The Essential Ted Sizer

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America's most famous education reformer is ready for a rest. After a decade of leading the charge to radically change the nation's schools, he's battle weary but as idealistic and hopeful as ever.

It's 8 a.m., and Theodore Sizer, the nation's most famous school reformer, looks like he's just punched out of the third shift. Wearing walking shoes and an open-collar shirt, the 64-year-old Sizer is boyishly handsome, with a smile out of a crew team photo. Still, weariness is etched into his face. After all, for years he has held down two of the most difficult jobs in American education--as the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools and the director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform--not to mention his professorship at Brown University. And he just wrapped up work on Horace's Hope, the third volume of his school-reform trilogy.

But Sizer is about to get a rest. Or as much of a rest as the peripatetic Sizer will permit himself. On this flawless spring morning, he is on the eve of announcing his resignation from the Annenberg Institute, the school-reform and research organization he has directed since it was launched in 1993 with an extraordinary $50 million gift from publisher Walter Annenberg. And while Sizer will remain chairman of the coalition, one of the nation's most prominent education-reform initiatives with more than 1,000 member schools, he is removing himself from its day-to-day operations. "The coalition should not be led by a person who has worked in a school no more recently than 1981," he says. "My title of chairman may mean little more than when I arrive at the airport, someone will meet the plane."

Indeed, Sizer may be removing himself from the rat race, but he won't be in hiding. He will still serve as the coalition's ambassador, crisscrossing the country, preaching--as he has for more than a decade--the by-now-familiar gospel of "less is more," "student as worker," "diploma by exhibition." Between trips, he plans to dig in the garden at his home in central Massachusetts and work on a book he is writing with his wife, Nancy, on moral education.

But this morning, at Annenberg's second-annual Research Symposium, held at the University of Rhode Island in May, Sizer isn't doing any preaching. He's as placid as the lake outside the window, offering only a few gentle queries and crystallizing remarks. For the most part, Sizer is simply listening. And he can't, it would seem, be too happy with much of what he's hearing.

The discussion about present and future institute projects and the ways they dovetail is "fuzzy"--an adjective even some of Sizer's admirers use to describe the efforts of both the institute and the coalition. Some of the trouble has to do with the lack of a clear distinction between the two organizations, which are supposed to be separate. "It's all very confusing, trying to explain the difference," Sizer says. "The coalition is a project that has focus; the institute is by design a program that is to serve a reasonable number of masters. But until the institute is established as an independent entity, this confusion will continue. My departure will help because my involvement with the coalition makes it very difficult to talk about the institute. And there's the pressure of numbers with the coalition--the mail, the phone calls."

A handout for the symposium explains that the Annenberg Institute supports dozens of projects designed "to promote, sponsor, study, and protect a variety of efforts to rethink and to reform schools for American children," and it seems as if the meeting's participants--more than 70 teachers, scholars, researchers, and administrators--are hearing about them all. There is "The Fifty Schools Project Evaluation," "The Advanced Digital Environments Project," "The Dollars Following the Child Project," "The Teaching Repertoire Project," and on and on. The work of each is presented in five- or 10-minute bursts. It's overload--like running through the Louvre, a guide steering you from room to room so you can take in as many paintings as possible and still catch the tour bus. Many of the projects are intriguing and well thought out, such as a study on how college-admissions procedures, with their emphasis on SAT scores and grade-point averages, impede thoughtful K-12 school reform. But others raise eyebrows. They lack definition, a clear purpose.

A case in point is the upcoming "Conference on North American School Reform and Research," which will, according to the handout, "promote a comparative look at school reform in Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. contexts."

"I fail to get the point," says scholar Seymour Sarason, the author of numerous pessimistic tomes, including The Predictable Failure of School Reform. At 77, Sarason, who is attending the symposium as a "critical friend," is the grand curmudgeon of the reform movement.

"That may be because I failed to communicate it and because I inherited the project," says presenter Nancy Hoffman. "It's policymakers and practitioners coming together to have conversation to inform each other about what goes on in their countries."

"Then the goal would be?" someone asks.

