To hear Ted Sizer tell it, he was merely in the right place at the right time, but the story of his journey from a farm in Connecticut to chair of Brown University's Education Department and director of the Coalition of Essential Schools is a fascinating tale.
Plain-talking Ted Sizer is humble almost to the point of shyness, yet wonderfully persuasive. He has a disarming humility in both speech and attitude, refusing to accept credit for his many accomplishments. Becoming the headmaster at Phillips Andover—where he spent nine years—was purely “blind luck.” The deanship at the Harvard Graduate School of Education went to him because “I guess the president was pretty desperate.” And about his recent role as chair of the education department at Brown University, Sizer says: “Well, I just stumbled in.”
Of course, Sizer is a brilliant administrator, knowledgeable about education and thoughtful about what will work in schools under varying circumstances. He is also respectful of the elements of “chance and timing” in his career.
From Connecticut to Australia
From the beginning, Sizer's life has been connected to education. His father, a professor of the arts at Yale, was “a showman, who reveled in fine teaching.” Sizer grew up on a farm just north of New Haven, Connecticut, in a large, politically liberal family.
During the early 1940s, while Sizer's father served in World War II, his mother—with the help of a woman who was a German refugee—ran the farm and raised the family of six children. After his father's stroke in 1944, the two women continued to manage the farm for many years until his recovery.
In 1953, after graduating from Yale, Ted Sizer entered military service. While in Germany as a lieutenant in charge of a firing battery, Sizer again connected with teaching:
Toward the end of my tour, I was asked to teach in a noncommissioned officers' academy. It was a lot of responsibility for somebody at 21, but that's the way the Army was, and the teaching part of it was very attractive.
Discharged in the spring of 1955, Ted and Nancy were married in June while Nancy was still in college. During Ted's first teaching job at Roxbury Latin School, Brian Hone, an Australian headmaster who remembered Sizer's father, visited the school. The upshot was that after Ted completed a Master of Arts in Teaching at Harvard and Nancy graduated from Wellesley, the two left for Australia with their four-month-old son. There, Sizer took a position in Sir Brian Hone's all boys' Church of England school. The school, recalls Sizer, was “in many ways more British than the British.” The faculty wore black gowns, there was corporal punishment, and each student was in a cadet corps—all things anathema to Sizer, who dreamed of a progressive American school.
Hone was an extraordinary headmaster and a tremendous mentor who advised Sizer on books to read. “That Australian headmaster continues to influence me,” says Sizer:
He was a great advocate of small units. No unit should ever be more than 100 kids. Nobody should be the principal of a school that has more than 25 teachers.
Years later at Andover, Sizer promoted this practice. While Sizer admired Hone's strong educational opinions, it was the absolutely central importance of “time and place” that stayed with Sizer throughout his career, the notion that each school is idiosyncratic and there can be no template. As he puts it:
I learned there that time and place aren't everything, but they're darned near everything. A lot of things I thought were repugnant as an American appeared to work there.
The Deanship at Harvard
After two years in Melbourne, Australia, Sizer returned to Harvard, got his doctorate in 1961, and remained there to run the Master of Arts in Teaching Program under Dean Francis Keppel. When Keppel left for Washington to become U. S. Commissioner of Education under John Kennedy, Sizer became one of a group of five who helped President Pusey run the education school.
Then, in January 1964, Pusey asked Sizer to be the dean:
The timing was extraordinary in that the rush of Johnson education initiatives came at once—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ESEA—particularly Title IV. The budget of the department went from $2 to $10 million in just two years. For an inexperienced administrator, it was some sleigh ride.
There were two phases to Sizer's deanship. From 1964 to early 1968, Sizer said there was “research for the first time on a significant scale, much of it quite controversial, having to do with race and class.” Particularly concerned with urban education, Sizer used much of the federal money to press his agenda. During the second phase, the mood changed at Harvard. As Nixon pursued the Vietnam War, Harvard experienced a student backlash as well as significant cuts in federal aid. An atmosphere of strikes, sit-ins, tremendous competition for declining funds, and a volatile campus made the last two years of Sizer's deanship “tough, very tough days” of increasing crisis management.
