Published Online: November 12, 2004
Published in Print: November 1, 2004, as The Red Pencil
Book Review

The Red Pencil


Convictions From Experience in Education

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by Theodore R. Sizer (Yale, 131 pages, $23)

The “red pencil” in the title refers to the tool that Sizer’s punishing Latin teacher used in 1946 to inscribe daily grades into his ledger. But in a much broader sense, it stands as a metaphor for a Roman Empire-like education system that now values, as perhaps never before, authority and power. In fact, the machine-graded test that has replaced the red pencil, Sizer observes, has only enhanced the system’s ability to order and rank students while minimizing the role of the classroom teacher.

As a renowned progressive educator who founded the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, Sizer has covered this ground before in such notable books as Horace’s Compromise. But the earlier works were hopeful; teachers such as the fictional Horace would eventually find their way, relinquishing drab textbooks and rote exercises to guide students through authentic learning experiences. The Red Pencil, on the other hand, is gloomy and edged with bitterness. The bureaucrats have won; government, with sweeping and often punitive reforms such as No Child Left Behind, “will set the standards, insist on the shape of the programs, and test the students to ascertain whether the ends desired are being met.”

Sizer once held great hope for autonomous charter schools and, a few years ago, was co-principal of one with his wife, Nancy. But even these schools, he warns, are threatened by government mandates. He concludes by reasserting the importance of “tolerating variety” among different types of schools and “trusting grass-roots people”—namely, parents and teachers. But he sounds more and more like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

—David Ruenzel

Vol. 16, Issue 03, Page 47

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