version of this article appeared in the June 25, 1997 edition of Education Week as On Lame Horses and Tortoises


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