School & District Management

The Essential Ted Sizer

By David Ruenzel — September 04, 1996 37 min read
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It’s 8 a.m. on a flawless morning in May, 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, he holds down two of the most difficult jobs in American education--he’s chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools and director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform--not to mention his professorship at Brown University. And he is wrapping 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. 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, 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 pictures 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, 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?”

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 of 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 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 impact 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.”

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, 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.

In his ability to accept criticism with grace, even élan, Ted Sizer is a lot like Horace Smith, his “nonfictional fictional” English teacher at suburban Franklin High School who “during times of duress is able to keep his balance and not let life get the better of him.” Horace, whom we first meet in Sizer’s landmark book, Horace’s Compromise, endures trouble with calm circumspection, rising above petty squabbles to bring bickering colleagues together. He’s by nature a conciliator. Students trust him and seek his counsel outside of the classroom.

As goes Horace, so goes Sizer. Paula Evans, director of professional development at the Annenberg Institute and someone who has taught classes with Sizer at Brown, says, “Some of the students would characterize me as ‘mom’ and Ted as ‘God.’ They’re almost reverential in their respect for him. He has an open-door policy for everyone who wants to talk with him, and he can actually carry on a conversation with 150 students.”

Sizer is an unusual public figure in that he seems to have no enemies, even among those who strongly disagree with his views. For this, Evans credits his ability to listen to ideas different from his own. “It’s not that Ted feels that all ideas are equal or that he’s about to change his stripes,” she says. “It’s rather that Ted has a respect for others that makes it very difficult for people to see him as an enemy. I’ve never, ever, heard him call anyone stupid. I think it has to do with his sense of the human condition, his belief that he has a basic responsibility to other people.”

Patricia Wasley, an author and researcher for the Coalition of Essential Schools, says, “Ted has an amazing ability to tolerate criticism. It has to do with his inherent optimism. He allows people to raise negative aspects because he feels they can be worked through. He’s just not self-protective as so many people are.” She recalls a meeting at which the conservative education critic and gadfly Chester Finn attacked the coalition for its “softness.” His invective made everyone squirm but Sizer, who sat in a corner with an amused smile on his face.

Yet as similar as Sizer and Horace may be in temperament, they have different backgrounds. For one thing, Horace is a creature of the public school. When we first meet him in Horace’s Compromise, he’s 53 (about the age of Sizer at the time), an “old pro” who has spent 28 years trying to get his students to grapple with the likes of Shakespeare. To make ends meet, he works part-time at a family liquor store. His daughter, a first-year associate at a law firm, out earns him. Everything about Horace’s daily environment is classic public school: the bells, the announcements over the public-address system, the vinyl-covered sofas and chairs in the faculty lounge, the teacher chitchat.

Sizer, on the other hand, is quintessentially prep, as befits someone who has spent much of his life in elite boarding schools and Ivy League universities. He has a way of looking tweedy even when he is not wearing tweeds. He has been described as “Kennedyesque,” which isn’t much of a stretch. He is erudite and charming and has a great capacity for putting people at ease.

A self-described “faculty brat,” Sizer is the son of a Yale University art history professor, the last of six children. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut, but was raised on a family farm in northern New England by his mother and a German refugee when his father went off to serve in World War II. Later, after attending the Pomfret School, a small boarding school in Connecticut, and then Yale, Sizer also served in the military--during the Korean War. Stationed in Germany, he was an artillery training officer. It was his first experience teaching, and he learned something about the importance of high expectations. “The idea that you could use an excuse for not learning was unthinkable,” Sizer says. “No one would think of saying, ‘Well, he doesn’t speak much English, only Spanish, so go easy on him,’ or ‘He doesn’t know how to add.’ ”

After his discharge, Sizer taught in Australia for a year and then returned to the United States, enrolling at Harvard where he eventually received a Ph.D. in education and American history. His thesis, perhaps more than anything else, launched him on his current path. It was on late 19th-century school reform in general and the work of the Committee of Ten in particular.

