Reform in the real world

Education leader Ted Sizer taught teachers to re-conceive their roles

it sounded so easy. How could I not ace a college class called “Going to High School in America?” I had, after all, just finished going to high school in America. I was an expert.

The professor — noted educational leader Theodore Sizer, who died in October — taught the only education class at Brown University routinely taken by students with no intention of becoming teachers. That was most of us, since this was the mid-’90s, before teaching became cool. We weren’t going to be teachers. We were going to be dot-com tycoons.

But we filed into the crowded lecture hall because everyone said you had to take a class from Sizer, who was, apparently, a very big deal. (Only later did I learn how big a deal: Over the course of his career, he served as headmaster of Phillips Academy, dean of the Harvard School of Education, founder of one of Massachusetts’s first charter schools, and one of the last half-century’s most influential thinkers on education.)

After six weeks reading about educational theory, we broke into teams of four for the course’s main task: to design a high school, from scratch. Everything was up for grabs, from wall color to graduation requirements. My group did some preliminary writing and compared notes. That’s when we discovered that none of our “ideal” high schools matched. And none took into account any of our readings on school effectiveness.

Instead, each of us had invented a high school that looked exactly like our own.

i knew my high school wasn’t perfect. The cafeteria smelled weird; my first-period teacher often seemed hung-over. But I couldn’t seriously imagine Concord-Carlisle differently. I couldn’t imagine that classes might be 80 minutes instead of 47 minutes long. And judging by the raised voices in the lecture hall, what happened to our team happened to others. In retrospect, I’m sure Sizer expected it. Asking college freshmen to invent the ideal high school is a little like asking them to re-invent the world. The task strained the imagination — and frightened us.

The assignment remains one of the most profound lessons I’ve had on the difficulty of school change. I did work as a teacher for some years, and I now think of Ted Sizer every time a new education reform proposal pops up in the state legislature.

The usual finger-pointing is now underway at the State House. Those unwilling to act on Gov. Deval Patrick’s education reform bill are painted as lackeys of the teachers’ unions, cowards who don’t care about children. There may be some truth to this. But, having taught for nine years in private schools, I think teachers often catch the blame for a broader resistance to school change.

In my teaching days, I was often surprised by how many parents seemed to want their child’s academic experience to be similar to their own, regardless of whether they themselves had liked school. Parents would look at my syllabus and be relieved to see I taught Shakespeare; they’d ask whether I’d thought of doing such-and-such, which they remembered from their own school days. Kids, too, could be fierce advocates of the status quo, especially after they had graduated. Alumni would be horrified to learn an elective was no longer taught or that classes now went a week later in June. No wonder it’s so hard to implement even changes that everyone agrees make sense, like moving away from the agrarian calendar.

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Sizer understood that change and progress sound better in the abstract than in the specific. He designed his course so we, fearless college students though we believed ourselves to be, were forced to confront our own conservatism. But many of us came to admire the changes Sizer dreamed of in public schools. He was for assessment by “exhibition” (through projects or portfolios) rather than by standardized test; he thought curricular depth mattered more than breadth.

He was skeptical of one-size-fits-all tests and “our fourth graders are smarter than yours” press releases in a way that makes many of his core ideas out of vogue now in policy circles. That’s too bad, because Ted Sizer sure knew how to inspire teachers. Read through the tributes on the Coalition of Essential Schools’ website (www.essential schools.org) and you’ll hear stories of true transformation — teachers and principals encouraged by Sizer to reconceive their own role in the classroom.

As one Massachusetts educator wrote in his tribute, “Ted had a way of inspiring us to dream.”