"Education Should Be A Rich Symphony"

An Interview with Ted Sizer
Blog Post
May 3, 2006

Theodore R. "Ted" Sizer has been one of American education's most influential thinkers for over four decades. Perhaps best known as the author of the seminal Horace trilogy advocating radically more engaging high schools for students and teachers, Sizer early in his distinguished career served as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and headmaster of Phillips Academy (Andover), the nation's oldest boarding high school.

The first volume in his Horace series, Horace's Compromise, contained the findings and recommendations of a landmark study Sizer led in the late 1970s and early 1980s after leavingAndover that played a pivotal role in launching the movement to reform American education that continues today. In 1984 he founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of public and private schools working to introduce the reform principles Sizer outlined in Horace's Compromise.

His commitment to school reform led him to become the founding director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at BrownUniversity in 1993 and then, in 1996, a founder and leader of theFrancis W. Parker Charter Essential School, a junior and senior charter high school in Devens, Mass., close to where he now lives in semi-retirement.

Though Sizer is often identified as a liberal in education debates, his views are in fact not easy to label. He sides with educational progressives in advocating an active role for students in classrooms and opposes using standardized tests as the primary determinant of school quality. But Sizer's advocacy of greatly expanded school choice as a way to increase accountability is not what one hears from most critics of testing. And though his support for progressive teaching strategies has led many public school supporters to embrace Sizer, he has been throughout his career an unsparing critic of what he believes to be public education's many flaws.

In November 2005, Education Sector co-director Andrew J. Rotherham interviewed Sizer and his wife Nancy—an accomplished educator in her own right—at their secluded hilltop home in Harvard, Mass. It was a quintessential brilliantly coloredNew England fall day teetering toward winter. The weather fit the mood as Sizer reflected on his life, accomplishments and unfinished work. The wide-ranging conversation covered school reform, instruction and curriculum, the standards movement, No Child Left Behind, school choice, the Coalition of Essential Schools, The Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, high school reform, and higher education, as well as what Sizer considers to be his unfinished work. After the interview, Rotherham and the Sizers corresponded further by e-mail and U.S. mail, and this interview reflects that correspondence.

School Reform

Education Sector: You helped start the school reform movement in the 1980s. Has there been progress? Things you can point to?

Ted Sizer: A few schools, yes. [But] we are disappointed that we haven't gotten the traction we need. There aren't many schools that are profoundly different than they were 15 years ago. We need to create [more] good examples of schools that work.

ES: What have been the biggest roadblocks?

TS: Inertia and politics get in the way, they don't give people room to try new things. The system is very conservative and very resistant … and it's stuck. And there are very, very weak incentives. To [change] we need [more] room [to be creative]; that's the barrier. It is here that school size is so important. An invisible child is a lost child. Human scale is crucial.

Nancy Sizer: And the kids are harder, let's face it. There's more work to do in schools than there [ever] was. More kids that are poor, more kids that are from families that are disorganized and not able to do their part. It's a good thing to tackle [education], but [these developments] make it a bigger job. They're blaming us for only doing as well as we can. I'm speaking of the teachers now.

ES: What's the future of school reform?

TS: What's going on outside of schools, the media, the street. That's where the action is for kids, that's where the influences are. But we educators—teachers, everybody involved—talk about what we can't do and that makes it possible for us not to talk about what we can do.

NS: Ted has a fascination with the rest of kids' lives. It's a little late in his career to research what exactly [students] are doing with these other cultural experiences: How much time do they spend [on these activities]? What does it make them think? What does it make them want?

Instruction and Curriculum

ES: We have such a hard time in this country talking candidly about race and class, but do kids from different races and classes need different instruction?

TS: Sure. No two of them are alike, so they need different things, so there has to be a shelf full of options. No school can be perfect for all kids. There must be a range of varied, purposeful places, and a system that helps families find the best match.

NS: But there isn't any shelf that says rich kids, and a shelf that says poor kids, but there is a shelf that says kids interested in music; kids who are emotionally very, very needy; kids who are just avid little learners.

ES: What about someone like cultural literacy proponent E.D. Hirsch and his thinking about social capital?

TS: Well, he's right on the social capital idea. How Hirsch plays out I have questions about. In fact, John Dewey and Hirsch wouldn't be so far apart. Dewey believed in children learning certain substantive things, just the way Don Hirsch does.

NS: The question is: Do you [make them] memorize the [information]? Or do you get them [to learn] in other ways?