Chaired by Harvard President Charles Eliot, the Committee of Ten released an influential report in 1893 arguing that high schools should develop and discipline the minds of their students by focusing on academic subject matter. Students, the committee stated, should take at least four years of English and foreign language and three years each of history, mathematics, and science. All students should take college-preparatory coursework, even though the committee acknowledged that only a small percentage would go on to higher education. The goal was for all youngsters to be exposed to the same demanding subjects, all taught in more or less the same way. “The argument in the report itself is pedestrian,” Sizer says. “It’s not a sonorous, persuasive argument.”

The report included a chart of the ideal high school curriculum, listing, with a watchmaker’s precision, the subjects and the number of periods per week each course should be taught. “What school people did is take this chart and put it into place so that this thing called ‘the period’ begins to reign,” Sizer says. “A subject taught five periods a week is supposedly more important than one taught three periods a week.”

The Committee of Ten had a double-edged goal: It wanted to promote academic rigor, but, more important, it wanted to bring order to a rapidly developing national school system lacking uniform standards. The committee’s report was, in essence, a war against chaos. But along with the rage for order, Sizer asserts, came “the mechanization of schooling, the reduction of serious schooling to the mere passage of time. They thought if you studied Latin five days a week something good will come out of it.”

The legacy of the committee and its chart and periods, Sizer says, is that no one in education today takes anything seriously unless there’s a number attached. “Make an argument on philosophical grounds, and it won’t get into the newspaper,” he says. “Talk about test scores or how many teenage mothers wear size 6 shoes, and it will end up on page one.”

The experience of the Committee of Ten showed Sizer that the impact of specific reforms is often far different than what is envisioned. The committee had hoped to initiate a more intellectual approach to schooling, but many schools, Sizer says, simply became “clones of the committee’s detailed report.”

As far as Sizer is concerned, any blueprint for reform is almost hopelessly contingent. The penthouse may end up looking like a basement apartment, just as the committee’s goal of rigor and standards ended up as seat time. This is why Sizer has always insisted that teachers should be involved in the creation of the blueprint; if it’s handed down to them, they’ll treat it like a court summons. It is also why Sizer is fearful of the current movement toward national education standards.

After earning his Ph.D., Sizer became an assistant professor of education at Harvard. Then in 1964, at the age of 31, he was named--thanks to what he modestly characterizes as “a stroke of fortune"--dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was, Sizer says, an extraordinary time; he shared the coffeepot with intellectual heavyweights like Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer.

But toward the end of the ‘60s, Sizer was already thinking about moving on. Being dean during that turbulent decade was exhausting; besides, he wanted to get out of the ivory tower and into the trenches--that is, into a real school. Academic work couldn’t substitute for real experience. “I felt utterly spurious as a dean,” Sizer says. “I’d get these phone calls from newspapers asking me what I thought about ‘x’ or ‘y’ in schools. I was supposed to know, but I didn’t.”

Sizer wanted to become a high school principal, in part because his wife taught high school and his kids were about to enroll. “I had this romantic idea about how our family would be going to high school together,” Sizer says. First he thought about becoming a public school principal but found he lacked the appropriate credentials. So he did the next best thing: He became headmaster of a private school--the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

While the academy had plenty of star teachers and precocious students from prominent families, it was, according to Sizer, hardly different from public schools in terms of structure and approach. “The flaws in private and public schools are very similar,” Sizer says. “One thing about the private sector is how slavishly it copies the public. Every 47 minutes the bell rings--hell, it’s all the same. Private enterprise, entrepreneurialism--baloney.”

Sizer describes much of the teaching at Phillips as spectacular, but spectacular in an old-fashioned way. “It was pretty much, ‘Sit down, and I’ll tell you what you need to know.’ It was about as good as that mode gets. But there wasn’t the expectation that the kids would have to use any of what they were taught down the line. So the kids knew a lot of things but couldn’t necessarily use them. But boy, they knew a lot of things in a wonderful way.”

