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There's nothing magical about the century's end--we're betting that January 1, 2000, will be little different than December 31, 1999. But the benchmark is a convenient excuse to take stock. In that spirit, we sought out the wisdom of two sages of education. Ted Sizer and Denis Doyle don't preach from the same bible: Sizer--the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and until recently the acting principal of the Frances W. Parker Charter Essential School in Massachusetts--is a guru of progressive teaching; Doyle--a scholar who worked in the U.S. Department of Education from 1973 to 1984--is a leading light among conservatives. But both are eloquent, passionate advocates for better schools. And both are good writers: Sizer, best-known for his trilogy about a fictional high school teacher named Horace, recently co-authored The Students Are Watching (Beacon Press) with his wife, Nancy (his co-principal at Parker); Doyle has written many books about education, including the noted Winning the Brain Race (Institute for Contemporary Studies Press), with David Kearns.

Sizer and Doyle recently spent several weeks ruminating on the state of education through an exchange of e-mails in which they spar over philosophy, look to the future, and sum up historical trends.

FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Denis,

Significant trends over the past 15 or 20 years? First, the resurgence of the traditional education hierarchy. What Bill Bennett a dozen years ago called "the blob" now holds commanding heights, largely through state tests and accompanying curriculum frameworks. The power of central authority has never been so invasive--for good or ill--as it is today.

Second is the rising interest in--and power of--"non-school schooling." The Internet is the most powerful example of this phenomenon, with all its glitter, coarseness, and nonsense. Teaching today is different because of the Internet. Its effects are just coming into focus, from the moral--it is easy to steal a passable research paper off the Internet--to the fascinating-kids can communicate with people across the globe.

Third is the extraordinary decline of the influence of the academy-primarily the universities-on schools and schooling. The most robust energy for reform has come largely from outside the academy. Why is this so? To me, it's troubling that our intellectual leaders are uninterested--or at least publicly silent-on the issues of academic and intellectual freedom implicit in state-driven curricula and testing.


FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Ted,

It is clear to me that the last third of the century is Lyndon Johnson's legacy: an aggressive and significant federal role, in which not much money is cleverly leveraged to give disadvantaged children access to an education equal to what their well-to-do peers get. The most infelicitous result was the implicit acceptance of the idea that not everyone could be held to high academic standards, to the serious detriment of the poor and racial and ethnic minorities. As a society we have invested 30 years and a trillion dollars in the Title I program, which targets federal money to poor schools. And there's precious little to show for it; "no sustaining effects" the researchers dryly say. If nothing else, that conclusion should be a call to arms.

Looking at the last decade, I see the big issues as: standards--taking academics seriously; new federalism--the states take charge; the near-disappearance of school's academic mission; and choice--part of a global movement to self-determination and "small is beautiful."

Together with the collapse of totalitarianism, market capitalism is producing unparalleled prosperity and optimism. And people want their schools to reflect that same optimism and affluence; they want schools that are non-bureaucratic, high performance, user-friendly organizations. That is why there has been an explosive growth in new and different schools over the past decade. By my count, there may be as many as 10,000 new schools as the century draws to a close. Add 1 million home schoolers, and something major is afoot.

The biggest issue of all is choice, by which I mean much more than vouchers. I think of it as a return to genotype, reflecting an atavistic memory of the intimacy of the one-room school.

Finally, as you suggest, one unintended consequence of the standards movement has been to give the states even more control. The concept of New Federalism as preached by both Nixon and Reagan failed de jure, but it lives de facto. States--and some big districts like Chicago--have reassumed control of education, and they actually like it.

I am eagerly awaiting my 20-month-old grandson Tobias' visit. His first word was "book." Could there be a better omen for the future of education?