Testing and the Standards Movement

ES: The standards movement has dominated the debate for the last 15 years. What are the positive things that have come out of that? What do you see as the most negative aspects?

TS: The choice aspects are good. There have to be more attempts to get something new. How and where you do that is a problem. But again there is a lot of sloppiness, and people not really holding up any standard at all. More than a list of standards is needed.

ES: In terms of testing, what are your feelings about what's happening nationally?

TS: It's us living in futility. There has to be another way: Inspections, smart people coming and visiting schools, getting it sorted out and giving you advice. Reducing schooling to test scores is cheapening the opportunity. Sure, let's have tests, but let's have choice among schools, clear reporting and state inspection, too. It can be done.

ES: And do you see this idea of school inspections working on a large scale?

TS: Sure, sure, no question about it.

ES: What do think of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS)?

NS: It shouldn't be the only test, and testing shouldn't take too much time out of a kid's life. But you can get around the worst parts [of the test] and [then you'll] know how well the kids know how to read.

ES: So are you comfortable with tests like the MCAS being used to audit schools?

TS: Yes, if the tests are flexible and sensible.

NS: And if the subject lends itself to thought rather than … memorization. English and math are subjects, which seem to be able to offer objective short answer questions which don't distort the material. Science and history disintegrate into memory games.

ES: The school that you helped start, Francis Parker, is doing quite well on the MCAS. I can't imagine you being involved with a school that teaches to the test. What do you attribute this success to?

TS: Yes. It's a reasonably good test, it tests the obvious things, and our kids—in a program we design—do well enough.

NS: I think there are some areas where we are beginning to be weaker. I think it has to do with science which used to be strong. I gather that the test used to dovetail with our curriculum. We are trying to figure out what has happened by seeing what questions we don't do well with and discussing whether we teach those things or want to teach them. We have pretty good demographics and the students have a pretty good attitude about school, and we have a pretty can-do environment. It's more than just luck. We do have one problem: We teach American history one year and World History the next and we have 9th and 10th grades together. So what that means is if the kid is a 10th-grader and the kid's taking the [American History MCAS] test and it's a World History year, he's got to have a good memory or he's not going to test well. And we're not about to change our mind about this, because it's worked well for us to have these classes together and to alternate American and world history. Of course, our definition of history includes literature and the arts. It's a richer offering, more engaging but with fewer "test items."

No Child Left Behind

ES: What do you think of what's happening now with NCLB?

TS: There is an urgency, which can be used in constructive ways. It's a statement from our government to thrash around.

ES: And what do you see as the negative consequences?

TS: Narrowing everything to a single score, to a test taken on a particular day. That's no solution.

NS: Somehow when people think your eyes are off them, they do sometimes just neglect the kids that are so tough. We have to keep our eyes on [those people] somehow. They just have to feel that, because those are the kids that are going to be our fellow American adults.

ES: And do you see that as a positive aspect of the law?

NS: I do, and I think Ted does. But there should be better ways of allowing people to show what they can do. Tape a conversation after a substantial common reading. Ask them for an alternative ending for a controversial book. That kind of thing tests less broadly but more deeply. Less is more.

ES: Do you feel that the poisonous political climate has prevented important conversations about education?

TS: We were better off back with [President George W. Bush's] father. He understood how complicated issues were, but the son just doesn't listen or he's gotten bad advice.

ES: Do you think Americans are aware of the inequities in public education?

TS: I think they are so used to it that they just live with it.

NS: I remember trying to persuade my students in high school to talk about the fact that much less money is spent on [other] kids than was spent on them. The students knew it, and they could live with it. They just thought it was the way things were and would always have to be.

ES: What about elite opinion in this country? Do you think they understand the inequities?

TS: They understand them, rationalize them and do too little about them. Lack of imagination, lack of energy, lack of pressure. We have to upset the rich.

NS: Do you think schools could be doing more to put pressure on the elites?

TS: Sure, absolutely. They should be advocating for better schools for all children, advocating for equity.

School Choice

ES: If education were a kind of music, what should it be?

TS. It should be a very rich symphony, all kinds of instruments and tunes and trills.

ES: What is it now?

TS: Too much enthralled in the old ways, it only has one tune.

ES: What precipitated your early thinking about school choice in the 1960s?

TS: Pat Moynihan, Christopher Jencks, Dave Cohen and others at Harvard who had lots of data and persuaded us that the system didn't work very well and we all were too tolerant of sloppy schools.

NS: There wasn't much choice in the public sector then, except to move to another school district.

ES: Your most recent book, The Red Pencil, surprised a lot of people who were unfamiliar with your support for school choice. Can choice create an incentive to change an education system?