In thinking about school reform, Sizer has never been interested in bringing the educational practices of the Phillips Academy--if such a thing were even possible--to the rest of the nation’s schools. For Sizer, knowing a lot is never more than the first step. The real goal is for kids to use resourcefully what they know, which requires a very different kind of teaching--a teaching that puts the student on center stage.

Although Sizer may claim that private schools imitate the public, he knows better than anyone that Phillips Academy kids have a key advantage over almost all their public school counterparts: namely, a smaller, more intimate school setting in which teachers can come to know all their students well. When he was mapping out what would become “the nine principles” of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Sizer termed this key quality “personalization.”

A few of the nine principles, like aphorisms from a winning political campaign, have entered the mainstream of educational discourse: “less is more,” “student as worker,” “teacher as coach,” “diploma by exhibition.” But according to Arthur Powell, one of Sizer’s oldest friends and colleagues and principal author of the 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School, “personalization” is the nucleus upon which the other principles cohere. Only if teachers get to know their students well, reversing the anonymity that has characterized the high school, can they address students’ individual strengths and weaknesses.

“The key to the whole coalition idea,” Powell says, “is to get the numbers down, to get adults who are models working closely with kids so that they can be impacted by something besides pop culture and the mass media. We’re in essence telling kids, ‘You can’t just sit in the back of the classroom; we’re going to treat you as an important person with something to say.’ The kid has to be visible, to do something, not just be a spectator where he’s watching someone else perform.”

In 1979, Sizer received a research grant to, as he puts it, “superintendent this quiet discussion of why high schools are the way they are.” The project was called, unassumingly, “A Study of High Schools.” A couple of years later, with additional support from foundations, Sizer was able to resign from the Phillips Academy to pursue the study full time. The study eventually produced three books, each of which is still read today: Powell’s The Shopping Mall High School, Hampel’s The Last Little Citadel, and Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise. “The funders then said, ‘OK, we have your critique of high schools, now what can we do that’s positive?’ ” Sizer says. “So we sought out schools that were in a position to act on common sense ideas.” In 1984, the Coalition of Essential Schools was born.

Sizer hoped the coalition schools would place their trust in teachers like his Horace Smith--dedicated front-line people who had a fighting chance of bringing about change. Despite the daily grind at Franklin High School, Horace is “proud, respected, and committed to his practice.” In fact, he loves teaching, though he’s always frustrated by having too little time to work with too many kids. He’d like to collaborate more with his colleagues, prepare more thoroughly for his classes, and assign more writing. Instead, largely for the sake of sheer self-preservation, he makes “devastating compromises,” doing at the very least an adequate job but always falling far short of his own ideals.

In a way, Horace’s Compromise is an attack on the whole bell-ringing madness of the American high school. The blaring announcements, the frenetic rush from class to class, the droning on of teachers’ voices in drowsy classrooms--it’s all described by Sizer as a conspiracy against even the possibility of meaningful learning. But Horace, like Sizer, never gives in to despair. There’s that constitutional optimism, that stick-to-itiveness. He presses on with his Shakespeare, his Theater Club, daring to believe that one day things will be better.

Horace’s perseverance begins to pay dividends in Horace’s School, Sizer’s 1992 follow-up book. Here Horace has begun to implement his creator’s reform ideas. He works closely with his fellow teachers, patiently chipping away at those most resistant to change. Eventually, the teachers agree on a handful of basic educational principles--the coalition’s nine principles--that they will attempt to put into practice. Horace will have his students cover less material but in much greater depth (“less is more”); he will place his students at the center of classroom activities instead of himself (“student as worker” and “teacher as coach”), he will have his students demonstrate what they can actually do instead of taking the typical cram-and-forget-it tests (“diploma by exhibition”). Horace’s career, his school, and his students’ performance all appear to be on an upswing.

