Sizer Outlines Triumphs, Travails Of ‘Horace’s School’ in New Book

By Lynn Olson — December 11, 1991 9 min read
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Nearly a decade after writing what is widely viewed as one of the most trenchant and scathing analyses of the American high school, Theodore R. Sizer has completed a new book that details what a “better and more powerful” school would look like,

Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School is scheduled for release next month by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

It is based on Mr. Sizer’s experiences over the past eight years as chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group of some 200 schools in 23 states that are working to revamp education based on a set of commonly held principles.

Mr. Sizer, a professor at Brown University, initially outlined those principles in his 1984 critique, Horace’s Compromise. In that book, readers first met Horace Smith, a fictional English teacher at Franklin High School, who was frustrated by the system’s status quo and its red tape, but who felt too overwhelmed to change anything.

Mr. Smith was a composite character based on more than two years of field research in a cross-section of American high schools.

In Horace’s School, Mr. Sizer describes the further triumphs and travails of Horace and his fictional colleagues--including teachers, students, administrators, and parents--as they struggle to prepare a blueprint for change.

The book provides a more detailed exposition of what coalition principles might look like in practice at both the middle- and high-school levels, based on the best ideas and the most common problems that Mr. Sizer has encountered during nearly a decade of work in schools.

At a time when policymakers are racing to develop national standards and assessments in education, the book also presents an impassioned argument for respecting the integrity of individual school communities.

In fact, Mr. Sizer proposes a new system of accountability that would limit national examinations to the areas of reading, writing, and basic mathematics.

“Today the power of the nation is increasing at the expense of the community,” he warns in the book. “Americans must ponder whether that is wholly in the culture’s best interest.”

“Places differ. Kids differ. Good schools differ,” Mr. Sizer adds. “in the teeth of an insistent national culture, the characteristics of individual schools gain additional meaning.”

More Compromises

According to Mr. Sizer, the reform movement of the 1980’s barely touched Horace or his colleagues.

In 1991, Horace still has too many students to teach; a curriculum that covers too many topics in too little depth; a grade structure that erroneously treats all youngsters of the same age alike; and a day fragmented into 52-minute class periods separated by ringing bells.

If anything, Mr. Sizer asserts, the reforms, by mandating more of the same, have forced Horace to make even more compromises.

The new book calls for a markedly different vision of schooling.

To be effective, Mr. Sizer suggests, schools must define what a thoughtful and informed high-school graduate should look like.

Each school would then design a series of “exhibitions” that enabled students to display such qualities. Successful completion of the exhibitions-rather than “seat time"-would become the basis for a high school diploma.

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.

The book provides a number of examples of what such exercises could look like. (See excerpt, page 16.)

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.

“Until we understand clearly just what [students] should do with their minds and hearts, and what standards they should meet,” Mr. Sizer writes, “it is difficult to design a sensible school.”

‘Intellectual Chaos’

According to Mr. Sizer, the results of such an exercise would be a simpler and more focused school, with the same high standards and common curriculum for all students.

In a more productive school, he speculates, most students could complete the exhibitions by age 16, after which they could participate in advanced course work, structured apprenticeships, and substantial independent study.

“I am more persuaded now than I was at the time I wrote Horace’s Compromise of the intellectual confusion of the curriculum as we know it,” he explained in an interview. “Sitting through many more school days... has brought even more profoundly home the notion that 52 minutes of physics and 52 minutes of French and then 52 minutes of art is intellectual chaos.”

At Franklin High, academic offerings would be organized into three curricular units: mathematics and science, the arts, and history and philosophy. All faculty members would share responsibility for work in language and the skills of expression, for techniques of inquiry, and for study habits.

This appeal for a “newly focused and systematically integrated curriculum is a voice in a national chorus,” Mr. Sizer writes.

The Greatest Irony

The book also reiterates Mr. Sizer’s contention that the means by which adolescents reach a common standard should vary, depending on the student.

For schools to mold their program to each individual child, teachers must have the opportunity to know students well, he maintains, primarily by having responsibility for no more than 80 youngsters.

To prove that such a change is feasible, Horace’s School includes a proposed budget and schedule that details how such a reallocation of resources could be accomplished without additional funds.

It would require teachers to work in multidisciplinary teams and educational “specialists” to take on broader teaching duties.

The book also supports the notion of breaking larger schools into separate “houses” of faculty members and students, each with its own character and culture.

