Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Theodore R. Sizer, 1932-2009

An appreciation of a New England education reformer in the context of American History

Ted Sizer, the internationally recognized education reformer who died last week at 77, was a great many things to a great many people in a career that spanned over half a century. Much has been said about him already (in places like the New York Times), with a good deal likely to come from a variety of perspectives. I myself happened to be Ted's son-in-law, and loved him for reasons that echo countless remarks that are currently pinging around the blogosphere. But I did think it might be helpful to those who knew him personally, and those who did not, to consider him from an angle that he himself considered a little unusual when I offered it to him a few years ago when I was engaged in some study of his life and work. Ted was a quintessentially American figure; it would not take long to make that point, in ways that ranged from his optimistic persona to his commitment to the democratic process. But I'd like to go a little further and suggest more specifically that he was, literally and figuratively, a child of New England.

Not that he was in any sense a provincial. Ted traveled the world to China, Australia, and South Africa and back in a restless spirit of inquiry. As a young man, he served in the
U.S. armed services in Germany, and it was in training soldiers as an artillery officer that he first apprehended that giving people important responsibility was itself a valuable pedagogical tool. But the various homes he inhabited over the course of his life were centered in three states -- Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts -- and their imprint on him was as decisive as the impact he had in the other 47 and beyond.

New England, of course, is the cradle of American educational civilization. Early colonies such as Hartford and New Ha
ven (which later merged, and between which he was born and buried, in the town of Bethany), mandated free public schools within a decade of their founding in the 1630s, as did Massachusetts. But the region was also the seedbed of private academies such as Phillips Academy Andover, founded in 1778, of which Ted would be headmaster two centuries later. For all their differences, these educational institutions were characterized by a powerful communitarian spirit in their mission, and an avowedly moral orientation that stressed the importance of independent-minded people who would also be civic-minded participants in public life -- a seeming contradiction that Ted finessed with notable grace in forging public-private partnerships at Harvard, Brown, and the Coalition of Essential Schools he founded in 1984. These characteristics remained discernible even in the nineteenth century, when strong-minded reformers like Horace Mann sought to adapt public schools to the needs of an emerging industrial capitalist order. Mann no less than Cotton Mather would have endorsed deceptively simple Coalition precepts such as "The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well," or "The school's goals should apply to all students." (For more on these and other essential principles, see the CES website.)

Ted had the good fortune of coming of age as the American Century crested; a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill, he entered university life and became the youngest dean in the history of Harvard at age 31 as much because of the rapid expansion of postwar academia as for his evident talent and social skills. But he was at the helm of Phillips Andover during the rocky 1970s, and was keenly aware of the economic challenges facing public education in the face of receding collective commitment. Yet through it all his egalitarian ethos guided his work, whether in making the co-education a condition of his acceptance of the Andover post, creating a math and science program for underprivileged students while there, or in founding a charter public high school in central Massachusetts (and serving as co-principal with his wife, Nancy, in 1998-99 to plug a personnel hole).

Ted was sometimes characterized as a "progressive" educator, and the label makes sense -- to a point. Certainly, his vision was broadly consonant with Progressive-era pioneers like John Dewey, a clear and important influence on his work. And use of the word "progressive" to describe those like him skeptical of test-driven curricula and information delivery systems is also accurate, if a bit imprecise. But "progressive" is a word that can obscure at least as much as it reveals. Ted's progressivism owed a lot more to, say, Jane Addams than Theodore Roosevelt. It was the bottom-up progressivism of the urban reformer, not the top-down progressivism of the elitist technocrat. His emphasis on the local and the empowerment of the individual made him a compelling figure to President George H.W. Bush no less than President Bill Clinton, both of whom sought his counsel. He could talk -- and laugh -- with anyone, and his curiosity was inexhaustible.

I myself prefer to use a different term in thinking about Ted: pragmatist. The figure most prominent in this regard is yet another New Englander, William James. The Jamesian faith that truth is something that happens to an idea is evident in Ted's famous precept that "unanxious expectation" is the optimal stance in a teacher's relationship with a student, to cite one example. Calling him pragmatic might sound a bit odd to some, given the sense of boyish idealism that animated him to the end of his days. It may sound odd to others, given that much of the criticism of Ted's work centered on a belief that his ideas were impractical, particularly when attempting to leverage them with any sense of scale.

But Ted was never an ideologue, and remained relentlessly focused on what actually works -- and solutions that were the product of close empirical observation at thousands of schools. He was never opposed to standards
per se, but he insisted that the standards for those standards be high, that those doing the evaluating did their homework no less than the students they were evaluating. The often unspoken appeal of standardized tests for those who champion them is often about the ease with which they can be administered rather than the value of what they measure. Authentic assessment is difficult: good work always is. As Ted and Nancy used to say of their charter school when they were principals, "If it were easy, it wouldn't be Parker."

Moreover, Ted understood as a matter of instinct and reflection that search for the truth is never simply a matter of gathering information, one reason he lamented the mindless quality of so much education research and the misplaced priorities of most Ed schools. That's why, when he tried to convey the reality of everyday life in the United States, he did so through a fictional character: Horace Smith, the beloved teacher (and later principal) of the archetypal Franklin High. Horace lives on in the pages of Ted's celebrated trilogy:
Horace's Compromise (1984), Horace's School (1992) and Horace's Hope (1996). In capturing the granular details of the classroom, and the often painful dilemmas that prevent good people from doing their best work, Ted both comforted and inspired hundreds of thousands of students on the road to becoming teachers.

Part of what made books like these so vivid to generations of readers, and what made Ted himself so vivid to generations of colleagues and students, is that he was a remarkably sane person. His sunny disposition and eagerness to engage made him a joy to experience in almost any setting. He was a good man who lived a good life who had the good sense to savor simple gifts -- and share them, which he would do with sometimes breathtaking generosity. Ironically, this could be a sobering lesson for those of us who were less well-adjusted than he was. But, finally, a life-affirming one. Here, truly, was a great American: E unum, pluribus.