November 3, 2014

It’s been five years since Theodore Sizer died —- but, his influence lives on through the Essential Schools movement he founded.

In a long career, Dr. Sizer was, among other appointments, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Chairman of Brown University’s education department.

Dr. Sizer’s view of education reform — “with a premium on classroom creativity, bottom-up innovation and multiple measures of student learning” — opposed the movement toward state standards, achievement testing and school accountability that culminated in the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Dr. Sizer belittled public policies that elevate multiple-choice testing to central importance while neglecting the physical and academic environment of our schools.

“It is a radical idea that all children grow at the same rate and in the same way and thus can thereby be accurately classified and ‘graded’ in narrow, standardized ways,” he said.

“It is a radical idea that the power of a child’s mind can be plumbed by a single test and reduced to a small clutch of numbers. It is a radical idea that people of any age can learn well in crowded, noisy and ill-equipped places. It is a radical idea that serious learning can best emerge from a student’s exposure to short blasts of ‘delivered’ content, each of less than an hour in length, and unified by no coherent set of common ideas.”

His book, “Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School,” condemned the rigidity of school systems: “Hierarchical bureaucracy stifles initiative at its base,” Dr. Sizer explained, “and given the idiosyncrasies of adolescents, the fragility of their motivations, and the needs for their teachers and principals to be strong, inspiring and flexible people, this aspect of the system can be devastating.”

Sizer wanted to place an emphasis on depth of study, enabling students to learn key subjects, develop reasoning skills and demonstrate mastery.

And, Sizer was spot-on when he maintained that top-down approaches to fixing schools were seriously lacking. “The political establishment doesn’t say, we have to look at the thing and take it apart root by branch and put it back together again. There is utter silence on that issue. To me that means that the political establishment is not really serious about reforming schools.”

Sizer and Robert Maynard Hutchins, president (1929–1945) and chancellor (1945–1951) of the University of Chicago, may well have been the two most important American educators of the past one hundred years.

Sizer’s emphasis on American high school reform and Hutchins on higher education offer the best hopes for advancing meaningful learning opportunity for our children.

Educators should decide education issues. Politicians should “mind their own business!”

More on Wednesday – – – – –

— Bill Walton, co-Founder of ITC Learning (Mondays & Wednesdays)