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Los Angeles Times Interview

Theodore Sizer

Selling Education Reform to Tradition-Bound High Schools

August 18, 1996|Elaine Woo | Elaine Woo covers education for The Times. She spoke with Theodore R. Sizer by phone from his office in Harvard, Mass

Theodore R. Sizer may be America's most prominent school reformer. A former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and founder and chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, he has spent the better part of two decades promulgating a new vision of the American high school--one that advocates doing away with many of its most cherished features.

In Sizer's view, the traditional high school attempts to do too much--and ends up doing nothing very well. It is too large, too impersonal. It keeps teachers isolated in their rooms, affording no time for collaboration, consultation and planning. It divides the school day into 50-minute fragments of time that encourage students to think superficially, rather than deeply and critically.

The high school needs to be radically restructured, Sizer believes, using nine principles of reform that refocus high schools on the "essential" activities of teaching and learning.

Some of his tenets are quite prescriptive--one says that no teacher should have more than 80 students (as opposed to the more typical 150 to 200). Other ideas are striking in their simplicity and, to some educators, unsettling in their generality, such as the dictum that less is more when designing curricula.

Each coalition school may interpret these principles somewhat differently. They offer a framework, rather than a blueprint, for reform. The evidence that these guiding principles work is not complete, but several studies suggest that Sizer's schools are on the right track. Dropout rates are declining and more students are entering college.

Today, more than 1,000 private and public secondary schools have committed themselves to exploring the nine common principles, making the Coalition of Essential Schools the largest and fastest growing of the so-called belief-driven reform networks.

Sizer, 64, has completed a trilogy of books about high school, with the third, "Horace's Hope," due in bookstores this fall. Now he says he wants to concentrate on further expansion of the coalition. Thus, this year he will retire from his teaching post at Brown University and step down as director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

As an emeritus professor, he will lead a seminar for Brown undergraduates this year that will travel to various high schools. "It's a way to keep an ear close to the ground about what is happening in schools," Sizer says, "and a way to make sure that my description of schools is as accurate as it can be."

Sizer is married to Nancy Faust Sizer, a writer and former teacher. They have four children and seven grandchildren.

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Question: Schools have been engaged in a multitude of reform attempts for the past 15 years, but many public-school critics say those efforts have produced little real improvement. How does it look from your vantage point?

Answer: I think, for paradoxical reasons, the voices saying there has been very little reform know whereof they speak. What gives me hope is more and more people in positions of authority understand why the reform has been so thin and are increasingly prepared to face up to the hard work we need to do.

Maybe the day of the silver bullet is over. Maybe people understand some painful choices have to be made--and that the time to make them is now. We haven't tended to necessary changes inside the school. We haven't attended to the searing effects of poverty. When a youngster comes in as abused and frightened, as many, many youngsters do, there is very little a school can do easily to help that child.

Q: Schools complain often that they are getting students these days who are harder to teach. Is that a legitimate defense?

A: I think what they're saying is true. But I don't think "harder" is as accurate a word as "different." For many children, it is back to this poverty issue. The number of children growing up in desperate straits is growing and has been since the early '80s.

The other reason is the blanketing effect of the mass media. The media have never been more powerful in shaping the attitudes of adolescents . . . . When you have kids who are used to the reduction of complicated matters to three paragraphs in USA Today and the 30-second sound-bite, it's hard for them to realize the world is not that simple. In that sense, it is more difficult [to teach them]. But "different" is a better word, because youngsters come into the classroom now in social studies and history, which I teach, with a range of information I didn't have because they've seen so much on television. That is a plus. So it's not all bad . . . .

Q: One of the main jobs of schools has been to bring immigrants into the mainstream. But many people feel schools are not as successful at that today as they were at the turn of century, when there was another huge wave of immigrants to America. Is that a misconception?

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