Theodore R. Sizer, 77; educator, author worked to improve public schools
Thursday, October 22, 2009; 10:14 PM
Theodore R. Sizer, a leading progressive educator who promoted the creation of "essential schools" to improve public education one school at a time and who believed teachers functioned best as mentors or coaches to their students, has died at age 77.
He had colon cancer and died at home Wednesday night in Harvard, Mass., said his wife, Nancy Sizer.
His view of education reform -- with a premium on classroom creativity, bottom-up innovation and multiple measures of student learning -- was often at odds with the movement toward state standards, achievement testing and school accountability that culminated in the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.
In a career that spanned a half century, Mr. Sizer was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and chairman of Brown University's education department.
He gained influence as author of a trilogy that explored the challenges of American high schools through the eyes of a fictional English teacher named Horace Smith.
"Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School" was published in 1984, the year after a panel of experts had issued a landmark report on the decline of schools called "A Nation at Risk."
In it, Mr. Sizer wrote of a veteran teacher whose "compromise," according to Washington Post reviewer Dan Morgan, was his willingness to work in a profession in which there simply isn't time to do an adequate job. The teacher deals with a typical student who does little, speaks only when spoken to, faithfully attends class and only wants to get a diploma.
"The schools Sizer describes are not blackboard jungles," Morgan wrote. "They are, for the most part, 'nice.' They are, however, not places of serious learning. Typical of one Sizer visited was 'a place of friendly, orderly, uncontentious, wasteful triviality.'"
"Hierarchical bureaucracy stifles initiative at its base," Sizer wrote in the book, "and given the idiosyncrasies of adolescents, the fragility of their motivations, and the needs for their teachers and principals to be strong, inspiring and flexible people, this aspect of the system can be devastating."
In 1984, Mr. Sizer founded the Coalition of Essential Schools as an antidote to the educational malaise he had encountered. Among the principles he espoused were: flexibility for schools to be shaped by teachers and students in concert with local communities; smaller class sizes to personalize education, with each teacher responsible for about 20 students per class; and an emphasis on depth of study, enabling students to learn key subjects, develop reasoning skills and demonstrate mastery.
A statement on the coalition's Web site Thursday said:
"Ted urged us to remake schools and their systems to allow sustained and deliberate focus on every individual student, to honor the professional lives of educators, to structure schools with fundamental commitments to democracy and equity and to teach and learn less content with more depth and mastery."
The coalition lists as national affiliates scores of schools around the country, including a handful in Maryland, Virginia and the District: the Capital City Public Charter School and the National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School, both in the District; the New School of Northern Virginia, in Fairfax; ConneXions Community Leadership Academy, in Baltimore; Greenwood Elementary School and Princess Anne Primary School, in Princess Anne; and Salem Avenue Elementary in Hagerstown. It also lists many affiliated regional centers, districts and organizations.
Mr. Sizer also wrote "Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School" (1992) and "Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School" (1996).
He was born in New Haven, Conn., on June 23, 1932, and earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a doctorate from Harvard. He is survived by his wife and four children.