Progressive educator, author Theodore R. Sizer dies at 77

Dr. Sizer was often at odds with a push toward standardization.
Dr. Sizer was often at odds with a push toward standardization. (Coalition Of Essential Schools)
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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

Theodore R. Sizer, 77, a leading progressive educator who promoted the creation of "essential schools" to improve public education one school at a time and who thought that teachers function best as mentors or coaches to their students, died Oct. 21 at his home in Harvard, Mass. He had colon cancer.

In a career that spanned five decades, Dr. Sizer was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, headmaster at the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and chairman of Brown University's education department.

Dr. Sizer's 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.

Dr. Sizer scoffed at public policies that elevated multiple-choice testing to central importance while neglecting the physical and academic environment of schools.

"It is a radical idea that all children grow at the same rate and in the same way and thus can thereby be accurately classified and 'graded' in narrow, standardized ways," he said in a 2002 speech.

"It is a radical idea that the power of a child's mind can be plumbed by a single test and reduced to a small clutch of numbers," Dr. Sizer said. "It is a radical idea that people of any age can learn well in crowded, noisy and ill-equipped places. It is a radical idea that serious learning can best emerge from a student's exposure to short blasts of 'delivered' content, each of less than an hour in length, and unified by no coherent set of common ideas."

Some analysts said his vision was too incremental for a nation that needed a broad educational overhaul. "I once remarked to Sizer that he was trying to clean out the Augean stables with an ice-cream scoop," education reformer Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote in 1991. "He did not disagree."

Dr. Sizer gained influence as author of a trilogy of books that explored the challenges of U.S. 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 issued a landmark report on the decline of schools called "A Nation at Risk." Dr. Sizer followed with "Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School" (1992) and "Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School" (1996).

In the first book, Dr. 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 also deals with a typical student who does little, speaks only when spoken to, faithfully attends class and wants only to get a diploma.

"The schools Sizer describes are not blackboard jungles," wrote Morgan, who covered education for The Post. "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.' "

The book condemned the rigidity of school systems: "Hierarchical bureaucracy stifles initiative at its base," Dr. Sizer wrote, "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."

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