Q&A With Nancy Faust Sizer: 'The Whole Country Has to Care'
A progressive educator takes stock of the school reform landscape
This month, the national operations of the Coalition of Essential Schools came to a close. Founded in 1984 by Theodore R. Sizer, the national school-reform network was centered on a set of common educational principles, including personalized learning, democratic practices in schools, and equity. Some of K-12’s best-known thought leaders served on the board of CES, including Deborah Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Sizer’s widow Nancy Faust Sizer. The coalition started with 12 schools, and it estimates that more than 2,500 schools have been involved throughout its run.
The original idea for the coalition, Nancy Faust Sizer recounted, sprung from what her husband perceived as a growing sense of complacency surrounding public education in the United States, especially American high schools. The teachers in the liveliest classrooms, however, all seemed to share a similar approach: Start with the child. In a 1997 Commentary in Education Week, he wrote that the school reform “objective should be a child’s deep understanding of the world and a habitual readiness to act effectively on that understanding.”
After more than three decades of operation, the initial obstacle Ted Sizer encountered in building a national movement remains as urgent as ever, explains his widow. “His first job,” Faust Sizer told Assistant Commentary Editor Mary Hendrie in their 45-minute phone conversation, “was to convince the country that we really could have better schools for every single child.”
Where do you think we are as a country now? Have we moved forward or backward on the broader idea of convincing people that we can have better schools for every child?
I think that the country caught on to the need for school reform. I’m staggered by how much there is in the press now about education and by how many controversies people feel like they need to understand. Of course, they are controversies, so it matters a lot who’s on which side. And, unfortunately, both the federal government and the foundations are on the side of standardized test. That’s an awful lot of the reason we haven’t been able to sustain the [Coalition of Essential Schools] movement longer—or this particular part of the movement.
The country is resolved to try to improve its schools. The question is, though, which schools? It’s very important to think: How are you packaging students? You can care tremendously about children and just not care about some of the ones who don’t seem to like school much, behave very well in school, or find it very easy.
Are they still your children when they aren’t finding it easy to thrive in your context? Do you need to figure out a different context and, if so, will you include all children or just some children? These are the issues that we don’t really agree about anymore.
What lessons can be learned from the work the Coalition of Essential Schools has done over the years to meet the needs of those harder-to-reach students?
We did quite a lot in working hard with kids who find it difficult to find the usefulness for themselves in schools. We worked with small projects most of the time, and that meant the kids felt known more. So most of our work was with people who were willing to try harder to connect with their students. It was with people who realized what a fulfilling a project it is to help someone have his mind work well for him.
We had “listening” as one of our criteria for excellence, and we found ways to actually assess around it—and make it clear to kids that it was an important thing to be able to do with your mind.
We just didn’t get mired in the French Revolution without caring about who was in which part of it. When we dug down, we dug down deep; we just didn’t dig down everywhere.
These are the lessons we brought to our work. We had a large number of schools at one point that were trying to make the change in a formal way with us, but in the last few years that work has been not so institutional. We still believe sincerely that we’ve made a difference.
Ted wanted to have something called a “conversation among friends.” In our last meeting at the  Fall Forum, we said, “We need to talk to our enemies, too.”
We can’t just stay with our friends, but we need for it to remain mostly a conversation. A conversation is so much better than an argument because it can go on for years and years. It’s looking for common ground all the time, and it’s respecting others. It doesn’t make it into the papers much, but it makes it into people’s practice. It makes it into their thoughts; what they think about in the morning when they wake up.
For me, and I think for Ted, the effectiveness is always going to be the number of people who are succeeding as school reformers. There’s a lot of people. I used to say to my children, “Dad didn’t want to be a warmed-over [John] Dewey, and other people don’t want to be a warmed-over Ted Sizer.” They want their own take on the problem. Their own folks and their own allegiances and their own chance to talk to other people.
School reform has become such a broad tent and an almost nebulous term that people use to mean different things. In your own words, what is the right kind of school reform? What should people be striving for? And how would you define the educational philosophy that the Coalition of Essential Schools epitomized?
We started with the individual child and the individual child’s purpose in life. We’re interested in planning backwards, which means in 7th grade you start to think: What would I like this child to know and be able to do when she graduates from high school? And how can today’s assignment get toward that issue? And that’s based on knowing the child well, taking the child seriously, not letting the child become a number, and not letting the child become a way to fight with other adults.
The problem for people who would call themselves school reformers, sometimes, is that a lot of what they’re thinking about is what they’ll look like in the papers.