But in Horace’s Hope, the final book in the Horace trilogy (published in September by Houghton Mifflin), there is a subtle but noticeable change in Sizer’s tone and content. Most obviously, Horace Smith pretty much vanishes from the text, relegated, for the most part, to a rather breezy prologue. Here Sizer tells us that Horace is still at the business of school reform, pushing himself and others to improve their classroom practice. “In recent years,” Sizer writes, “there has been some movement. Some of the plans for Franklin High School did take root, ones that addressed the most nagging compromises. People like Horace in other Franklin High Schools appeared ready to move beyond their restlessness, and they found unexpected support among some parents of their students.” But that is about it for Horace. It’s little more than a cameo appearance.

More significant, perhaps, is a new sense of pessimism that creeps into the text. Sizer’s old villain, the system, is back with a vengeance, doing its best to stop school reform in its tracks. “The system doesn’t act on common sense,” Sizer says. “It operates on the enormous weight of inher-ited condition and the disinterest of the policy community. It just doesn’t understand the issues or how change really works.”

Horace, however, is stubborn; he has “hope” for the future. But set against Sizer’s account of a growing backlash--national standards are in the works, policymakers are cutting school funding--Horace’s hopefulness seems more like a desperate gamble.

As author, Sizer tries to maintain his customary optimism, but here, too, it feels harder-earned, less robust. This is particularly evident in the first chapter, “A Story Where Nothing Happens.” Revisiting in 1994 several schools that he had visited 13 years earlier, Sizer finds the same benumbing routines, the same complicit acceptance of low standards, and even (in at least one case) the same textbooks.

Writing about one such high school, Sizer uses the ominous word “conspiracy” to describe the way teachers and students enable each other. Here teachers pay homage to learning in word, not deed; the real business is to keep the lid on the simmering chaos. The enrollment is half of what it was when Sizer visited in 1981, but otherwise the school is pretty much the same. Now, however, the surrounding community is far poorer and more violent; the industry that once supplied locals with jobs is gone. And the response of the school system to this social devastation, a somewhat incredulous Sizer notes, is to intensify standardized testing.

Standardized testing is one of Sizer’s old enemies, embodying as it does the evils of a system dedicated to sorting and measuring kids as opposed to educating them. “There is little correlation,” Sizer says, “between the [test scores] we make so much of and future behavior. What happens to a youngster 10 years out of school? Unless we find out how schooling connects with peoples’ lives down the road, we shouldn’t take these indices seriously at all.”

The institutional drabness, the compromises, the emphasis on bubbling in answers--it’s enough to induce a fatal loss of confidence. But like Horace, who believes the failing educational system is a vacuum that “could be constructively filled,” Sizer in the end rebounds. He recovers his faith in subsequent chapters, talking about the success of certain coalition schools and the habits of mind he wants kids to acquire. He reemphasizes the need for exhibitions, the importance of teachers getting to know each of their students. There are still fits of anger, spells of doubt, but as he gains momentum he manages, in true Sizer fashion, to turn negatives into positives, weaknesses into strengths. Yes, there’s massive confusion in the schools about what should be done, but out of the befuddlement will arise grassroots reform. Yes, people feel a deep antipathy toward the status quo, but this can spur democracy.

When Sizer and Horace peer into the abyss, it is to fish out a few rays of light. “In dark days,” the book concludes, “such light brings hope.”

But why would someone with Sizer’s track record even struggle with doubt? In an education world that has seen dozens if not hundreds of reform ideas come and go, that has been deemed “unreformable” by a number of “experts,” the Coalition of Essential Schools has shown amazing staying power. Several coalition schools, like Central Park East in Harlem and Thayer High School in New Hampshire, have gained renown and brought their leaders--in these cases, Deborah Meier and Dennis Littky, respectively--to national prominence. The coalition is now so big that it has begun to decentralize its operations at Brown University in favor of regional centers.

“It’s amazing that the coalition is still expanding after 12 years, that hundreds of teachers have been inspired by this,” says Sizer’s colleague Arthur Powell. “We began with a handful of schools, little money, and nine principles that are not exactly the polio vaccine, so evident are they. And, somewhat surprisingly, the coalition has become more connected with issues of inner-city life and poor kids. This to me is an astonishing success.”