TS: Yes, so there's a market. Choice provides a sort of benchmark. Schools will get few choosers if they cannot show real progress in the scholarship of their students. The kids' work is the benchmark.

ES: Why hasn't choice gotten further in this country? We generally place such an emphasis on choice and yet on this very fundamental thing—how we educate our kids—there is not a great deal of choice.

TS: People don't want it. They don't want to rock the boat. And on a superficial level, the system works. There's no real strength behind the movement for change or even for wide variety. Americans have no habit of thinking about really different sorts of schools. The disinterest in fresh thinking found in many quarters is so disheartening.

NS: I think people do choose. You chose to live in Harvard [a small exurban town in Massachusetts] instead of Boston. That's how they choose, and once they choose, they get quite conservative about it because they've made their choice. They've paid the price for that house or for that private school.

ES: Conservatives often hold up Milton Friedman as the godfather of school choice. Rarely are you or Jack Coons or other progressives mentioned in the history of school choice. Does this cloud the politics of the issue?

TS: Oh sure, the politics are left, right. It's another predictable political divide.

NS: [Progressive educator] Deb [Meier] gets upset with Ted about choice. It is true that the most "pure" people just want there to be public systems and somehow these public systems will be good enough for everybody's children and that'll be that. On the other hand, choice is awkward. One is always worried that people will choose to be with what they consider their own kind.

But it's not as though she had thrown herself all of her life at "one best system." She just doesn't like charters, she's just afraid, you know, the same old thing about charters, she's afraid that they'll skim off the most active parents.

ES: It's amazing what a bright line issue choice is. Reasonable people can't seem to agree on it. Any animosity directed your way over the issue?

TS: Not much, no, at least in my experience. Our school system is supple, disorganized and decentralized enough to handle disagreements, even benefit from them. I have fun tilting [at others], and the tilting is often very productive.

ES: What do you see as the ultimate promise of choice in education? Is it providing more customized schools for kids? Or is it a broader sort of systemic change?

TS: They are parallel, surely.

ES: What about the church state issues: Do they concern you?

TS: No. Religion is not going to get in the way of people with good ideas. It's not a non-issue, but it's a minor issue. We've had Catholic systems for generations. Religion stirs some [education] groups up, but on the whole Americans do not fear religion as a destructive or disabling force.

The Coalition of Essential Schools

ES: What do you view as the greatest success of the Coalition? What did you learn from your experiences?

TS: Schools that have taken the ideas and done right by them. The redesign work was harder than I expected it to be, however.

ES: You gave the Coalition schools a lot of flexibility. You outlined a set of principles, but not all the Coalition schools choose to embrace them.

TS: There's variety out there and that's probably a very good thing. You learn from experience.

NS: I think one of the most interesting things about the Coalition is how tough we could have been on the people who only half do it. We had people in the early days [that] thought we should be very strict. Every once in awhile we tried to shake things up and say... "we're not going to let you be a Coalition school. " [But then some Coalition schools would] say, "look these are common ideas, these are common goals, this is not about who's best." I think it adds vitality to an institution to have that kind of struggle. I [also] think there are people who think we are hypocrites because we are [so] inclusive, but it actually reinforces all the things we have in common. It's very exciting for that reason.

At the Coalition's Fall Forum, we had some students in a Harvard [graduate] course who were telling me about their experiences in the forum. They said "I couldn't believe there were that many people who really wanted to do what I want to do in schools." And one of them said, "I haven't been this excited about my profession since I left the school I used to work in," and you know she'd been at Harvard University for 3 months. So I thought that was pretty exciting, that our grassroots organization could remind her why she wanted to be a teacher. Of course, kids remind you why you wanted to be a teacher, but it's still nice to have the feeling that you have some adults that you can talk to. Good professional development can provide that excitement about your work.

The Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School

ES: Share a little bit about Parker.

TS: It has about 350 or so students in grades 7-12. It has a focused academic program, educationally quite traditional, conservative. It's young and finding its way, [but] it's gathering a flock of people who are interested in [that] kind of effort.

ES: Without the Massachusetts charter school law would it have been possible to create Parker?

TS: You need a charter law and people to drive it, and you need parents who take risks, all those quite obvious things. Without the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 and some risk-taking parents, we would never have existed.

NS: A lot of our parents are educated people. We were lucky that way, and these [parents] did a lot of things that desperately poor people couldn't do. We had a lot of hand-me-down furniture, our parents called up law offices and said "you know you change your furniture every three years; we'll be your dump." Our friend Paula Evans is starting a charter school in Cambridge, and she can call up these places and get the stuff, but [the] parents [in her school] can't.

