Q&A: Sizer’s Red Pencil Chides Establishment for ‘Silences’

September 21, 2004 7 min read
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Give me a community today that is as Putnam describes, and I’ll show you schools that perform better than the social class of the kids suggests would be expected. Social capital counts.

Theodore R. Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, is one of the best-known names in education. Senior Editor Lynn Olson recently interviewed the 72-year-old educator about his new book, The Red Pencil: Convictions From Experience in Education, published this fall by the Yale University Press.

Q: Much of your book is devoted to what you call the “silences” in education, or the failure to think freshly about all-too-familiar practices. Why do you describe these as silences?

A: In many ways, it’s an inapt word. We aren’t silent about these things. We talk about them all the time, but we don’t do anything about them.For example, there is an ocean of evidence that life outside of school has more effect on a child’s achievement than life inside of school, which is no surprise, given the limited amount of time kids are in school. And children’s lives outside of school are very much conditioned by the opportunities and protections provided by communities and families-or the lack thereof, especially for children in families under great stress. We can’t think about education as only what happens in schools.

Q: If, as you say, the narrow, “inside of school” focus is wrongheaded, why does it persist?

A: It persists because it serves us educators well. That is, if we control the money and we control the situations in which the kids are studying, we have essentially total control over the schooling by these kids. On the other hand, if the families had some say, largely through their choice of school, that’s going to lessen our authority. And if we try to hook our work closely with other agencies’, a can of political worms is opened.

Q: In 1965, the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson asked you to join a White House task force on the cities, for which you drafted a Poor Children’s Bill of Rights. Can you describe that document and how it might apply today?

A: The notion was to take the sums in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act-which were given to school systems to compensate for the limited educational opportunities of poor kids-and to give those monies directly to the families of those poor kids so that they could “buy” the services that they needed. It was a process of balancing authority. That is, the state and state schools, drawing from tax monies, ran schools. The families had little say in this. But if the families of poor kids (and the poorer the kid, the bigger the voucher) had the opportunity to spend that money on top of the money already available on a per-pupil basis for children in a district, that would make poor kids attractive.

Today, people talk about vouchers. But there are all kinds of vouchers. None of them, or few of them at the most, are the kind of thing represented in the Poor Children’s Bill of Rights, which was an additional sum of money on top of the existing per-pupil expenditure per kid. Vouchers in some quarters today are ways of channeling public money into the private sector or into the religious sector, or a way of funding the whole education system. The Children’s Bill of Rights was an add-on, a way to enhance the authority of poor families and make them attractive to school districts.

Q: The second “silence” you write about is who has-and who should have-authority in public education. You argue that when a free society compels its citizens to do something, like attend school, the hand of the state needs to be “informed, restrained, and nuanced.” Clearly, you don’t think that’s been the case.

A: The states have overstepped their bounds in the rigid standardization of the services provided. And it’s more than just the state. It’s the teaching practices of a certain kind, which are endorsed here and there. It’s the union contracts. Essentially, the profession controls what is offered. That monopoly-that’s a loaded word, I know-but the extent of that power has got to be, in my view, reduced. Not eliminated, but reduced.

Q: Could you describe your idea for a different balance of authority?

A: I favor a variety of schools. There’s no one best school for all kids. To get some variety, there should be incentives at the teacher and principal level, at the schoolhouse level, to create schools which clearly appear to serve the particular needs of an affected community. So, step number one is, families should be able to choose among those providers, among those schools, and carry with them a chunk of money that pays for that or pays for a significant portion of it.

Secondly, the state has a constitutional responsibility for the quality and provision of schools. And the state should meet that obligation by providing the legislative and financial support required, by setting generalized standards, and by rigorous and regular inspection, and by providing the public with responsibly differing schools.

So the balance is between the state and the educators and the families who choose the educators. What it does is change the now quite-rigid hierarchical bureaucracy. That’s an old theme; it goes way back. There’s nothing new about this idea. But not many places have taken it seriously yet. Or if they’ve taken it seriously, it has such a profound ideological coloration that people reject it on the basis of that coloration.

Q: The third “silence” you talk about is the “frightening silence about what it takes to help shape orderly minds.” In particular, you argue, learning is both idiosyncratic and messy and doesn’t mesh well with delivering a set body of knowledge in a set time period. What’s the solution?

A: The solution is again to be humble. That is, to be suspicious of those who say there is one best curriculum and one best schedule of time in which to deliver it. Each child comes into the school with his or her own background, his or her own convictions, his or her own experience. And good teachers take those where they are and move with them in constructive ways. If the system says, “No, there’s only one way of doing things, there’s only one way of assessing things, there’s only one way of organizing for them,” thoughtfully nuanced work with kids is exceedingly difficult. As a result, teachers that I admire have disproportionately been quiet rebels. They just ignore all of that in one way or another. Their practice is rebellious rather than the rule.

Q: Why are the silences you describe in your book so persistent?

A: I’ve really puzzled about that. I come down hard on all of us who work in universities. There hasn’t been a significant, sustained, national force for ideas that shake up the status quo, whether on the liberal side or the conservative side. The universities in other fields have been very much the engines of what I call invention. In education, education schools are organized by the separate enterprises of the familiar system, creating a Balkanization in the education schools which mirrors the Balkanization inside of high schools and school systems. And education schools have seen their role primarily as analysts of existing practice and the training of people to pursue that practice.

There is no counterpart, on any sustained scale in schools of education, to the kind of invention, for instance, that happens in great medical schools on the basis of careful and unflinching analysis of the truth.

Q: What would schools look like if we started anew?

A: We’re talking high schools. They’d be open 12 months of the year. They would be acknowledged as a part-time activity, and for educational reasons, that which happens beyond the schools would be shaped to be constructive and productive. They would be schools which had a contract, small “c,” with the families, the parents, or the guardians of the kids involved. They wouldn’t be just something between the kid and the school.

They would be part of a web of social services that were easily accessible-health services, mental-health services, athletic resources, job opportunities, internships, and particularly the kinds of things that lead to social capital as Robert Putnam describes it. [Mr. Putnam, a Harvard University professor, is the author of the 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which argues that Americans are becoming increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and democratic structures and suggests ways to correct the situation.]

Give me a community today that is as Putnam describes, and I’ll show you schools that perform better than the social class of the kids suggests would be expected. Social capital counts.

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