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School & District Management

Q&A: Nancy Faust Sizer on The New American High School

By Catherine A. Cardno — August 28, 2013 7 min read
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Theodore Sizer, the influential educator, author, and founder of the Essential Schools movement, died in 2009 after a lengthy illness. In his final years, he completed what would be his final book, which his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer, promised to publish posthumously. That book, The New American High School, was published this year by Jossey-Bass.

BookMarks recently interviewed Faust Sizer, a former teacher, administrator, and the co-author on a number of books with her husband. She talked about the new book and her husband’s final thoughts on school reform and what the “new” American high school could—or rather, should—look like.

Can you tell me a little bit about your role in creating The New American High School and the process involved in publishing it? I know you’ve co-authored books with your husband in the past, and I’m curious how all the pieces fit together for the book to come out now, almost four years after his passing.

As I said in the book’s introduction, Ted was a communicator. Toward the end of his life, and especially after we learned that the colon cancer had come back, he needed more than ever to keep in touch with others in the school reform world at least partly by writing this book.

At first, I worried that he had taken on a new project which would turn out to be burdensome, but then I realized that it was making him happy so we might as well treat it like his other books: lots of talk, “reports out” at the end of the day, and reading drafts as chapters were finished. Since we had worked together, especially on The Students Are Watching (Beacon Press, 1999), I knew how to “write like Ted,” and occasionally I edited and even added, but that was subject to his approval—and to notions about grammar, which had been instilled in him by a fierce, loving teacher in 8th grade.

This routine suited us for nearly all of the four years after the cancer returned. When he grew sicker, he still worked on it, but I put his changes into the computer. At this point he asked me to be his co-author, but I felt that the ideas, structure, and passion were his. I could hear his voice clearly in these pages, and I wanted others to hear it, too. This was clearly one of the ways he meant to round out his life, and one of my last promises to him was that it would be published.

You write in the introduction that this book isn’t necessarily about policy, because at the end of his life your husband’s thoughts circled back around to individual students. I’m curious: How is the current design of public secondary schools failing students? What students in particular are ill-served by its design?

If you look at all of Ted’s books, the first two were histories, but after that they were primarily written to and for teachers, and their main message was that more care should be taken to help students use their minds well. Just “furnishing” minds was not good enough for him. He told stories and provided ideas about new ways to focus on and enable adults inside schools to offer a different kind of curriculum and teaching style that would engage the students in the real work of learning.

Later, he was often drawn into policy, because although the country “got it” that the schools needed to improve, too many couldn’t think how to spur on reform except to furnish minds more elaborately—and frantically—in order to handle high-stakes standardized tests. Ted’s attention turned to ways to protect teachers, especially those who are committed to help the least-advantaged children, from those outsiders.

In this book, he’s back inside the schools again, with steady admiration for the people and the work there, and with new ideas about how they can rethink the mission to reach all their students on a deeper level. He knew as well as anyone that all teachers aren’t successful, but he wanted to concentrate on the ones who are—or could be.

Thinking broadly about the issues that your husband focused on in the book and the tremendous body of reform work he completed and wrote about during his life, can you give me a quick overview of what the new American high school system should look like?

It’s a familiar metaphor, but let’s see what we can do with it. Too many American teenagers experience school as a kind of factory: large, drafty, with inflexible “parts” designed to “come together” in a predictable pattern resembling an assembly line. Workers in those factories are available and hard-working, but they make very few distinctions. The final “products” are then subjected to “inspections” which too many don’t pass.

The plan is all very neat, tidy, and efficient. Obviously, however, the products in high schools are human; they are, in fact, humans in a part of their lives when distinctions are the most important, to them and to others. They are moving from childhood to adulthood, where their own resources, knowledge, skills, and personalities will make the difference in what kind of lives they will be able to lead on their own.

Distinctions and plans are almost made to foil each other, which explains the many ways in which high schools are uneasy places. So far, the plans seem to be winning, but the atmosphere in high school is rife with unmet expectations. Therefore, for high schools, we need to bypass the factory model, and work toward one which will make more sense.

What is the most fundamental—and significant—change that you would like to see implemented. Why?

Perhaps our new metaphor should be a workshop. It would be small and personal. Basic skills would be mastered and new ideas entertained, but slowly the apprentices would begin to take on more of their own work.

Teachers would have the freedom—even the responsibility—to allow and encourage experimentation, not only with their own work, but also the students.’ There would be a real chance of failure, but plenty of chances to revise and improve. There would be occasions when students and teachers would be expected to work with each other, with attention paid to how this is best done. Occasionally, there would be classes, when a small number of students needed to master the same skill, but a relatively flexible schedule, masterminded by a genial wizard, would allow this to happen. You’re shaking your head, but such wizards CAN be found.

Assessments would be built into assignments, made early and often, and would vary: some would be as a group, some as an individual. All would measure growth rather than competition with each other. Students would be assessed by a video camera trained on each one’s journey rather than by a group snapshot with certain students lingering in the back and others grandstanding in the front.

Conversely, is there anything that can stay the same because it’s already working well?

Many aspects of the new American high school, as envisioned in this book, come out of good practice which Ted observed inside all sorts of schools for decades.

A good school is a serious place with a clear sense of its mission and the conviction that time is precious and must be used carefully. Teachers are friendly and concerned, but also professionals, taskmasters, and evaluators. School is definitely not the street corner, or even a summer camp.

Unlike some, Ted did not foresee the end of the institution of the high school. So many important aspects of growing up—working with others, changing one’s mind, learning how to lead, feeling empathy, and affection—come when adolescents have the chance to learn together. Even the painful parts of high school, such as realizing that others are more skillful at doing something you badly want to do, are ultimately valuable lessons.

Of course, he did counsel that other venues are valuable too, for diverse social relationships and for genuine accomplishment, such as a regional orchestra or soccer team. He was also intrigued with the way that media and technology were influencing the world of teenagers. Still, he kept faith in schools, and in schooling.

What are the first, concrete steps that educators need to take to implement this vision of the new American high school? Why?

You need to gather interested adults: teachers and parents who have the time, energy, and bravery to try something new. They must be comrades but also entrepreneurs, and that is not an easy combination, so they need to know how to argue fruitfully, to delegate, and to compromise.

I hope this book will help you to clarify your own priorities and will make you see how exciting and just plain fun a project like this can be.

Study the context: Is it a school to be reformed by setting aside a group of students to be organized and taught differently? Or a whole school to be changed from within? Or a start-up? Each will bring its own challenges. Also, serious change takes planning, and planning costs money, so get that in hand from the district or a foundation as soon as you can.

Once the [revamped] part-school or school opens, bring the students into the planning and leadership. They tend to be wary at first, but once they sense the advantages in this kind of learning, most will become enthusiastic participants.

Do not be discouraged if there are missteps along the way, in the beginning or even years into the job. You are finding better ways to help kids do important things, and that is the right thing to do.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.