A blueprint for better schools from a top scholar

When Theodore Sizer, known to friends and admirers as Ted, died of colon cancer at 77 in 2009, we lost America’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. Many parents and educators have read Mr. Sizer’s works, including his 1984 masterpiece, “Horace’s Compromise.” Mr. Sizer also founded the school reform organisation, the Coalition of Essential Schools. 

Mr. 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, Massachusetts, 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. It is still startling to see him display in his book so little of the hostility toward one side or another common in our national education debates. 

Mr. 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. Mr. Sizer writes that all pundits ought to realise 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 honour this.” 

One suggestion comes from his experience at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts. The school, which Mr. Sizer and his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer, helped found, uses oral exams, and he makes a persuasive case for using orals throughout high school. 

At Parker, students have to pass such exams, called “gateways,” to get into ninth grade, 11th grade and to graduate. “At the gateway,” Mr. 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.” 

It might be hard to schedule oral exams but not impossible. If confined to just a few subjects, such as history and science, it might be worth a try. 

Mr. Sizer also has ideas about better use of time and teaching morality. I am sorry we won’t be hearing from him again; he has left a lot to think about. 

 

© 2013, The Washington Post