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Taming the Blackboard Jungle? : Schools: Theodore Sizer's mission is no less than a restructuring of secondary education. And now, Walter Annenberg is giving his coalition $50 million to get the job done.

January 12, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Imagine the amazement, the giddy elation you might feel if you learned you had just inherited $50 million, and you will have some idea of the mood these days at the Coalition of Essential Schools.

"I'm still numb," said Theodore R. Sizer, director of the school-reform effort.

His phone has not stopped ringing since last month's announcement that his Brown University-based project would receive part of the largest single gift ever made to American public education: a five-year, $500-million challenge grant from publishing mogul Walter H. Annenberg. Long-lost professional acquaintances were calling, Sizer said, insisting that they had intended to call for months--and then hinting broadly that perhaps a portion of the coalition's new fortune might tumble in their directions.

Seated behind a plain wooden schoolteacher's desk, Sizer gazed over his horn-rim glasses and said: "It's very hard to be civil."

This is difficult to fathom, because civility and decency seem to be at the core of this 61-year-old educator. A professor of education at Brown, Sizer is a former dean of the School of Education at Harvard University and was headmaster and history instructor at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He is a firm adherent to the principles of American educator John Dewey (1859-1952), who loathed the notion of teaching by rote and instead advanced the maxim of "learning by doing."

In his tweeds, and with his Brahminesque elocution, Sizer resembles no one's image of a revolutionary. Yet in ignoring such things as test scores and bypassing the ranks of experts to listen instead to teachers and schoolchildren, he has emerged as one of the leading voices of school reform.

School reform was for many years "a huge umbrella phrase that meant both everything and nothing," said Theodore R. Mitchell, dean of the graduate school of education at UCLA. Recently, Mitchell said, there has been "a winnowing-down from 100 concepts (of what the phrase means) to four or five"--of which Sizer's is among the best known and least faulted.

Sizer has distinguished himself in large part by advocating ideas that can be adapted readily to local situations.

"That's the beauty of his principles," said Kathy Lesley, principal of Pasadena High School, which joined the Coalition of Essential Schools in 1991. "There are no set prescriptions. They're ideas, and you have to fit them to your school."

*

In 1979, Sizer began studying and visiting hundreds of American high schools. His research was synthesized in his 1984 nonfiction book "Horace's Compromise," in which his protagonist--a composite character based on a number of teachers Sizer encountered--begins: "I am a high school teacher. Let me tell you how it hurts."

Along with its 1992 sequel, "Horace's School," the book became a primer in the swelling move to restructure secondary education. Sizer decried the rigidity of conventional classroom teaching and learning and called for flexibility that focused on students' needs. In turn, he made a demand that was at once obvious and radical: that high school students actually learn before they graduate.

Sizer's "nine common principles" provide the foundation for the Coalition of Essential Schools, established at Brown in 1984 and housed since October under an umbrella organization known as the National Institute for School Reform. Nearly 700 public and private high schools and middle schools around the country have joined the coalition, pledging to redesign themselves according to goals Sizer has put forth.

"In my opinion, this is one of the most significant reform efforts going on in the country," said Ilene Straus, principal of Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica. She said her school, with a student body of 1,050, joined the coalition because "schools are alienated," and because "you get a sense of some of the most current thinking, cutting-edge practices in education."

Robert Stein, who calls himself the CEO--for chief educational officer--of O'Farrell Community School in San Diego, said he was attracted to Sizer's project because "people are desperate to even smell change. When you're in the city, most of the time you don't have the luxury to be intellectual. Usually you're too busy trying to keep the kids safe."

Besides, Stein added, "we liked what the coalition had to say."

So, apparently, did Walter H. Annenberg. His gift to American public education, announced in a White House ceremony, included equal grants of $50 million to Sizer's project and to David Kearns' New American Schools Development Corp. in suburban Washington, D.C. Among the immediate effects of the grant is that the National Institute for School Reform will now be known as the Annenberg National Institute for School Reform.

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