When we marked Ted Kennedy’s passing recently, we called him the “Lion of the Senate;” it is hard now not to see parallels in the loss of another 77 year old Ted, a similarly great man who deserves to be viewed himself as a Lion of Educational Reform.
It is hard to be succinct about Theodore “Ted” Sizer’s accomplishments and contributions, but among many other things he was the Headmaster of Phillips (Andover) Academy, the Dean of the Education School at Harvard, the Chair of the Education Department at Brown, and most importantly, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.
Sizer wrote many books, including the incredibly influential “Horace” trilogy, and the wonderfully named The Students are Watching. Let’s never forget that indeed, the students are watching everything we do, and ultimately we are accountable to them; borrowing from Sizer, it is cannot be forgotten that though we may feel in the short run accountable to parents, and accountable to testing, there is no doubt in the long run it is the students who will judge our results, our impact, our legacy.
Six Sizer books sit on my shelves; Horace’s School was the first book I reviewed for publication in 1992, and thus launched my educational writing sideline which this blog now perpetuates. When I first studied education closely, as a graduate student in divinity school, Horace’s Compromise was the singularly defining influence upon my emerging educational philosophy. Sizer’s legacy may equal that of John Dewey in the influence he has had, and will have, over education; the content of this legacy is best captured in the ten common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. I have pasted the principles into the body of this post at bottom.
The beauty of the Sizerian principles for me is the way they bridge two disparate slices or sectors of quality education.
They look backwards to borrow from the best traditions of independent schools, going back a century or more, drawing upon Sizer’s experience as an independent school head at Andover. But they also, when published in the mid-eighties, look forward to the best elements of what we now call twentyfirst century education.
Drawing upon the shared culture of independent schools, he emphasizes educational principles such as (#4) Personalization, where we ensure teachers really connect, mentor, and care for students by having student loads no greater than 80 in high school, no more than 20 in a class. Another, (#7), calls for schools to adopt a tone of decency and trust, where
“the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation (“I won’t threaten you but I expect much of you”), of trust (until abused) and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance).”
Other principles beautifully speak to what we now see as contemporary best practice. Now, I know I am a fierce proponent of 21st century education, but my vision of this does not ever intend to suggest that these educational ideas are brand new to this century. Rather, I argue that they are now more important than ever, and that we are seeing some convergence among what the economy calls for, what best practice educational research supports, and what innovator educators are practicing. 21st century education is deeply indebted to Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools, and today, of all days, is the day to say that loudest.
From his principles we can see great influence for today’s best approaches and strategies. #1 “learning to use one’s mind well” should be the focus of school; #2 Less is more, depth over coverage: “The school’s goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge;” and #5, “The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker, rather than the more familiar metaphor of teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services. Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.”
Tragically, and I mourn deeply, Ted Sizer the man has died. But, I can say confidently that his spirit, his ideas, and his legacy lives on: in 21st century best practices education, in the work of many of his students and followers, and daily in the classrooms of St. Gregory College Preparatory School and literally hundreds, thousands of other schools in the US and the world.