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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

On Lasting School Reform: A Conversation with Ted Sizer

    Previous reforms amounted to fine-tuning a Model T, says Ted Sizer. Lasting reform requires creating a climate for local educators and community members to craft their own improvement strategies.

      Previous reforms amounted to fine-tuning a Model T, says Ted Sizer. Lasting reform requires creating a climate for local educators and community members to craft their own improvement strategies.
      During the 1980s, many states felt they had the answer for what ailed schools: tougher graduation requirements, more stringent teacher licensing, and so on. Do you think those kinds of reforms had much of an impact?
      The evidence shows that they didn't. The poor kids did poorly and the richer kids did better. And that's not surprising. Those “reforms” were like ordering the Model T to drive 60 miles per hour. You can order all you want, but unless you change the vehicle, right down to how the engine's organized, you're not going to go 60 miles per hour. Too many reforms never questioned some basic assumptions about how schools are organized. How are you going to teach youngsters—inner-city youngsters—to read and write better in a high school if each teacher is responsible for 175 of them? People who made those policies have not understood the necessity of fundamentally reshaping the way schools run. They may have changed the hubcaps on the problem, but it's still a Model T.
      You launched the Coalition of Essential Schools during this era of state-led, top-down reforms. How is the Coalition strategy different from some of the other reforms?
      One of the joys of this work is you find all sorts of friends, people marching to similar drummers all over the country. Still, there are two differences between what we're trying to do and what some of the other national projects are working for. One is that we focus on high schools, and many of the national reform efforts focus on younger kids.
      Second, we start from the assumption that good schools are unique. In order to be good, a school has to reflect its own community. And therefore, we offer no model. There's nothing that you just “put into place,” nothing to “implement.” Our research suggests that you're not going to get significant, long-term reform unless you have subtle but powerful support and collaboration among teachers, students, and the families of those students in a particular community. Without that, you can get short-term changes in instruction, but you won't get at the heart of reform—which is the willingness of the kids to work hard on important things.
      That means the important decisions have to be made by the people right there. This frustrates researchers who want to look at how this design works in practice, because each community does things in its own fashion. But we strongly believe that you have to look at reform school-by-school-by-school.
      How much has the Coalition grown?
      We started with five schools in 1984, and it's now pushing 800. But that's a misleading figure in the sense that some schools are still exploring the idea, some schools have a plan and are putting it into effect, and a small number of schools, maybe no more than 50, have had a plan in effect long enough to make some judgments about how they're different.
      What are some of the characteristics of the Coalition schools that have changed their practices in fruitful ways?
      They tend to be smaller schools, which means that the key people—the superintendent, principals, teachers, parents, and influential community members—know one another. This means that the agreements and the fights are among people who face each other, and that's important.
      Do you mean the schools themselves are small, or that the communities are small?
      Both. But that's no surprise, because school administration involves personalities as much as classrooms. I just hadn't thought about it hard enough earlier, that the notion of small scale applied to the functioning of the school as much as it did to the pedagogy.
      What else characterizes the most successful Coalition schools?
      One of the things that has emerged as most critical—and also the most difficult to accomplish—is reducing the load of students assigned to each teacher. When you get that number down, even if nothing else changes, you see an effect on the kids. The kids show up. They complain because they can't get away with anonymity any more, but they show up.
      You've said that teachers really shouldn't have more than a total of 80 students assigned to them. But how do they do that? I'm sure some would say it must take a lot of extra money.
      Well, you can do it with extra money, but there isn't a lot of extra money around. Basically, you do it by simplifying and focusing the program and by creating teams of teachers. Take an example: I'm a history teacher and you're an English teacher, and we each have 160 students. So I take 80 students and teach both subjects, and so do you. Without increasing the budget a dime, we each see half as many students for twice as long each day. And since I'm the history major, and you're an English major, I have to submit to your scrutiny on the curriculum in your field, and vice versa.
      I can see how that might work in elementary or middle school, but what about high school? The academic demands are much higher there.
      Well, people say that, but you'll find that what I just described is characteristic of strong colleges. The amount of focused collective teaching that I'm familiar with here at Brown University, at its best, bears a strong resemblance to good middle school philosophy. It's only the senior high schools that somehow dismiss this.
      What else seems to be pushing reform in the successful Coalition schools?
      Clearly, the exhibition is very powerful. As soon as you have to describe the curriculum in terms of what the kids can show that they can do, that forces you to make a lot of curricular decisions that previously were swept under the rug. Most curriculums are made up of lists; they are not made up of examples of powerful intellectual work by kids. When you really focus on what kids should be able to demonstrate, you realize that the lists are not only rather meaningless, they're also far too long.
