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Legacy of Ted Sizer

November 2009

Dear Friends,

My friend and mentor, Ted Sizer, died last week. If you have not read his books or heard him speak or sat down with him—or best of all taken a course with him (sometimes also with Nancy AND Ted)—you cannot begin to imagine how big a hole he leaves behind.

“Good schools focus on habits, on what sorts of intellectual activities will and should inform their graduates’ lives. Not being clear about these habits leads to mindlessness, to institutions that drift along doing what they do simply because they have always done it that way. Such places are full of silly compromises, of practices that boggle commonsense analysis. And they dispirit the Horace Smiths, who know that the purpose of education is not in keeping school but in pushing out into the world young citizens who are soaked in habits of thoughtfulness and reflectiveness, joy, and commitment.”—From Ted’s classic Horace’s School.

I began to work with Ted in 1984 when I read an essay based on his forthcoming book—Horace’s Compromise. I was beginning to think about whether we might develop a secondary school that could serve the children who graduated from Central Park East I, II and River East (the three small public sister schools in East Harlem that I had helped found), plus other East Harlem youngsters. Ted was someone with prestige who might be useful, as he seemed to think about high schools the way I thought about kindergartens.

I imagined I was pulling a clever magic trick—he was the rabbit I could pull out of my hat to confront the skeptics. I set him up to provide “cover” for our proposed new secondary school. (I had not yet been named a MacArthur Fellow, written a book, or even passed a test to be a principal in New York City.) But it turned out the magic was for real. Ted Sizer was a source of wisdom not just “connections” and status. We needed him for far more important reasons than his ability to get an audience with the Superintendent, the Chancellor, and the Foundations.

For the 25 years, he worked with all of us on the nitty-gritty as well as the Big Ideas. He saw how they were connected. His nine common principals (now 10) were amazingly down to earth, from the importance of knowing one’s students well; to it is more important to teach less in order to teach more deeply. Good schooling requires a “tone of decency and respect.” He included the unthinkable—teachers need to be in charge of the decisions that most affect them and their students. And that school resources need to be in the classrooms—not in the central offices. He used the word “standards” to remind us to keep purpose in mind, to hold the flag high and always flying. The vehicle for such standards had to be embodied in how and what we taught and then in the manner in which we tested/demonstrated/showed off our student’s mastery.

His work resonated all over the country. We thought we were setting a ball rolling that would in so many different ways change the face of American schooling.

A decade later we were “old hat,” “too slow,” and “not standardized enough.” What we were doing could not be replicated by mandate. Even during that first decade, it was harder to convince school people in the inner city versus the suburbs and independent schools to listen to our ideas. By the mid-90s the Reform game was decidedly against us, and pretty ferociously so. Mandates were flying about to diminish the role of teachers, parents, and students. It was easier to define “rigor” (a word I always hated) as simply “harder.” The new Reformers derided the notion that there were different ways to reach different children. Reform became synonymous with frequent standardized testing—hence NCLB. (90% of teachers in a recent poll said testing has become a major obstacle or a minor obstacle to good teaching.)

By the middle of the next decade teacher bashing and, of course, teacher union bashing, had become so much taken for granted that our schools were blamed for everything from the Iraqi war to the financial crisis.

In fact, NAEP scores—the only nation-wide standardized test we have in the country—shows very little change between 2002, when the new paradigm had pretty much swept the nation on a state by state plus NCLB basis, and today.

The newest fad is mayoral control, as though the corruption, cronyism, and patronage that led us to abandon it earlier were no longer dangers. The poster boy for this is New York’s mayor Bloomberg. (Then comes Chicago under Arne Duncan.) Bloomberg, the richest Mayor we have ever known, has managed to garner staggering control over not only all decisions made about schools, but also control of the data accessible to us about how it has been spent and what it has achieved. (Fortunately Chicago still has an independent agency to track the data—and they say: it did not work. But it hardly makes headlines.) Meanwhile NYC’s mayor can hand out contracts without external review, and can count on all three major newspapers to cover his work favorably. Every nonprofit in NYC is in some ways beholden to him personally as well as politically—so few dare to talk out. Despite his own claims of improvement in test scores, NAEP test data shows NYC in about the same place it was when he arrived. Ditto for Chicago.

We will come to our senses. Someday. But it will be harder without Ted Sizer. And without another loss we have taken—the loss of Gerald Bracey. Gerald kept us up-to-date on what the data did and did not show. His snarky, detailed, informative way showed us what we did and did not know was happening behind our backs (our ignorance of statistics). Goodbye to two indefatigable truth tellers: A sometimes argument provoker and a gentle giant of great wisdom about matters big and small.

So, the rest of us must work twice as hard. Can we?

Yes, we can.

–Deborah

© 2009 Deborah Meier

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One Response

  1. […] The service was a beautiful mix of remembrances/sharings from his children (there are four) and friends/colleagues from all different parts of his life: Harvard Graduate School of Education (in the 60s when students took over the buildings), Phillips Andover Academy (where he was headmaster from many years), Brown University, The Annenberg Institute, The Coalition of Essential Schools and The Parker Charter School. Deborah Meier’s comments were particularly moving and profound. She also wrote a beautiful piece about his legacy which you can read on her website. […]

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