Best wishes,

FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Denis,

Much has kept Nancy and me busy at the Parker Charter School. It's all a good reminder of the unremitting dailiness of schoolkeeping--the important interruptions; the complexity of a worthwhile school (that is, one that takes each of its students and teachers as an individual in deed as well as talk); the seemingly endless, but necessary, bureaucracies of managing a community of almost 400 restless, interesting, young people. In all, fascinating, exhausting, revealing, thoroughly worthwhile.

Your letter was provocative, with lots of nice meat. As you suggest, the federal role, starting in the 1950s and accelerating under Johnson, is important, albeit mostly for poor students and schools. As to your comments regarding the near-disappearance of the school's academic mission: That assumes that schools had a substantial academic mission prior to 1950. I doubt it. Anti-intellectualism has a long history on these shores.

You mention Title I. I have to ask: Without Title I, what would have happened? Would states have targeted moneys toward schools for the poor? The feds were more progressive on these matters than were the states. Perhaps the targeted federal money kept a floor under the poor kids' schools at a difficult financial time. That alone may justify the program.

Recent "reform" has been at the safe and easy margins: holding summits, raising standards for others to meet, administering tests (and registering shock when the scores are low), adding professional development, shuffling the leaders, endless jawboning. Most formal reform has been launched by so-called "stakeholders"--those filling the seats of authority (senior education administrators, business leaders, and governmental and academic types). However well-intentioned, few of these folks are close to the schools. They have a limited-and usually out-of-date-sense of school routines. If they had been close to the classroom, they would not be shocked by low test scores; they would know how much wasted time and well-intentioned wrongheadedness fills the school day.

As you say, this may be changing. What's emerging is a parallel--and contradictory--shift of authority downward to the individual school and upward to the state. The loser is the district. The state directs, the school implements. The district is relegated to matters of finance (over which it usually has limited control) and to the nasty rigors of insisting on compliance by the schools.

Another contradiction: Families will have choice among schools, but each school must follow state curriculum frameworks and be judged by their students' scores on state tests. And so what does "choice" actually denote? Is it merely choice of means to a dictated end? If that end is "unteachable" or politically motivated in an extreme way, what will happen?

I was interested that technology was not on your list of big changes. We're only just beginning to feel its effects. I have sensed this in the rugged individualists among our older students; they want a mix of school, "home schooling," and learning via the Internet. As I listen to them and see their work, I am impressed and at the same time puzzled about how to accommodate and stimulate their interests as a matter of general policy. Have you ideas?


FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Ted,

Sorry for my tardy response, but I have had an episode with kidney stones (two episodes, in fact, back to back). My advice is don't catch them; no fun.

Your doubts about the good old days (as I put it, "the disappearance of the school's academic mission") are on target. F. Scott Fitzgerald described nostalgia as "being sentimental about something that never was." But I do think that there were times and places when academic study was more rigorous-at least for some kids. The college prep track in my Chicago high school was demanding (and, in retrospect, rewarding).

Title I fascinates me, as well as your point that the federal government has been more progressive than the states. (I will resist the temptation to discuss what the road to hell is paved with.) Title I was the right thing to do at the right time, but it was disappointing to see how quickly it got set in its ways, how little it relied on research to improve practice. Indeed, without being cynical, it is easy to think of Title I's greatest success as a jobs program for adults rather than an education intervention for children.

This leads me to your other interesting point. The standards movement is having the odd and unintended effect of increasing state control and weakening local control. If the increased state role leads to serious and useful measures of student performance (and leaves schools to their own devices to meet them), the change will not be all bad. So, too, it follows that states' increased interest in student performance will naturally lead them to equalize funding. Giving poor schools more money is essential, and the state is the only realistic source of equalization. One hopes, however, that it will not be the equality of the grave. Leveling down may be more dangerous than inequality. Too little for everyone--as happened in California with the property-tax caps applied by Proposition 13 in the late 1970s--is a statewide nightmare.

The emerging tension between state demands and local interests will play out badly if states are inflexible and arbitrary. Conceptually, however, there are things that can be done. If state standards are cast simply in terms of measuring student performance, schools can meet them in any way their talents and interest lead them. Most important, schools that help their students meet these standards could be excused from state regulation. Unless schools enjoy such freedom, school choice will be utterly meaningless.