Hoffman says a few words about ethnicity and culture, about what migrant workers might have in common with American Indians on the Canadian border, and then she surrenders. "I don't know if I can say anything more," she says, "because I don't know anything more."

Sarason shakes his head. "The question is, 'Hey, should Annenberg put its marbles into something like this?'"

Sizer says nothing about this project, but he expresses his doubts about a later one titled "Leadership, Race, and Gender." The presenter, Nancy Mohr, has the group read a three-page transcript of a white principal and a Hispanic school director talking about race and leadership. After the group has skimmed it, Mohr says, "I want to have a dialogue with people. How effective are these voices?"

For Sizer, the system—and the destructive impact it can have upon children—should always be a prime topic of conversation.

There's a pause; people sneak glances at one another. Then an obviously bemused Sizer asks how the three elements in the topic relate. "I don't know yet," Mohr says. Several participants throw jabs: "There's so much rhetoric about this topic already"; "There are so many words about race"; "In all these projects, there is an absence of parents." Sarason, with his customary frankness, adds, "I know of no evidence that there is a high correlation between race, gender, and leadership--I mean, so what?"

Finally, Robert Hampel, a professor at the University of Delaware and the author of The Last Little Citadel, says, "All of these projects are very ambitious--some would keep you busy for years and years. Do you have time, energy, money?"

Sizer's face shows no sign of perturbation, but he must be gnashing his teeth. After all, Sizer is the big-picture guy, the pristine thinker who argued in his popular 1984 book, Horace's Compromise, that school reform didn't mean a damn thing if it didn't change the ways teachers and kids think about learning. He must find the nagging, make-busy aspects of these projects maddening, and he seems to say so in a rambling summation of the morning session that appears, upon close inspection, to be a very diplomatic reprimand.

"The Annenberg Institute is not governmentally related," Sizer says. "It doesn't have the responsibility of preparing people for schools as they are. Our responsibility is to fill the silences, and when someone says something wrong to respectfully assert the contrary." None of the projects, he continues, addresses "accountability, the responsibility of the larger political system to provide adequate funding, the issue of fairness. The silence is fascinating as well as horrifying."

For Sizer, the system--and the destructive effect it can have upon children--should always be a prime topic of conversation. In fact, the system, that remote amalgam of politicians, administrators, and education schools, is a virtual obsession. Sizer sees it as having so conventionalized the educational madness that we hardly notice: bureaucrats defending standardized tests, think tanks insisting that class size doesn't matter, politicians cutting funds for already desperately poor schools. "Hierarchical bureaucracy stifles initiative at its base," Sizer writes in Horace's Compromise, "and given the idiosyncrasies of adolescents, the fragility of their motivations, and the needs for their teachers and principals to be strong, inspiring, and flexible people, this aspect of the system can be devastating."

None of the Annenberg Institute's projects deals with larger issues of accountability, responsibility, and fairness of political systems. "The silence," says Sizer, "is fascinating as well as horrifying."

At the end of the day, Sarason and a number of other critical friends offer the assembled participants their assessment of the symposium and the institute's work. They are respectful but less than flattering. Their common complaint is "fuzziness."

Steve Seidel of Harvard University's Project Zero says the sessions reminded him of the children's books with panels that kids flip to create funny, composite pictures of animals. "That's what I saw this morning, a funny animal," he says. "Is there a central core to the direction of the research?"

David Smith, the co-director of Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, speaks along the same lines. "The mission was not clear," he says. "If we're going to have papers put out by the institute, we ought to say this is why we're putting our money and reputation behind it."

Sarason speaks last. He says he admires the Annenberg Institute for its unprecedented willingness to let outsiders examine its efforts. Then he lists his criticisms with a hint of relish. The institute has no list of priorities, he says, and as a result is trying to do too much. There is no "underlying view" unifying its multipronged initiatives. Finally, he says, no project calls for major change in the system; the projects amount to difficult repair jobs, which means the institute will always be going "uphill on a treadmill." Sarason ends the day with a Jewish joke: "Things could be worse; I could be in your shoes."

Sizer laughs harder than anyone--perhaps because he knows someone else will soon be standing in his shoes.

Vol. 16, Issue 14

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