Perhaps even more significant than the growth in the number of member schools is the success the coalition has had in approaching what Sizer describes as “the long-term goal of getting people to think differently about adolescents in schooling.” So embedded are the nine principles in our educational mind-set that even the most rigid back-to-basics advocates must contend with them.

And yet, the coalition--and the movement it spawned--may not be as robust as it appears. In 1985, Sizer commissioned an independent assessment of the coalition’s work. In the resulting book, the recent Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms: An Ethnographic View of the Coalition of Essential Schools, researchers Donna Muncey and Patrick McQuillan study five different kinds of coalition high schools and conclude that reforms once planted don’t necessarily take root. “Most coalition programs begin with enthusiasm and fanfare,” the authors write, “but over five years, these efforts become more routine and, in some cases, more representative of typical school life.”

One long-standing issue has to do with the coalition’s “safety in numbers” approach to growth. Dependent upon funders who wanted to be associated with a program of real magnitude, the coalition quickly added member schools but lost, in the process, much of its depth of commitment to individual schools. In a sense, this has put the coalition in the somewhat awkward position of being at odds with its own philosophy. The coalition told teachers that depth is more important than breadth, that “less is more,” yet it succumbed to the shallowness it disdains by eagerly adding schools to its roster.

And at some coalition schools, the commitment among faculty is shaky at best. A principal at one member school in the Southeast, for example, tells me during a telephone interview that only a third of his teachers have bought into the principles. The main obstacle, he says, is older teachers who are resistant to change. Another problem, he explains, is a lack of space at the school; teachers have a hard time finding a place for conferencing, an important element of the coalition model.

An hour later this principal calls back, saying he doesn’t want his or the school’s name used in this article. He also changes his story. Approximately 70 percent of the teachers at his school use the coalition’s principles in their classrooms, he now says. He really doesn’t know for certain, though, because he himself isn’t directly involved with the coalition.

And that’s part of the problem, according to Reform and Resistance: The coalition has little direct involvement with many of its schools. In fact, Muncey and McQuillan found a number of school people who felt betrayed by the coalition. They said they were charmed into joining and then abandoned. One teacher told the authors, “The thing I would say, looking back on the seven years in the coalition, is that it’s wonderful to be deserted by them.” But it was different at the beginning, the teacher said. “When we were first involved with the coalition, it was with people with faces, people would come to our school, people would call.” Another teacher complained, "[Sizer] got teachers excited and got them to the point where they dared to hope, and then he disappeared from our world.”

The coalition, Muncey and McQuillan suggest, under-estimated just how hard it is to change schools. In many places, the coalition faithful--usually (but not always) young and idealistic faculty members--alienated many colleagues with a missionary zeal that the others found both naive and arrogant. The older, more experienced teachers had seen reforms come and go, and they were skeptical; in one case, this skepticism turned to resentment when they were referred to in a coalition report as “a bunch of naysayers.”

Reform and Resistance sometimes reads like a psychoanalytic drama in which coalition upstarts perceive their somewhat stodgy elders as being in denial. The senior teachers do not want to acknowledge, the upstarts aver, that their teaching practices are less than effective and, hence, that they are deeply threatened by everything the coalition is trying to accomplish.

Those who are at odds with the coalition often do sound threatened. “We never use the word ‘coalition’ anymore,” one angry teacher told Muncey and McQuillan, “It’s like a dirty word.” Another teacher, feeling that the school administration had shown favoritism toward coalition activists, said, “We must remove their halos; they are not the only good guys in the school.”

But the old-line teachers, as obstreperous as they sometimes sound, do not always come across as mere reactionaries. The questions they raise about the coalition are, for the most part, salient and practical. How can teachers coach students when most still have upward of 120 students? How can teachers meet to reflect upon their practice when inflexible scheduling makes even occasional collaboration difficult? How can students take initiative, ask challenging questions, and launch their own projects when they haven’t even done the required reading?

Some veteran teachers also express reservations about the philosophical underpinnings of the coalition’s principles. How, they want to know, can teachers relinquish authority and let students discover things for themselves when students so often need explicit guidance to understand basic subject matter? And what about student exhibitions and portfolios--won’t they always be hopelessly subjective assessments?