Finally, the "one best system," to use David Tyack's wonderful formulation, has systematically denied teachers, students, and families any meaningful choice. The foundation of successful democracy is a citizenry that has cultivated habits of reflection and choice. Schools are the place for this to begin, not only as a matter of academic interest but practical import. Practice makes perfect.

In closing, I was quiet about technology because I have the issue surrounded. On the one hand, I drive a stick-shift car and use a fountain pen; on the other, I am convinced that modern telecommunications technologies will have a much bigger impact than even Jan Comenius' invention of the textbook. They are truly transforming technologies.

I am counting the days until I depart for a week of trout fishing on the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.

Best wishes,

FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Denis,

Ouch. Commiserations on the kidney stones. I am glad that the siege is over. May it not return.

I agree with your point about state control--if states show restraint, practicality, and humility about the limitation of formal testing and toughness when it is needed.

Restraint? Reasonable, well-educated people disagree over important matters of what might be included in a curriculum. Beyond the rudiments (there is even Sturm und Drang there), one gets quickly into matters of taste and emphasis. For example: How do you tease out and teach the character and purposes of the American interest in Vietnam? Is Catcher in the Rye an appropriate book for 13-year-olds? How might evolution conflict with Biblical characterizations of the beginnings of humankind? And what is the meaning of that conflict? Is calculus a sine qua non subject for all citizens, or is some other area of mathematics more appropriate for young people? The state should--in the name of freedom--exert a light hand, requiring an absolute minimum of topics about which most Americans agree. The record in the past is not encouraging.

Practicality? I recently attended a meeting of the Massachusetts State Board of Education at which revised curriculum frameworks for the arts were presented. Individual pieces of the document were ingenious. Each of the many arts was represented. However, the whole together--so massive, comprehensive, and demanding--was in its vast scope unteachable. In this well-intentioned overreaching, the arts standards are not alone. State and national frameworks have, as a rule, been undisciplined; each takes little cognizance of any other, and few take serious note of the realities of teaching.

Humility? States that deliver a curriculum framework, write tests to conform to that framework, enjoin the schools to prepare for its tests, and expect an educated citizenry to emerge are kidding themselves. Serious education is far more complicated; to equate it with a test score or two cheapens the entire enterprise. This is not to argue against tests that can tell us something about a child's educational program. But conventional tests are the beginning, not the end.

Toughness? For decades, states, districts, and regional accrediting associations have known about utterly incompetent schools, but few have acted. To do so would kick up a storm and, even more daunting, would imply that the authorities were going to do something-like spend money and political capital--to remedy those schools' problems. Why will it necessarily be different now?

The standards movement has given us a key piece of the right agenda. May its leaders think very carefully, very humbly, and very small.

In my 15-year odyssey among secondary schools across this country, I am continually struck by the similarity of school curricula, routines, rituals, and even architecture. There are probably many reasons for this: the nationalizing effect of the textbook industry; control by a largely benign but nonetheless homogenizing bureaucratic hierarchy; the reach of the national professional associations; teacher licensure and the resulting clone-like professional training programs; and, finally, political leadership that has failed to demonstrate the courage to go beyond self-righteous rhetoric about "change." It is not a noble picture.

Which brings me to technology. The technical merging of the media-television and computers-and the stunning drop in the costs of universal access to those intermingled technologies promise us a new day, albeit one neither necessarily better nor worse (it depends on what we do with the opportunity). The nationalizing cultural force will be even more massive than it is today.

America has a cultural literacy, as the chatter in any deli, city bus, or airport lounge bears witness. But it is a culture that emerges from commerce. The telling of the nation's stories is driven by a bottom line of profit.