      Specifically, what happens when you say that the goal is to prepare kids to be able to do the kind of work required to exhibit, not to cover the textbook from beginning to end?
      I'll give you an example from my own field. Let's say that in a U.S. history course, we're concerned whether a youngster can take an unfamiliar Supreme Court decision, read it, figure out the constitutional issues, make some educated judgments about what time that particular case may have emerged on the court's docket, and come to some reasonable point of view on the constitutional question, as if he or she were a Justice of the Supreme Court.
      What does this imply for the curriculum? Well a lot of kids now study Marbury v. Madison or Brown v. Board of Education, but very few can really use their knowledge of constitutional philosophy. That's very demanding. So the faculty realizes that if they're going to prepare kids to do that kind of rigorous work, it's going to take more time than is normally available. They have to be more focused about what they teach; that's where you back into this “less-is-more” issue.
      And some of the Coalition schools have been able to pare down the curriculum to a more manageable size?
      Yes, but it's very difficult. Particularly when higher authorities designate committees to put together these goals, standards, and assessments. But the people on these committees usually never have to teach this stuff. As a result, they come up with these gargantuan lists preceded with fiery rhetoric, which heads schools in the wrong direction. That's why so many teachers are cynical about committee-written goals and standards.
      You've been skeptical about the movement to create national standards, which some believe is the biggest reform going. Why?
      For a variety of reasons. One, which I mentioned earlier, has to do with the importance of making sure that the politics of the community are brought to bear. Say I'm a parent. If I really don't like what's being taught, I want to be able to look in the eye of the administrator who has the ability to change the curriculum. That's not going to happen if decisions are made by a committee of people far away from the community.
      My other objection is that national standards still avoid the really bloody issue of turning the Model T into a Ford Taurus. Once again, it's piling this stuff on the schools instead of hitching up our trousers and getting on with the tough work.
      It does seem that some of the content standards originating from these national groups are going to be quite lengthy and, perhaps, overwhelming to schools.
      While recognizing and appreciating the good will behind all that work, most of us who have taught a long time look at the national standards and sag. This is particularly true of those who are teaching high school kids living under terrible conditions. You know, one-fifth to one-third of our kids are growing up in conditions of danger and misery. So you read these lists, and you look at the kid who has just watched his brother get shot, and you say: Where is the country going?
      But some would say that's a reason for having national standards. That the standards held for poor kids right now are so low, and that since there's no local incentive to raise standards, national standards are necessary.
      Right, well, that's fine, so we'll write some documents.
      But why aren't these kids performing well? Take what could be a national standard that any reasonable school would accept: that high school kids should be able to read a reasonably complicated op-ed piece in the local newspaper and tell you what it says. A lot of kids can't do that. So you have to ask: Is it the lack of the standard, or is it something else? My research and the research of many other people say it's something else.
      Let's talk about some other reforms. For example, many see outcome-based education as a promising reform, although it's been mired in controversy the last year or two. Do you see the Coalition as being an example of OBE?
      Any education is outcome-based. The whole point of education is to have outcomes. Those kids come to my class in order to change. So all education is outcome-based.
      The question is what are the outcomes and who sets them? My view is they should be set at the levels closest to the parents and kids. Levels of government above the local community should provide all sorts of examples of high-level work; they should create an intense conversation about good work. But ultimately, decisions about outcomes should remain at the local level, where a sense of realism and respect for the local situation is present.
      These are not new ideas, obviously. The idea of the exhibition, for example, was retrieved from the practices of the late 18th century American Academy, where a student would have to exhibit mastery in front of the public in order to get a learning certificate. That's an outcome-based concept, but it's not outcomes set in some distant capital by an unelected committee of people who are never held accountable.
      School choice—in its many incarnations—is another reform that some are advocating. Do you see choice as a viable way to promote school reform?
      Well, first remember that a major sector of Americans have always had choice. Those who are the wealthiest can pick where to live on the basis of the quality in the public schools. If it's good for the rich, it seems to me, it's good for the poor.
      As a teacher, I would always prefer to teach kids who elected to be with me. Having taught classes like mandatory freshman English and also basic courses that students elected to take, I think my relationship with the students was better when they had some choice. I was also a principal of a school of choice, and it changed my whole relationship with the parents. I had to be much more attentive to the parents, because my budget depended on their support.
      If you look at the Coalition schools that have really been on the move, they have been disproportionately schools of choice. Because nobody has to go there. Choice encourages people to experiment. People call it risk-taking: to me, nothing is riskier than leaving high schools the way they are. But the burden is always on those who favor choice.
