When Theodore Sizer, known to friends and admirers as Ted, died of colon cancer at 77 in 2009, we lost the nation’s leading scholar on high schools and one of the best education writers ever.
So I was glad to get his just-published book, “The New American High School,” which explains his vision for the future of educating our teenagers.
The school reform organization he founded, the Coalition of Essential Schools, has only three listed members in this region: Arlington County public schools, the New School of Northern Virginia and the National Education Association. But many area parents and educators have read Sizer’s works, including his 1984 masterpiece, “Horace’s Compromise.” Because this area has some of the most ambitious high schools in the country, I looked for ideas in Sizer’s new book that might help us.
Sizer taught high school after leaving the Army, then got a doctorate in education and eventually became dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That big job was followed by nine years as headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and many years as a professor and chairman of the education department at Brown University.
My recollection is that he was always temperate in his views. But it is still startling to see him display in his book so little of the hostility toward one side or another that is common in our national education debates.
Sizer has long preferred smaller schools and less standardized testing, which would seem to put him at odds with current moves toward more testing, teacher assessment, charter schools and pressure for results. But in the new book, he welcomes charters as one part of expanding choices he thinks are good for families and for reform.
He is gently dismissive of those who decry policies they don’t like and insist their changes will solve our problems. Sizer writes that all pundits ought to realize that school reform “WILL be messy, but constructive messiness is the cost of freedom. Growing up is often a painful, if energizing, process, and growing up today may take subtly different but important forms than those with which we are accustomed. . . . The leaders of every New American High School must understand and honor this.”
One suggestion relevant to our local schools comes from his experience at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Mass. The school, which Sizer and his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer, helped found, uses oral exams, and he makes a persuasive case for using orals throughout high school.
Orals are part of the assessment process for International Baccalaureate public and private schools in this area. A few other high schools here use that graduate school approach as part of their grading of projects required of seniors.
At Parker, students have to pass such exams, called “gateways,” to get into ninth grade, 11th grade and to graduate. “At the gateway,” Sizer said, “students are invited to speak about subjects that they know well, but they are also asked questions and, most important, follow-up questions.”
Smaller schools have tried this in limited ways. Some of the IB schools are very large, but relatively few students get to the oral stage of that process. It might be hard to schedule oral exams for everyone, but not impossible. If confined to just a few subjects, such as history and science, it might be worth a try.
Sizer also has ideas about better use of time and about teaching morality. I am sorry we won’t be hearing from him again; he has left a lot to think about.