President Pusey became a model of behavior for the young dean. Buffeted by the press, his Harvard faculty, and students in the late 1960s—a time when there were no heroes—Pusey survived by dint of his integrity, decency, and honesty. Sizer describes him as having “the very old-fashioned notion of always saying the unvarnished truth in plain terms.” Sizer's power may derive from that same wellspring.
By late 1970, an exhausted Sizer took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship to spend time in England writing a book. The experience was restorative. The Sizers then decided that they should work together in a public high school. “By that time we had four kids,” Sizer told me. “We had decided that when our kids reached high school age, we would work in the high school they attended.”
Throughout our conversation, Sizer spoke of Nancy as his closest “school friend”:
Professionally, the most important influence is my wife, a veteran and superb teacher. It's helpful to have a conversation where the term papers, the angry kids, the lost kids, the frustrated parents—all of that, the essence of schools in their daily-ness, is present. So much of my work is really our work.
Lessons from Phillips Andover
Seeking work in the public sector, Sizer learned that the bureaucracy was inflexible about certification, even though he had taught most of the courses states required. Further, he found that most superintendents, when looking for a principal, wanted a manager or a bureaucrat, not an educator.
Once again, “chance” came into play in Sizer's life. Gerard Piel, publisher of Scientific American and a member of the Harvard Overseers of the Governing Board, was a trustee of Phillips Andover. The headmaster had just died, and Sizer was offered the job:
I had considerable misgivings. My family had misgivings. Living in a great big house, built in 1809, a Bullfinch-designed house, responsible for hundreds and hundreds of kids seven days a week.
Andover, however, was a wealthy school that could accept students irrespective of their ability to pay. It was an educational opportunity too rare to pass up, so Sizer took the job: “Timing—timing's everything.” But Sizer had his work cut out for him. The school was about to become coeducational by merging with Abbot Academy, was ready to celebrate its 200th anniversary, and needed lots of funds to be raised—all of which were done.
At Andover, Sizer was introduced to exhibitions, a system where kids were judged not by grades but by performance. “We rescheduled our school every 10 weeks on the basis of the kids' performance,” remembers Sizer, so that both the faculty and the kids could tell what the student really knew, not just what they had memorized. His interest in disadvantaged youngsters, kindled at Harvard, continued:
I got more and more interested in why some of these kids coming from wretched schooling, poor kids, many of them minority kids, could change their futures very dramatically. There were things that worked—and they worked powerfully.
Sizer noticed that all students at Andover benefited from the entire program, but that many public schools put their best, most powerful programs on “the edges” and called them alternative schools or schools-within-a-school.
Andover was a lesson to Sizer in other ways. Every student at Andover chose to be there. “To leave home to go to school—that's a choice point that separates kids out.” Many minority students who were moderately literate and innumerate, products of poor early education, flourished at Andover. How do you locate the poor students who will benefit from an Andover-type experience? According to Sizer:
You find smart teachers in the kids' public schools, teachers whose judgment you respect. There were two Anglo guidance counselors in Los Angeles who sent us two or three Latino kids each year, year after year, 100 percent went to four-year colleges, and they made it. We couldn't tell from test scores. The whole thing depended on a network of really savvy folk.
Finally, Andover erased any lingering doubt about a contradiction between a deeply caring environment and high standards. “If you're not caring for kids, you'll say, `I'll let you get away with third-rate work.'”
The Coalition of Essential Schools
By 1979, Sizer and a small group of educators were meeting every Monday morning to talk about high schools: what they could become and what governing principles seemed to work. Phillip Drake, an Andover trustee, obtained a grant to support this inquiry. Soon several foundations came forward to fund a large, serious study. This was really the first moment of the Coalition of Essential Schools, although the name had not yet been said.
Sizer agreed to leave Andover and direct a study that “allowed a small group of us to look and listen and ponder what was going on inside of schools.” The group—veteran principals and teachers as well as several scholars—eventually produced The Shopping Mall High School, The Last Little Citadel, and Sizer's Horace's Compromise.
This study, as well as independent efforts by John Goodlad and Ernest Boyer, turned up remarkably similar results. Sizer explains:
Many of the suburban schools I went to were happy places: nice kids, nice teachers, people caring about one another. The savagery one senses in many schools for poor kids is not present.... But when you listen hard to the kind of thinking the kids are about, it's pretty shallow.
