Theodore Sizer and Essential Schools

Have you read Theodore Sizer’s books? He was among the founders of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which served to put into practice the principles of secondary education he espoused in the first book of the Horace Trilogy (as it has come to be known), Horace’s Compromise. I recently read the second volume of the trilogy, Horace’s School, which my incessant haunting of used bookstores fortuitously supplied me.

I wish it were possible for every high school  in the United States to have someone with the late Mr. Sizer’s intellect, passion, talent and decency on its faculty.

In the Horace trilogy, Mr. Sizer uses the fictional and allegorical Horace Smith to  spin out a didactic exploration of the state of American high schools. Horace, unsurprisingly, finds that his high school–therefore mine and yours–falls short. Our schools don’t fall short because of low test scores, but because they fail utterly to perceive, let alone work to develop, the innate and unique talent every child possesses and with which they arrive at school. Mr. Sizer patently–and refreshingly, in our currently benighted atmosphere of educational policy–respected children and their parents; his model of the ideal high school exemplifies that respect.

In an educational cosmology where one size fits all, and tests are considered the only reliable lens through which to view educational ability and attainment, Theodore Sizer firmly and thoughtfully dissented. He observes, in an exercise of common sense that in a reasonable world would persuade even the most myopic educational “reformers,” that not all children learn in the same way, possess the same interests, or arrive from the same social or family milieu. His view that our schools ought to recognize, respect and even honor these differences seems basic–and would give us, in Diane Ravitch’s elegant phrase, the schools we deserve. Yet current educational policy pointedly, indeed aggressively, ignores these differences.

In the final analysis, if we are to educate all children, we must recognize the differences in the way they learn, their backgrounds, their individual strengths and weaknesses, and their common humanity. We ignore this at our peril, as the state of our schools presently attests.

Ted Sizer died in October of 2009. His passing impoverishes, alas, our discourse on education and therefore, our schools.

2 responses to “Theodore Sizer and Essential Schools

  1. Outstanding teflection on Mr. Sizer. I couldn’t help thinking how much love and passion there would be for education if the investment was made by society to recognize each student’s individuality. If our graduates (or dropouts) left education and entered the world with true gratitude for the attention, pedagogy, and direction lavished on their development, there would be a self-perpetuating opportunity to continue to enrich our school systems and, therefore, society. Alas, we have not evolved as a species to meet this opportunity.


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