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Teaching Commentary

Remembering ‘Horace,’ Too

By Robert Barsanti — November 16, 2009 3 min read

When the e-mail alert came late last month announcing the death of Ted Sizer, I was, in a manner of speaking, hip-deep in alligators. Recommendations remained to be written, essays to be graded, quizzes to be corrected, and homework to be tallied up in requisite checks and zeroes. Further, my briefcase snapped at me with its sheaves and bales of other uncorrected papers.

Yet, even with the water building and the jaws snapping, I paused for a moment and thought of Horace.

Theodore R. Sizer was many things: a military leader, the headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and one of the pre-eminent school reformers of his day. But he will be best remembered for a literary character he created.

Horace Smith was the 53-year-old veteran English teacher in Horace’s Compromise, first published in 1984. Through him, Sizer pointed out the absurdities and hypocrisies of the modern high school and classroom. Horace worked hard, was good at his job, and cared about his community. But because of the time-honored, yet thoughtless, structure of school, he was unable to educate his students as much as he wanted to.

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)

Instead, he muddled through packs of cigarettes, cups of coffee, lines of Shakespeare, and 120 students a day. His compromise was to leave the students unchallenged, so that he in turn might be able to live a balanced life and go to bed at a reasonable hour.

I first met Horace in the early April of my teaching career, when I was working to get my certificate in a Vermont college town. At the time, Horace warned me about the career I was entering, and of the dangers that a recent federal report, A Nation at Risk, was both enumerating and enabling in education.

Sizer’s call to action listed nine radical but sensible solutions to intractable problems: his nine common principles. Among other ideas, he suggested longer class periods, a focus on core academic skills, and the idea that a student should be a worker, not a viewer.

My fellow undergraduates and I debated the pros and cons of Sizer’s reforms with the same expertise and understanding we thought we could bring to World War I infantry tactics and Elizabethan poetry. We were so smart. We could rid the world of Horaces once and for all.

Now, in the August of my career, I am Horace. I don’t smoke, and I drink less coffee, but my classload is the same, as are the 42 minutes a day I get to see each class of kids. I stagger through the same bells, hurdles, and bumpers that Horace did 25 years ago. In fact, I probably use the exact same editions that he would have. Like Horace, I find that I can’t teach my students as well as I would like to, and that my students are too harried to master as much as they could.

But, unlike Horace, I have the advantage of Ted Sizer’s writing and guidance. I have learned to be the “guide on the side,” and how to focus on the skills the students can master. I can use those nine principles, even if on a small scale. And I live in a state (Massachusetts) where curriculum frameworks rose out of his core learning principles, and where an assessment, although flawed, measures what students can do, as opposed to what they have seen, heard, and copied. Those frameworks, and those tests, have become a model for education reform throughout the country.

If, over the years, few people who did not know him personally remember Ted Sizer, Horace Smith will still sit comfortably in libraries and be sought out in college secondhand shops. And if, in those days, undergraduates are aroused to newer, shinier calls to arms and the nine common principles fade into the PowerPoint presentations of the past, the educational changes Ted Sizer wrought, in Massachusetts and across the country, will continue to be felt, for generations.

I may need that time to finish my grading.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Remembering ‘Horace,’ Too

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