Given the extraordinary new leverage of commercial culture, perhaps the role of governmental schools needs to be rethought. We no longer need schools for the purpose of gathering the "conventional wisdoms" but, rather, to develop intellectual skills to understand, criticize, and influence those conventional wisdoms. The new technologies give all of us an opportunity for greater cultural freedom than we have ever had-as long as we learn how to use it and understand what "culture" might mean.

Quite independent of all this activity will be a drift of some older adolescents' interests away from formal schooling and- at very best-toward a home or community-based, technology-driven informal education. The reaction of their parents to this will be politically significant. These "homeschooled" youngsters will tend to live in wealthier homes. Sophisticated and well-connected parents might increasingly ask the state, What are you doing for us? What should you do for us? Is school a place? Or is it a process? If the numbers of such parents are large enough and their collective organization effective, they will be heard.

Other older adolescents-disproportionately from poor communities-may continue to drop out of education altogether. Schooling as it is conventionally served up will have no attraction for them; it will be more of the same, now sprinkled with high-stakes tests that they traditionally have failed. And something else will not be within their circle of possibilities.


FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Ted,

At the risk of putting words in your mouth, may I say that you sound like a closet voucher supporter? That may explain why I agree with so much of what you say.

I broach this topic with some trepidation, knowing that the "V" word poisons debate in many circles. Most Americans discuss vouchers in economic terms. The language is full of grand promises (or dire prognostications) about the power of competition to drive down cost and increase performance, the impact of incentives and rewards, claims about productivity and efficiency, assertions about elitism, and so on.

To my knowledge, however, no other country with a voucher system thinks this way. Voucher-like mechanisms exist in Denmark to protect and promote diversity and variety as well as religious freedom. (Because there is a state church, government schools include religious observances. Not so in nongovernment schools.) Any group of parents with 24 children among them may start a school for whatever reason they like: pedagogical, ideological, religious. In this view, vouchers build community and are inclusive, not exclusive. They are right to think in those terms. That is what schooling is about.

I mention these delicate matters because your description of a desirable education matches what I see in independent schools. They are distinctive, confident of purpose, and flexible. They are not bound up in rules and regulations, and they are free to follow their intellectual and moral lights. Indeed, insofar as there is any variability in American elementary and secondary education, it is in the private sector. The public sector clusters around the norm. There are few outliers, and these have short half-lives.

You are right to worry about the dumbing down effect of standards, which is why I think it is important that when states set standards, they limit themselves to a manageable core of expectations. Once kids demonstrate mastery of the fundamentals (at a high level), they should be encouraged to delve deeply into a few things rather than many.

Interestingly, the issue would be less serious if the nation's teachers were consumed by intellectual passion for their own disciplines (as I know the best are). They would be the bulwark against dumbing down; but you don't have to be H.L. Mencken to know that's unlikely.

So, too, technology offers hope; in particular, technology can help spare us the tyranny of the textbook. If the Internet provides unparalleled access to original sources- and teacher-produced materials-teachers and students can say farewell to textbooks.

I particularly liked your observations about alternative schooling and technology. Home schooling appears to be growing in leaps and bounds because of many parents' disdain for public and private schooling. The enabler is technology, for two reasons: Parents who have virtual offices can work at home and can, therefore, homeschool. And computers open doors for the homeschoolers themselves.

To close: Though computer prices continue to drop, some kids and schools still cannot afford them. One obvious solution is to subsidize software, hardware, and Internet connectivity for the poor, both at home and at school. But if technology-based learning becomes the schooling solution of choice, it may make the voucher issue moot.

Never has education been more important, never has the ferment been greater. Never have the stakes been higher. Such fun we policy analysts will have.

All the best,

FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Denis,

Ah, the "V" word.

