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Who the Heck Is Ted Sizer?

Ted Sizer was a critic and trouble maker. He looked at our schools, all of our schools, and said in essence, not good enough and we are doing it wrong.

He didn’t mean the bad schools. And he didn’t mean achievement gaps. He meant all schools. He meant the good schools too, even the best schools.

So, who the hell was Ted Sizer? He was a visionary educator and critic of our schools, a real giant who was influential enough to get a 1000+ word obituary in yesterday’s New York Times and numerous other tributes and articles this week.

His doctorate was in the history of education, and I believe his disseration was about how the high school credits thing evolved. Forty years ago he was the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. After that he was the Headmaster at Philips Academy in Andover, Massachuetts. Then a professor of education at Brown. He also helped found a charter school in the middle of Massachusetts, and late in his life was co-principal of it with his wife Nancy. He had credibility in the most powerful of circles.

In 1983, the famous report A Nation at Risk was released by the Reagan administration. It warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people and declared that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” You see these quotes all over the place, and it is easy to say that this report marked the beginning of the standards and reform movement.

Ted’s Horace’s Compromise was published the next year. He neither defended the status quo nor focused on our obviously failing schools. His critique was nothing like that of A Nation at Risk. Rather, he attacked the very foundation of how our high school works, looking at the basic compromise between teachers and students, an agreement that if students do not create trouble for teachers that teachers will not create trouble for students. This compromise infects what is taught, how it is taught, and the expectations for what learning really is.

What is education? “The worthy residue that remains after the lessons have been forgotten.” When the students forget the explicit contents of today’s lesson – and we know that they will – what is left? Anything? What happens after they forget the difference between atomic number and atomic mass? What is left after they forget the difference between the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? After they forget the rhyme scheme and meter of a Shakespearean Sonnet or the relationship between sin, cos and tan?

I read this stuff and was amazed. Someone else out there saw what I saw, the essential hypocrisy in “schooling” in America! Even at our allegedly best schools (e.g. The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Stuyvesant, Andover) we were not doing the right thing, and yet people wanted the other schools to be more like the “best” schools.

But how to provide an education that remains meaningful beyond graduation? Twenty-five years ago, Ted Sizer founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, a voluntary association open to any school that wanted to be a member. CES was built around these link: http://www.essentialschools.org/pub/ces_docs/about/phil/10cps/10cps.html ten principles, though there was no exam or inspective for Coalition schools.

  • Learning to use one’s mind well
  • Less is More, depth over coverage
  • Goals apply to all students
  • Personalization
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Demonstration of mastery
  • A tone of decency and trust
  • Commitment to the entire school
  • Resources dedicated to teaching and learning
  • Democracy and equity

These principles, when put in to action, change the nature of school and of schooling. Talk to those who are hoping open new schools – be they charter or otherwise – and you will see Ted’s thinking throughout their visions, whether they realize it or not.

I was enormously lucky. I got to study with Ted. I got to talk with him for dozens hours about the design, aims and goals of the American high school. (He once called something I said “Quotable!” and I cannot begin to tell you how great that made me feel.) I already knew about Deb Meier’s work, but he gave me enormous new insights and understandings. Though Ted, I learned so much about the idea of teaching Habits of Mind rather than skills or knowledge.

I do not think that most members of the Coalition even come close to Ted’s vision, and I know nothing about Ted’s school, the Parker Essential Charter School. But I recognize that it is amazingly difficult to overturn decades or centuries of understanding about what school should look like and aim towards, and that even falling short of his vision can constitute a huge step forward for our students. And so, Ted Sizer gave us all an ideal of what meaningful schooling could mean, something to work towards, even while the forces around us push us to schooling as the most structured, reductive, temporary value, baby-sitting and crowd control. I know that I’ve been known to be critical of aspirational goals, but every step towards his vision constitutes real improvement and additional life long value for students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.