High School Reform

ES: So what about this new wave of high school reform? It seems like everyone is talking about high schools.

TS: It's promising. [But] key people have to act and they have not done so, at least not enough. Reform involves thinking technically about specific ways and means of reform and that's challenging.

NS: Why is it so hard to think differently?

TS: We're so stuck in our old ways, the familiar is so enticing. Something new is scary, even if it is appealing.

ES: Everything under the sun is under this new banner of high school reform. There are ideas that you've advocated, and ideas that are an anathema to what you've written about. Any anxiety about this?

NS: A lot of these people … don't want to do the work, they just want to figure out how they can tell other people how to do the work. That's a problem for the people on the ground. They resent that. As Ted says, a lot of the major decisions should be made by people who work with the children. You've got to be in touch with those people, you have to trust those people and you've got to know those people.

ES: Another recent voice in education is philanthropy. What do think about that?

TS: Independence from government is useful, but, as I've argued earlier, you need people who want to use it properly. People who have a vision of what a good school might be like and who will push hard. Those people are in short supply.

ES: Why are they in short supply? Education is a fun business, it's a people business. Why do we have so much trouble getting good people?

TS: The incentives aren't strong enough to take the leap. Smart people have choices and education is only one of them.

NS: One of our [graduate] students is Hispanic, and at 23 he started getting so many jobs in his school that he says he was just overwhelmed. He spoke Spanish, he vibed with the kids, he had high standards and [so] his principal kept asking him to help with new initiatives.

I suppose if there had been 20 other Hispanics in that school that spoke Spanish, he would have been completely and utterly happy. He could have learned a lot from them. It was not as if he was left out: He was doing too much. Good people get recognized as being good and then they get overwhelmed, and then they rush off to Harvard to get a rest.

Higher Education

ES: Any regrets?

TS: The universities. They still march to an old and out-of-date drummer. They haven't been provoked enough. Too often colleges just count credits, just like [K-12] schools.

ES: One thing that struck me about The Red Pencil is that it's a pretty wide-ranging book. But in academia today the pressure is to specialize and focus on subfields and subfields of subfields. Are we losing the people who can think analytically across a range of issues?

TS: We need both. There is no one best way to address reform. We need to support all points of entry.

ES: So, who are the great public intellectuals now?

TS: The universities. Constructive mavericks are protected there but we need more of them.

ES: The education debate is increasingly dominated by voices outside the Academy, and within the Academy political science and economics faculty members are increasingly taking the lead in generating new ideas and debates about education. Is this positive?

TS: It's positive. There has been change not only in public education but also in other public services. There's no reason why the old ways have to persist. We can use the moment to head in new directions, whatever they may be.

NS: When Ted was dean at Harvard he hired these economists and lawyers, and that was one of his accomplishments, and of course people thought, "Oh well they would try to take over," but what you can say is these are the people who are acknowledging that this is an important thing to do. However people disrespect schools or teachers, when all kinds of people want to take part that shows the country does want to do well by its kids. It's a shame, however, that many of them don't actually like to spend time with them.

Looking Back

ES: Why did you get involved in education?

TS: It's in my blood. My dad was a teacher. And a German refugee who lived with us after she escaped Hitler was a teacher. It was an appealing profession and was reinforced by being in the Army where I was a teacher too.

ES: In your career was there a favorite job, one you look back on and think, that was "it"?

TS: Probably [Phillips Academy] Andover; it was total immersion in something.

NS: Not the Coalition?

TS: That's not a job, that's a passion. Andover was a very powerful influence: The faculty took each kid one by one; their program was intellectually conservative and demanding, but within it there was a good deal of running room that teachers could use.

NS: They came from all these different places, and they were recruited from all these different places so that they learned from each other.

ES: What were the seminal books or articles that you read in your career?

TS: There is James Coleman's work. The Harvard seminar analyzing the Coleman study opened many eyes, not just mine. People had the incentive to ask fresh questions. Foundations were respectful—and the rest is what followed.

That kind of informed provocation is university work, and too few higher education faculties are taking the leaps of faith such as Coleman did. There's lots of tinkering and not enough fundamental rethinking.

ES: Reflecting on your own career, what are you most proud of?

TS: Working with Deborah Meier and [progressive educator] Dennis Littky. Talking about how the grip of the old ways might be broken and getting a new basis for what we need to do.

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