In its original, pristine form "vouchers" was simply code for the idea that "money should follow the child"; in other words, money traditionally given to school districts would be given instead to whatever school a family chose to send their child. My first engagement with this idea came from my work on a White House task force on cities appointed by President Johnson in 1966. My contribution was sketching out what we called "A Poor Child's Bill of Rights." Money going to the school systems would be redirected to families, with the size of the government chit varying with the income of the family-the poorer the family, the bigger the voucher. We scaled these vouchers high enough so that schools would seek out poor kids; we wanted public schools to see poor children as economically highly desirable.

Our work traveled quickly to dusty library shelves. I later put the "Poor Children's Bill of Rights" argument into simple form for Psychology Today in 1968. To my astonishment, it has been recently exhumed (first by Lamar Alexander's presidential campaign) and tidied up by others. What was birthed by a Lefty committee is now grist for Righty policy talk. Fascinating.

I am annoyed by much of the current voucher and "privatizing" talk. What could be more "private" than a public school in a rich suburb? How will $3,000 vouchers do much to "open up" school systems when the real per-pupil cost of educating a secondary school student, for example, is many multiples of that? How will educationally distinctive public schools crop up if no development money is available? Small vouchers will merely be partial scholarships for families that already have the means to leave the "system."

If "private" influences on the schooling of the public are democratically unconscionable (as some sweepingly assert), we had better get rid of private textbook and testing companies. If money that follows the child is inim ical to the public purpose, how can one defend many state arrangements for regional vocational high schools, for special education placements? The smoke around this topic is intense, a measure perhaps of the confusion many of us feel.

My own view is that there should be real choices for families (and not just choices among schools compelled to provide common curricula). And a government that demands that children attend school is morally obli gated to provide the real costs of a serious education. Education money should go to the school that the family elects, and such schools should be open to any family by lottery and should meet constitutional requirements for the separation of church and state.

Maybe that makes me a "closet" voucher supporter. What I am describing, of course, is close to the conditions enjoyed by the Parker Charter School, a public school of choice.


FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Dear Ted,

As to the "V" word: I, too, was deeply involved in vouchers, first as a consultant to the California legislature in the late '60s writing voucher legislation, then trying to find a school district that would try a federal voucher experiment. You will remember that this federal experiment was one of the few carry-overs from the Johnson to the Nixon administrations. The architect was none other than Democratic Socialist Christopher Jencks, whose signal contribution (no doubt with a debt to you) was "regulated, compensatory vouchers," which were, as you know, means-tested. Poor children got much bigger vouchers, making them very attractive to schools.

Our experiment was in Alum Rock, California. Nothing untoward or sensational happened over the five years, disappointing critics and supporters alike. Everyone was mildly better off as a consequence of the additional money and intellectual ferment. When all was said and done, the final word was Steve Wiener's of the Rand Corp. His definitive report was titled, Taking the "Ouch" Out of Vouchers.

I don't want to make too much of vouchers, however, because I think there is a more constructive way to think about these issues: Conservatives can join with liberals and support the idea of "opportunity to learn" standards. By this I mean the chance to be exposed to and delve into a demanding curriculum, to take AP courses, to be challenged and rewarded for hard, intellectual effort.

This would mean a number of things. High-flying public schools would have to backward-map their entire K-12 curriculum from the full panoply of AP courses (this would mean pee-wee AP offerings early in a student's career to get on track quickly). No student would be denied access to AP courses. And every student would have access to schools that are demanding-if neighborhood schools can't or won't offer a tough curriculum, kids should have a choice to move on, to public or private school, at public expense.

We started this colloquy with an historical overview, and it's not too much to assert that the education contours we think of as "natural" today-that is, the pattern that has emerged over the past third of a century-is Lyndon Johnson's legacy. So let's give him the last word. One of his favorite quotes was, "There's only three things worth being: a preacher, a teacher, or a politician." He was right then, right now. And need I add that he was all three.

Having closed our last missive, I realize that I am going to miss them. Perhaps we can arrange to get together over bourbon and branch water in the not-too-distant future and continue our colloquy-off the record.

Best wishes,

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Pages 44-49

Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as [email protected]'s.end
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