School & District Management Opinion

What Ted Sizer Meant to Us

By Patrick J. McQuillan — October 29, 2009 6 min read
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The death this month of Theodore R. Sizer leaves an immense void in the American educational landscape. Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 1964 to 1972 (and the youngest dean in Harvard history), headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., professor at Brown University, founder and chairperson of the Coalition of Essential Schools, founder and co-director (with his wife, Nancy) of the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School. The list of accomplishments is long.

But the man himself was just as impressive.

Dressed in tweed with his omnipresent pocket watch and chain, Ted Sizer looked the quintessential New England academic. Cheery, confident, and caring, his attitude and demeanor seemed Kennedy-esque, in the best sense of the word. A product of privileged schooling, he worked tirelessly to improve education throughout the United States, including in some of our most underresourced urban schools. In his classic work Horace’s Compromise, he documented the attitudes, practices, and structures that engendered mediocrity throughout the country’s secondary school system. His subsequent professional work sought to remedy these debilitating “compromises.”

In His Words

Read these Education Week commentaries written by Theodore R. Sizer.

Two Reports
Reform efforts must move beyond today’s narrow habit of conceiving education as only something that adults formally “deliver” to children in classrooms, says Sizer. (April 23, 2003)

On Lame Horses and Tortoises
To my eye, the give-'em-the-nuts-and-bolts strategy is a very threadbare conception of reform, writes Sizer. (June 29, 1997)

Should Schooling Begin and End Earlier?
Age-grading is a modern invention that arose just before the turn of the century from bureaucratic necessity rather than from convictions about human development, writes Sizer. (March 16, 1983)

I deeply respected Ted Sizer. Even now, when I find myself in difficult situations, I often ask, “What would Ted do?” And that’s the truth. No humor intended.

I came to know Ted through a fortuitous set of circumstances. As a graduate student in anthropology at Brown University, I lucked into a golden opportunity: to conduct an ethnographic study of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which Ted chaired at the time. From 1986 to 1992, fellow grad student Donna E. Muncey and I visited coalition schools to assess the impact of Ted’s initiative. We interviewed students, teachers, and administrators; we observed classes and department meetings; and we collected copies of student assignments and school newspapers. We also worked with coalition staff members as they ran workshops and supported the work of member schools.

Throughout our studies, we focused on Ted Sizer and how his ideas influenced, and failed to influence, what people in schools did.

Coming at a time that A Nation at Risk would lay a foundation for neoliberal philosophy to dominate U.S. educational policy, Ted Sizer offered an alternative approach to the shortcomings of American education, one rooted in the vision of John Dewey and progressive reform. Based on the research he conducted in high schools across the country that resulted in Horace’s Compromise, Ted highlighted the “compromises” teachers endured while adjusting and adapting to an ineffective system. They were responsible for so many students that they assigned little substantive work. Lacking time to know students well, teachers leveled their expectations to perceived student abilities. To ensure that they “covered” the entire curriculum, many topics were addressed superficially.

With these and other concerns in mind, in 1984 Sizer created “the Coalition,” a network of schools committed to a set of shared beliefs and priorities, what he and his associates termed the “common principles.”

Unlike the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the authors of A Nation at Risk, Ted did not center his concerns on America’s national security or global economic competitiveness. His focus was the “triangle of learning”—the relationship between student, teacher, and subject matter. To be successful, in his view, schools had to nurture this dynamic interrelationship. Drawing on the aphorism “Less is more,” Ted also maintained that school curricula should be grounded in a limited array of essential skills and content, rather than drawing on a superficial body of loosely related knowledge having dubious value beyond Friday’s quiz. (I believe Ted regularly used Millard Fillmore as an example to substantiate this logic.)

Well aware that students were key to any successful reform, Ted advocated “personalizing” student-teacher relationships, ensuring that “faculty knew students as people and learners,” as he would say. Once these pieces were in place, Ted trusted teachers to organize their curriculum and educate their students. Our present emphasis on high-stakes standardized exams sends teachers and students a set of very different messages.

Having visited over 100 high schools in his research for Horace—public, private, and parochial institutions—Ted saw firsthand how values permeate so much of school life. Accordingly, the common principles he set forth attend to affective as well as academic concerns, noting that schools “should explicitly and self-consciously promote a commitment to trust (until abused) and decency (the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance).” As Ted would explain, “Thoughtful people in algebra class are thoughtful people in life.”

Current educational policies pay little attention to these kinder, gentler dimensions of teaching and learning. And though aspects of the common principles may seem soft, Ted Sizer endorsed high expectations and rigorous study for all students well before the tenets underlying the No Child Left Behind Act were even a glimmer in the eye of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Diane Ravitch. As the common principles state so simply: “A school’s goals should apply to all students.”

At a symposium in Baltimore in October of 1987, Ted offered a summary of the beliefs and practices that informed the coalition’s work:

“We believe the primary purpose of school is to develop students’ intellect. That is essential for everybody in society. … We believe one learns best by doing things—not by being told, but being engaged. … So students need to be the workers, not the teacher. … You can’t treat students like Frank Perdue treats his chickens. We need to respect their differences. … As a teacher, you can’t have 175 students. You can’t know that many minds and understand how they make mistakes. … [W]e need to take students seriously. Don’t let any kids feel anonymous. We need to develop their minds and develop their character. … These are the ideas that drive the Coalition. … [I]f they are taken seriously, they imply an ambitious change in the way schools organize themselves.”

Through its work, the Coalition of Essential Schools became nationally prominent. At present, with a national center in Oakland, Calif., the coalition network includes about 300 member schools with varying degrees of affiliation. Beyond this organizational structure, coalition practices have gained a foothold in mainstream school settings over the past 25 years. Advisories, Socratic seminars, and exhibitions are but three increasingly popular educational practices with deep roots in the coalition’s work.

With the passing of Ted Sizer, progressive educators have an opportunity to reflect on and reinvigorate American education with a commitment to ensuring that all students are known and held to high standards, that we create conditions which allow teachers to realize these ideals, and that America becomes a more informed, more caring, and more thoughtful nation.

Of course, this is naive. But Ted Sizer was naive, and he knew it. That was one of the joys of watching him work. Picasso’s black and white sketch of Don Quixote on horseback hung prominently in his office. Whether in inner-city Baltimore or the estate-lined streets of Bronxville, N.Y., Ted believed he could help schools become more rigorous, humane, and engaging in ways that honored the culture and traditions of the local community. His vision contrasts sharply with our current reality.

But as the pendulum swings, and the American public comes to appreciate the inability of No Child Left Behind to alter the inequities or remedy the ineptitude of American public education, in Ted’s honor we should reaffirm our commitment to naiveté. It certainly worked well for him.

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as What Ted Sizer Meant to Us


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