And then there are the teachers, especially in suburban schools that send most of their students on to college, who see no need for any kind of reform, let alone the coalition. “We are good now,” one teacher told Muncey and McQuillan. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Asked about the concerns raised in Reform and Resistance, Sizer is not the least bit defensive. It is important to understand, he notes, that the research for that book is at least five years old and, hence, somewhat dated; nevertheless, he says, it is “a very useful book. Why should everyone expect to get everything right the first time? Of course, we’re going to do some things wrong.”

Sizer agrees that the coalition has run the risk of spreading itself too thin by so quickly expanding. But as Muncey and McQuillan suggest, the coalition has to some extent been driven by its funders, who, Sizer says, would eschew “a little boutique project.” In America, the implication is, you have to be big to be taken seriously. Without substantial numbers, the coalition, Sizer believes, may very well have become irrelevant to a serious discussion of schooling.

“But in a way,” he explains, “schools are almost pawns in a game. They come and go. Schools change. Communities change. What might not change is the way people think about schooling, and our long-term goal is to have people think differently about adolescents in schooling. The most important thing is that our basic ideas be taken seriously because schools and school systems change because of ideas. God knows, that’s how we got the schools we now have.”

He listens to a description of a member school that has implemented the external structures but not the spirit of the coalition’s reforms--it has block scheduling, schools within the school, and time for teacher development, and yet the classrooms are mostly bleak, dispirited places. Asked whether the scenario is a common one, he says, “Oh yeah, it makes you want to weep. When I go into a school, I always look for two things: the student load [per teacher] and student work. ‘Don’t tell me about your top 10 percent,’ I tell schools. I want to see the work of each serious student. If you can’t show me student work, or if you have 150 students per teacher, then forget it. You have a long way to go. The schools that go down to a human scale see the results. That’s no longer a theory.”

Student exhibitions are, according to Sizer, “the Achilles’ heel” of the coalition’s reform initiative. Teachers, schools, and the general public are locked into standardized testing. They have a difficult time understanding that only through exhibitions can students demonstrate their skill and knowledge. Yet Sizer remains committed to exhibitions. Without them, the coalition reforms would be hopelessly diluted. “Why do we at the coalition put so much emphasis on exhibitions?” Sizer asks. “Well, the answer is that if you can get the student work up there, the incompetent will be utterly exposed.”

While appealing in theory, the exhibitions are difficult to put into practice. Muncey and McQuillan describe students eager to undertake very ambitious projects who then lose their enthusiasm as they’re beset with illness, extracurricular activities, and sheer laziness. The end results, with some notable exceptions, are mediocre. “What I end up getting,” one teacher told the authors, “is a bunch of last-minute pieces of exhibitions from students, and they are not what I wanted. I wanted them to be developed over time.” Many teachers--either confused over the standards or afraid to hurt feelings--just let things slide.

Sizer acknowledges that exhibitions are tricky but insists they can be effectively implemented. “We learned a lot about exhibitions in the first five years of the coalition,” he says. “What you’ve got to do is not just exhibit but exhibit against some discussed standard. And for that you bring in outsiders. What is good enough? You’re an engineer at a Wang laboratory, tell me what you think. Is it good enough? So what you do is make the work absolutely public. Can there still be pandering? Yeah, but the odds against it are much higher. Bob Makin"--principal at Southegan High School in New Hampshire--"will tell you that every year the standard of the work will come up because every year the public perception of what is good work changes. The first year, he wanted to weep--people were afraid to criticize. We know how that goes because we’ve taught. You have a student whose mother dies of cancer or whose father runs off with the maid. You say, ‘Sure, I’ll give you another week.’ Is that caring? Yeah. Is it legitimate caring? Maybe not. But this work wouldn’t be interesting if you didn’t have these very interesting judgment calls.”