Even the students with high test scores were “intellectually shabby.” Curriculum was superficial across the country. A great work of literature or an important historical topic was covered in three days; biology was a course in vocabulary memorization. Attendance was far more important than serious work, the basic sound in schools was the teacher's voice, and subjects were in no way connected. Even the basic organization and rituals—starting after Labor Day, homecoming and proms, required subjects, small units of time—were deadeningly alike in a nation with no central education ministry.
The more Sizer observed secondary schools, the more he understood that they made no sense for the last quarter of the 20th century:
The basic psychology behind the pedagogy derives from the early 20th century and the extraordinary dependence on surrogates, mainly tests. I was looking at a tradition deeply rooted and well intentioned that arose from a set of ideas that prevailed 90 years ago.
Sizer's study had included hundreds of schools, and the data were carefully discussed before conclusions were reached. The results were unshakable. What to do next?
Representatives from several foundations told Sizer, “You really ought to take the research and reverse it. What have you learned that could be put in affirmative form? What can you say that a good school, an effective school, might be?” Sizer recalled that Charles William Eliot—trained as a historian and the author of a book on the Committee of Ten—had reduced the committee's complex late-19th century report on secondary education to a set of tables. “Nobody read the text, just the tables.” Understanding the power of simplicity, Sizer set out “to reduce to as carefully chosen words as I could some of the ideas that seemed to inform good schools.”
Such beliefs as: the purpose of school is to help all students think; people learn best when truly engaged in something important; you can't teach a student unless you know him or her well; and exhibition is superior to tests because it helps you and the student see what the youngster really knows—these became the basis for the nine common principles that undergird the Coalition of Essential Schools. As Sizer expresses it:
The Coalition is not a model to implement, but a set of ideas to provoke. There is no model. Time and context are everything. What will work in Shoreham-Wading River, New York, won't work in Winchester, New Hampshire, but schools can share ideas even though the expression of those ideas varies.
Several foundations requested a proposal for school reform, and Brown University asked, “Why don't you do all that here?” Sizer had planned to have five very different schools in the Coalition in 1985, but, as he put it, “Restructuring has been legitimized. The current reform wave is congenial to the school-people really taking their schools and doing a job. We now are talking with some 500 schools.” Every year such foundations and corporations as Carnegie, Culpeper, Citibank, Southwestern Bell, IBM, and General Foods provide generous funds to support the Coalition.
Several schools are in the vanguard—Sam Billup's Walbrook High School in Baltimore, Dennis Littky's Thayer High in New Hampshire, or Debby Meier's Central Park East Secondary School in New York City. But most schools are finding it a challenging journey. As Sizer related, “If you're a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, you have to work hard at it.”
Nearly 200 well-trained teachers and principals are now available to help people make their schools more intellectually demanding, personal, and exciting. Some of these educators are Citibank Teachers or Thomson Fellows (administrators) who have demonstrated their ability to help inspire schools and to reflect on what they have done. Having received special training, they are available to assist more fledgling schools.
Broadening the Conversation
The Coalition is still in its first decade. Sizer tries to divert funds to people who are on the move. His simplicity of purpose, informed by strong ideas and extensive knowledge, make his primary goal powerful:
In the next two or three years, we have to have 50 to 100 schools where reasonable and skeptical people will say, “Well, I've got to admit it. These kids are different. They show up, they do their work, they look you in the eye, and they can be handed a complicated and new situation, and they know what to do.”
To broaden the scope of the Coalition's work, Sizer recently joined with Jim Comer at Yale, Howard Gardner at Harvard, and the Educational Development Corporation (EDC) in the Atlas project to get some “break-the-mold” grant money. That project, now approved, is “still very much aborning,” according to Sizer. But it adds a strong curriculum dimension (EDC), a child development and family component (Comer), and a rich base in authentic assessment and multiple intelligences (Gardner) to Sizer's restructuring effort.
Reaching out and sharing are central to the Coalition's mission, and in the past year there has been an explosion of interest in the Coalition ideas. “It makes you part of an educational conversation. If you're doing something good, you shouldn't keep it in your tent, nor should others.”
Author's note: For further information, contact the Coalition of Essential Schools, Brown University, Box 1969, Providence, RI 02912, (401) 863-3384.
Mark F. Goldberg is an administrator in the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District in Shoreham, New York 11786.