Mr. Sizer also argues even more strongly than he did in his previous work that students should be given greater responsibility for their education and for the school as a whole.

He suggests, for example, that students be responsible for maintaining the building and operating the food- service facility.

In addition, community service would become an integral part of a student’s education, not an addendum to it.

“The irony is the responsibility we give kids outside of school compared with the amount of responsibility inside of school,” Mr. Sizer said last month. “The kid is assistant manager at McDonald’s in the evening, but has a hall pass in school.”

‘Least Imposition Is Best’

But to create such coherent and cohesive schools, Mr. Sizer cautions, will require substantially more autonomy and stability than schools now enjoy.

“Those with central responsibility for education should always be guided by the aphorism, ‘The least imposition is the best imposition,’” he writes.

According to Mr. Sizer, each school must be free to adapt a program to its own immediate community, whether stable or transient.

Within the school, the direction should be toward a “flat” hierarchy that blurs the line between teachers and administrators.

As in the past, the principal would be “the principal teacher.” And teachers would take substantial responsibility for the institution as a whole.

To the “maximum feasible extent,’' parents and their children and teachers must be able to choose their school, Mr. Sizer argues, “in effect, to choose their community.”

Although choice must not be a cover for segregation, he asserts, “being able to choose one’s school provides a powerful incentive for families, students, and teachers.”

The current faculty members within a school must also be in control of assigning new teachers and spending their money as they see fit.

“This policy of unqualified delegated authority is the logical extension of the belief that places differ and schools differ,” Mr. Sizer writes. “Expecting them to be the same denies reality, and insisting that they be the same guarantees mediocrity.”

Finally, Mr. Sizer notes, building and maintaining a school culture requires stability. To ensure it, he proposes that schools be “forward-funded,” with “next year’s” budget guaranteed to allow for planning during the current school year.

Four-Part System

But providing schools with significantly greater freedom does not mean a slackening of accountability, according to Mr. Sizer.

Instead, he proposes a four-part system of accountability that he contends would be a marked improvement over what now exists.

First, Franklin High students would be subjected to a limited number of standardized “mass” tests--in the areas of reading, writing, and basic mathematics.

Second, each student would keep a portfolio of his or her work, including performance over time on the exhibitions. This portfolio would be open to inspection by the student’s parents and teachers. State officials could also “audit"a sample of such portfolios to assess the school’s effectiveness.

“Analysis of the portfolios by these outsiders would be a check on the standardized-test scores and would give some indication of the development of students’ habits,” Mr. Sizer maintains.

Third, specifically assigned district and state officers who were familiar with the school could act as “advisers and friendly critics” on a regular basis. Mr. Sizer equates such individuals with an “American version” of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools in Britain.

Fourth, Franklin High would present a yearly report on itself to the community and hold a public meeting to discuss and answer questions about it. These reports would also be tied into the regional accreditation process, with the school’s reports to that outside agency being fully summarized and distributed locally for the public record.

Together, these approaches would yield a “rich, fair, and thorough assessment of the school’s worth,” maintains Mr. Sizer, without threatening its individual integrity. And they would provide far more information to local communities than now exists.

‘Questions of Values’

But Mr. Sizer lambastes current attempts to develop national standards and assessments in any areas beyond reading, writing, and basic mathematics as both “dangerous” and “arrogant.”

He questions the ability to create “decent mass tests” that would measure the thoughtful qualities he values in young people.

In addition, he suggests that the standards in such subjects as history or English are open to reasonable disagreement and are “ultimately questions of values.”

‘The latter, in my view, have to be assessed at a local level, where the reasonable objections of citizens can be properly and quickly accommodated,” he asserts. “I don’t want to have some committee miles away, in the state capital, make those decisions.”

Whether Horace will ultimately get his school, according to Mr. Sizer, is still an open question.

“I fear,” he writes toward the end of Horace’s School, “that the preferred alternative to careful rethinking will be continued pushing, prodding, testing, and protesting our largely mindless, egregiously expensive, and notably unproductive current system.”

But he maintains that there is a “growing army of Horace Smiths... as yet localized, inchoate, often barely known by the public.”

“If we gain new schools,” he argues, “it will be because these individuals have found among themselves a fresh source of authority and have asserted in community after community a new order.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Sizer Outlines Triumphs, Travails Of ‘Horace’s School’ in New Book


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