It’s getting toward evening now, a couple hours after the Annenberg symposium, and as the conversation slows, Sizer digresses a bit. He refers to an article he’s read on how the nation’s media is essentially controlled by four conglomerates. Textbook publishing, he says, is controlled by six. “Who controls the flow of information is tremendously important,” he explains. “Where’s the public square? I don’t think we’re beginning to understand that we’re a monochromatic culture. We’re not multicultural but unicultural. Maybe the public school shouldn’t be a place of common beliefs but a place that makes us respectfully skeptical.”

In Horace’s Hope, Sizer suggests that respectful skepticism should be the goal of schooling. Only by honing such skepticism, he argues, can citizens wend their way through the false platitudes and sophistries spun by politicians, a pandering media, and disingenuous school officials. For Sizer, school should always be about the life of the mind. Only the well-trained mind can manage the somewhat paradoxical task of respecting a wide range of ideas while yet remaining skeptical of their veracity. Skepticism without respect lapses into cynicism; respect devoid of skepticism becomes dangerous absolutism.

But respectful skepticism is an intellectual endeavor, and our high schools have never been particularly hospitable to anything intellectual, as one principal made clear in a comment to Muncey and McQuillan. “Haven’t they read Anti-Intellectualism in America?” the principal asked, referring to coalition leaders. “That’s what the community wants.”

Henry Levin, a professor of education at Stanford University and director of the Accelerated Schools Project, says much the same thing. Levin admires Sizer and agrees with most of his nine principles, but he suggests that Sizer is a bit too idealistic. “Ted is what I’d call an East Coast intellectual,” Levin says. “He believes that ideas will carry the day, and when he addresses teachers his speeches are idea-laden. While I share most of Ted’s goals, we differ in that I believe that schools need a process to achieve their goals. It’s analogous to what happened in Eastern Europe. The fall of communism didn’t guarantee democracy. Democracy is a process as well as a set of ideas, and if you’re going to build democracy, you have to put a process in place.”

The Accelerated Schools Project now has more than 1,000 schools in 40 states. Although it isn’t nearly as well-known as the coalition, it is successful, Levin claims, on account of the process he has established. The project, he points out, trains teachers and has formal assessments. “The coalition, on the other hand, is very reluctant to tell people how to get there,” Levin says. “Ted believes that if you respect people and give them powerful ideas, they’ll come through.”

The majority of high schools have always been more about football teams and glee clubs than intellectual activity, and it sometimes seems as if the real Achilles’ heel of Sizer’s reform plan is not the exhibitions but his apparent faith that the typical high school can one day be driven by the life of the mind. After all, many people think schools are already far too skeptical of mainstream values. Does Sizer really believe that respectful skepticism might one day be a welcome ingredient of the school curriculum?

“Unthinkable!” Sizer says facetiously. “But who would have thought six years ago that a Democratic president would be for charter schools? So, hey, if you’re just patient and use common language . . .”

At this juncture in his life--as he leaves Annenberg and steps back from the daily grind at the coalition--has Sizer at all lost faith in the reform process? “No,” he says, “because I was trained as a historian, thank God. Most experiments take a long time, because if they’re serious experiments it is always a struggle to get people to think differently about their work.”

Sizer insists that the coalition is in a relatively better position now than it was five years ago. We are, Sizer believes, in a time of fear and high confusion, which he, optimistic as always, says is “the beginning of wisdom.” Old certainties are toppling, and in the new climate of freedom fresh ideas can finally be explored without trepidation. It is a matter, he says, of getting people who “know what the hell they’re doing” and then achieving a critical mass so that they can become a force. This is the long-term strategy.

“No one said it was going to be easy,” Sizer concludes. “I mean, it’s easy to say that schools should be for educating and not sorting kids, but it involves a radical shift in attitudes. You can’t just say track them, bring out the bell curve, or whatever. It’s going to take time. After all, the whole idea of compulsory education was attacked in the 1880s as a kind of communist plot.

“Is it fun to lose much of the time?” he asks. “No. Do you get disillusioned some of the time? You’d better believe it. But what’s the alternative? It’s not like we’re on some kind of bizarre course. The merit of what we’re trying to do is so obvious.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as The Essential Ted Sizer


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