Accountability Opinion

The Irreplaceable Ted Sizer

By Deborah Meier — November 30, 2009 3 min read
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Note: This column was scheduled to appear on Nov. 25, but was not published until Nov. 30 due to an editing error.

Dear Diane,

I went up to Boston last weekend for the memorial service/celebration of Ted Sizer’s life at Harvard’s Memorial Church. Rituals can be wonderful things when we are facing the death of someone as important to us as Ted has been. Our shared respect for Ted is perhaps one of the reasons we embarked upon this blog. Ted has been a “bridge” between two often fiercely opposing camps that we have both been part of. He liked it that we were conversing across the frontiers of our histories.

The family put together an event to celebrate “Uncle” Ted that reminded us of the fact that his life was all of one piece. No seams. He was to the world what he was at home, in the classroom as he was in the principal’s office, to 5-year-olds what he was to this 78-year-old. Which perhaps is why it’s so hard to “replace” him. Were we all to work twice as hard to fill his varied roles, reach each of the many audiences that our task requires us to communicate with, it wouldn’t be enough. Because what was clear was that Ted could, using the same words and anecdotes, simultaneously reach five times the range of audiences we each specialize in. His selection of words and stories, his tone of voice, his emphasis—they crossed bridges and boundaries.

All my native New York-Jewish suspicions were aroused when I first heard of him--and then soon one after another, they were dispelled. This New England WASP, whose family background spoke of Yale, Harvard, Andover, and Brown over time utterly disarmed me. His form of arguing, a question here and another there, was in fact a variant of my father’s style. He pricked us with very mild and yet sharp questions—that were probing and often discombobulating. He was not always as predictable as one expected.

All the speakers at the service—including his children—reminded us of that mischievous smile, that glint in his eye. We reminisced about a seeming naiveté that masked a deeply sophisticated, even skeptical, and decidedly complex mindset.

He spoke truth to power with all the comfort of a man of both “the people” and “the powerful.”

”...There are deep and understandable disagreements, not only among citizens, but among experts on just what an excellent education might be and how we would know it when we see it,” Ted wrote at the conclusion of Horace’s Hope. “The market of ideas allows both variety and contention...This will be untidy, and those who believe that there is a virtue in cultural orderliness will...be unhappy.” But “free minds are untidy...and our institutions must reflect that rather than present a spurious uniformity.”

He is not railing against the fact that Horace must make compromises, but that the compromises he needs to make do not serve his students well. Thus, his first goal for the Coalition of Essential Schools was not the transformation of all schools into his favorite model, but transforming the way we talk about young people, their families, their schools, and our democratic aspirations.

My childhood hero, Eugene V. Debs, put into words an idea that Ted and all my heroes represent in their own way. “I would not,” said Debs, “lead you to the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you there, others could lead you back again.” Some people awaken us to lead ourselves, not to promised lands perhaps, but to more promising ones, the ones of our own fashioning. Such a man was Ted Sizer, as he encouraged his son to build a tree house that was never quite straight, but held up over the years, so he helped thousands of students and colleagues to write about how closely he listened and observed, how hard it was to “read” his mind—while at the same time how much he encouraged them to read their own.

His work is unfinished. It’s time for us all to reread his work—starting with Horace’s Compromise. In the words of a little 8-year-old returning from Central Park after burying our beloved snake, “My grandfather died in his sleep. But I still love him. And he won’t be dead as long as I keep loving him.” So too, will Ted live on in our love and in his work.


P.S. Ted was bold, in contrast to the so-called reforms we face these days. He got to the essentials, rather than rehashing worn-out solutions that have been re-circulating every few generations. Enough! It’s time for us all—including you and me, Diane—to again take up Horace’s Compromise , the first of Ted’s three books on the American high school.

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.