      Do you think choice might be able to encourage reform even in the schools that aren't schools of choice? In other words, can choice leverage broader improvement?
      Choice can have an indirect and a direct influence. The indirect influence is that choice can create some sense of urgency in the existing schools. Right now, a lot of schools feel they don't have to pay much attention to their kids, 'cause they're the only shop in town. Around the country, I've seen again and again how choice can undermine the complacency of a monopoly. And I hate to admit that such complacency exists, but it does.
      Many educators see choice as a threat, though. They think it will mean a loss of support, closing schools, and so on.
      Well, where the charter schools, or schools of choice within the public sector, seem to flourish best is in districts where there is a rapidly growing student population. In fact, it isn't a threat; all it means is that new schools have to be built, and the school board and the superintendent say that these new schools are going to be different. If these schools of choice are different in the right direction, the kids will benefit, and nobody's losing their job. So of course that resonates back on the old schools.
      You mentioned the power of exhibitions. Many people now see performance assessment as an important reform strategy. On the other hand, there seems to be something of a backlash against these alternatives to conventional testing...
      The problem may not be the assessment strategy, but the insistence that it be done on a mass scale. Most people—even those who scream at me in meetings—think it's quite reasonable to look very carefully at and assess the written work of a child. And portfolio assessment is nothing more than taking the real work of a child seriously and looking at it over time, instead of just relying on some 30-minute writing sample.
      The problem is when you try to move from that to making comparisons between Johnny Jones in this school and Suzi Smith in that school. That's extremely difficult work, because reasonable people disagree over the quality of writing of an interesting paper. It's really tough to be consistent in grading when you get into rigorous academics. So what we have to do is to develop a system where we trust the people who know the kids.
      Some people perceive that outside examiners are objective, but that teachers make subjective judgments about their students' achievement.
      Still, if you're very sick, who do you listen to—the physician who's tended you for some time or the circuit rider who shows up and says: “Let me look at the charts. Now cut his arm off.”
      Recently, there's been an outcry among the public over some of the proposed school reforms. Communities that send lots of kids to college seem to feel that schools don't really need a whole lot of reform. And they're skeptical of reform efforts like alternative assessment or integrating the curriculum, for example.
      It turns on the role of the colleges and what they require for admission. If the colleges say they don't care whether there's any connection between the math and physics courses my son takes in school, I wouldn't press for an integrated curriculum. What is slowly happening—in a number of states and colleges, and particularly within the College Board itself—is an agonizing reappraisal of how the colleges present themselves to the schools. Most serious scholars will say that you can no longer constructively separate chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and technology. The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061 shows the necessary and powerful interconnection of those subjects. So some colleges are saying, “We had better get behind AAAS; we've got to get the signal out that we shouldn't just be requiring more of the same.”
      The Coalition has been touched, hasn't it, by public protests over not just OBE but other reforms that educators sincerely think will improve schools?
      Yes, we've taken our lumps.
      The Coalition schools that have faced these kinds of protests have handled it by being ahead of the curve. That is, superintendents, principals, and, in particular, school board members, have given thought to who in their communities might have a different kind of agenda, who in their communities might find certain expressions of school policy offensive. And they have made sure that the committees of parents, teachers, and students at the high schools are strong. And, you know, they make sure that the superintendent goes to Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, and so on.
      So, as in the case of a couple of communities I know well, when questions arose, the school committee actually held a communitywide referendum on the changes the schools were undertaking. What happened was that the very noisy, well-orchestrated criticism of a very few people was buried.
      You have to realize, though, that these were very savvy superintendents; they wouldn't have dared to do that unless they had really made sure that the community understood what was going on, was behind it, and was prepared to protect it.
      We're beginning a second decade of sustained interest in school reform. Some recent initiatives—for example, charter schools and the experiments in having private companies manage public schools—seem to suggest an impatience with the lack of real reform that has occurred. Are there successes to point to?
      Anyone who looks at Fred Wiseman's film [High School II] can see that some schools are truly managing to change things in ways that improve the quality of teaching and learning. These kinds of successes are rarely reported by the media.
      I read an editorial in the Boston Globe about all the things President Clinton has done: nothing about education. One reason, I think, that the public is disinterested in school reform as it is widely defined in the media is that they really don't see much value in the approach that's being pushed. They're not so much against reforms they hear about, but they don't see them as speaking to their particular kids.
      Education is a very emotional enterprise for parents concerned about their children. If you remember that, you don't start reform by appointing a governor's commission on school standards, even though that may be a worthy thing to do. My experience is that there's a lot of public interest in reform when you get down to local people and local issues. And that's where reform has got to take place.

      John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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