Theodore Sizer, Educational Reformer, Dead At 77 : The Two-Way One of the nation's leading educational reformers, Theodore Sizer, has died at age 77 from colon cancer. Besides founding the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group meant to improve the learning and teaching experience for students and teachers ...
NPR logo Theodore Sizer, Educational Reformer, Dead At 77

Theodore Sizer, Educational Reformer, Dead At 77

One of the nation's leading educational reformers, Theodore Sizer, has died at age 77 from colon cancer.

Theodore Sizer, 1932-2009. Coalition of Essential Schools website hide caption

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Coalition of Essential Schools website

Besides founding the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group meant to improve the learning and teaching experience for students and teachers alike, he examined the state of high school education in his book "Horace's Compromise."

An excerpt of a report by NPR's Claudio Sanchez for the network's newscast:

A historian by training, Ted Sizer devoted his life to building what he called "safe havens" for children to learn and explore with as few restrictions as possible. He attended Yale and Harvard where he became dean of the Graduate School of Education.. Sizer was known as "the father of the Essential Schools movement" and was a leader among "progressive" educators who battled against the so-called "standardization" of American public education. He opposed the No Child Left Behind law arguing that it relied too heavily on test scores to gauge students progress.

He wrote:

"... To teach students well, we have to know each one well. Our schools must fit each child; the child must not be fitted to the school...

"A citizen who cannot use his mind well is a citizen at the mercy of manipulative cultures that characterize our time."

Sizer was interviewed by NPR's Robert Siegel on All Things Considered in October 2004. A transcript of the interview follows.

ROBERT: As we've just heard, President Bush wants to expand No Child Left Behind's testing requirements to include the high school grades. Also, the National Governors' Association recently began a yearlong effort to revamp the high school curriculum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions of dollars to create new, innovative high schools. While millions of high school students succeed and go on to college every year, there is wide agreement that a high school diploma doesn't mean much these days and that urban high schools in particular pose the toughest challenge in American education. One person who has spent many years studying, writing about and running high schools is Theodore Sizer. He's been a high school principal, a professor of education and an author most recently of a book called "The Red Pencil: Convictions from Experience in Education."

Welcome to the program, Theodore Sizer.

SIZER: Thank you.

ROBERT: Let me begin by asking you what is wrong with the American high school.

SIZER: It tries to do too much, and it puts too much of the work on the teachers rather than the youngsters. Most high schools are a blizzard of opportunities, most of them really exciting, but they're all jammed together and the youngsters change what they think about, change where they're working every hour on the hour. And so much of the teaching--rushed necessarily--is teacher talk. It's efficient in theory, but in practice it doesn't make much sense. Schools that I admire look more, in many ways, like studios where there is very serious and focused questioning, answering, considering, where the kids are necessarily drawn in to finding the answers to what they believe are important questions.

ROBERT: Can we speak of a high school education in sufficiently general terms to say that what would happen in an expensive New England boarding school and what would happen in an inner-city public high school with a largely, say, immigrant population is essentially the same thing, or are the missions of those two institutions so radically different that we should be thinking differently about them?

SIZER: They are quite similar, particularly in the core subjects of mathematics, social studies or history, science, English and foreign language. The expensive boarding school will branch off into the fine arts or into archaeology, whereas the inner-city high school will branch off into more practical subjects like culinary arts and that sort of thing.

ROBERT: You have a character whom you've written about, a composite high school teacher named Horace, and Horace's main problem, it seems, or at least the beginning of all his problems is he's a typical American high school teacher; he teaches 120 kids at a time.

SIZER: Yes, 120 at a time. They come at him in waves of 25 to 35. He sees each of those gatherings for about 50 minutes a day. Of course, maybe 5 percent to 50 percent of a particular class are absent at that day, so he may not see them all. But at the end of the day, just to keep the names straight in his grade book is a stretch until he's a veteran. Going through the motions of running these overcomplicated schools where the bells ring all the time and the kids are shuffled is no way to use this kind of commitment and interest on the part of teachers and parents and kids.

ROBERT: But this ratio of 120:1, or given, as you say, normal absenteeism or truancy, maybe 100:1, this is not too hard for us to wrap our minds around, and yet the American public high school at least seems remarkably resistant to change when it comes to an issue of how many teachers should there be with respect to how many students.

SIZER: Absolutely. It's remained roughly the same for almost a hundred years. I mean, these are these very careful field studies in the 1920s of Muncie, Indiana--a series of books called "Middletown," and you read the descriptions of the day in the life of a youngster in Middletown High School, and it is eerily familiar.

ROBERT: That would suggest that we as a people--perhaps not our education professors--it would suggest that we as a people are broadly satisfied with the American high school education. Are we?

SIZER: I don't think we're satisfied as much as we are frightened. Those of us who are or have been the parents of teen-agers are, even though we are loath to admit it, scared to death about how ready they are to take on the slings and arrows of outrageous modern society, and we fear that anything we might try that's new is a greater risk than staying with what we had when we were in school.

ROBERT: Well, Theodore Sizer, thank you very much for talking with us.

SIZER: Thank you very much.

ROBERT: Theodore Sizer, the author most recently of "The Red Pencil: Convictions from Experience in Education."