I’ve heard a lot of Ted’s language and the coalition language in a lot of schools. They know what we’ve been after, even when they have no idea what the coalition is or who Ted Sizer is. That’s what the coalition has been able to do and that’s what it’s children and grandchildren are still doing.
Our problem has been that for some reason, we’ve let our high schools get so big and so dominated by asking, “Do they have enough football players to win the league?” They’ve stopped being places that kids could feel like they mattered. And so, one of our issues was always to try to keep the numbers down, especially the numbers that any one teacher would be teaching.
Ted respected schools and respected teachers. He didn’t want to make a school or curriculum “teacher-proof”—that was a word they used to use back in the ‘60s when he got started on this.
What role do you feel like the people who are carrying on the education philosophy of the Coalition of Essential Schools and your late husband have in the incoming Trump administration and over the next four years?
I just think that we have to be clearer and better at our work. We have really changed some schools. We’ve got some schools that are just plain terrific. And some of them are collation schools and some of them aren’t, but they have been influenced by the set of values to which we subscribe.
Most every teacher in America thinks in terms of the children that she or he knows and wants to think, “What would be best for him or her?” The trouble is, of course, that only our youngest and most brave and hopeful and most inexperienced people are turning up to teach our most beleaguered children. But maybe some of those younger ones are going to stay with it, and then they won’t be younger anymore!
And there are plenty of older people who are just wonderfully imaginative, who have put up with a lot of nonsense in terms of the cutbacks and just keep plugging away and helping people.
I’m tutoring now in a local urban high school, and I certainly do see the things that are holding back some kids. We need a lot of help. The whole country has to care. Most teachers get pretty cross when they see people with their heads in their desk, but if you were working until midnight, you just really don’t know how in the world there’s going to be time left for sleep or homework. It’s a big problem, but we can’t give up. We just can’t give up.
I think we have to keep working very hard in our own schools, making them things that could inspire other schools, being very tolerant of people who aren’t doing things exactly like we are, but from whom we might learn, too. We’ve got to write a lot, we’ve got to stay in touch as much as we possibly can because that gives us moral support. Somebody was saying just yesterday: The worse it gets, the more we stay galvanized. If people are telling us something which we suspect isn’t true, we need to find out.
We can do it without an institution like the coalition as long as there are people that we know we can be in touch with. And it won’t be as easy now, but if we really want to keep on doing this work, then we need to be as mindful, as purposeful, as energetic in our desire to do it and in our conviction that we can do it.
And where it’s being done, we need to notice that and try to make sure people know about it. I mean in podcasts and things like this—new forms of communication that Ted never knew about and that I think the coalition probably didn’t do enough about. We were into a more expensive way of communication and for that you need philanthropy. Philanthropy was disappointing to us. It was just too interested in test scores.
That kind of gets back to what you were saying earlier about having a conversation not just with friends. When you feel like the foundations or the education policies are too myopically focused on test scores, what should people do to bridge that gap between just talking to friends to reaching out to those with whom they disagree?
Well, we haven’t had friends for a long while in the federal government, really.
I don’t consider taking money out of the public sector in order to put it into the private sector democratic, because those are selective schools and selective schools are not what a lot children could ever get into. I just don’t think that’s our purpose as our country.
I’m just now writing a letter to [Sen.] Lamar Alexander about this, because he quoted Ted, but he didn’t tell the whole story about Ted. He said he likes vouchers, he likes school choice; those were true. He did think school choice livened a family by making them feel like they had a prayer that their child might succeed in a school. And as long as there was open access and you didn’t need money to do it or high test scores or contacts with the right people, he was all for it. But he did not believe that it should leave the public sector, which needs that money. Ever. Not for one minute of his life.
Granted, the charters are getting public money, but they’re public-access schools. And we don’t shape our clientele. We tell them what we believe, but that doesn’t shape them socioeconomically.
For inspiration, there are some books and films around that illustrate the kind of work we do. People could read those books and watch those films. And they could say, “Yes, that would work in my school, if you changed such and such.” Or they could say, “It would never work in my school, but I still think it’s an honest way of doing business.”
We’ve had teachers counseling teachers since the beginning. We would work on issues we felt needed to help people work through, like teacher-leadership, advisories, curriculum work, and how superintendents could help along reforming-type teachers—a lot of issues that would have opened up schools to the principles that we stand for.
But the trouble with principles is they don’t pay the rent. That’s probably why people get lured into boasting about their standardized tests, which I think the charter movement has been much too beholden to. They feel this is the way to convince people, but I think if they were in our schools, they would be convinced. They’d either be turned off or they’d be convinced, but a lot of them would be convinced. And are being convinced, every day.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.