Remembering Ted Sizer
October 28, 2009
Theodore R. (Ted) Sizer, who passed away last week after a long and valiant battle with cancer, was a towering figure in American education--and a wonderful guy. The youthful dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education--indeed, Ted had a youth’s vivacity, optimism, and looks for decades longer than anyone has a right to--succeeded Frank Keppel when the latter went to Washington as Commissioner of Education for presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was a historian, an educator, an educator of educators, and an education leader with few peers.
He went on from Harvard to serve as headmaster of Phillips Academy (Andover) and later as founder and head of the Coalition of Essential Schools, professor at Brown University and I cannot remember what all else. (I’m writing this mid-ocean, far from all reference materials.) He authored scads of perceptive and influential books, perhaps the best known of which, Horace’s Compromise, may fairly be said to have launched the modern era of high-school reform. Along the way, of course, he served on umpteen commissions, boards and such.
I didn’t always agree with Ted. He viewed education through the eyes of a teacher more than a policymaker and he had boundless faith in the capacity--indeed the necessity--of educators to make and remake their own schools. But he also wisely understood that while state and federal policy and programs had their place, they often did harm as well as good, getting in the way of good teaching and learning more than they fostered it, tending to turn educators into automatons and worshiping overmuch in the temple of testing.
He wasn’t Pollyannaish about educators. He knew how hard it was to create and sustain a first-rate school yet saw no viable shortcut, no real substitute for educators themselves engaging in the hard labor of designing and, as need be, redesigning places that worked well for teachers and students alike. Not for him a sweeping Arne Duncan-esque pronouncement that states and districts must "turn around" 5,000 faltering schools. He just didn’t believe that such top-down commands could work. That’s probably why the Coalition of Essential Schools, respected as it was in American secondary education, never (to my knowledge) contained more than a few hundred schools. Though all shared some core principles, each was hand-crafted by its own faculty and leaders, more an artisanal product than the result of mass production. Though most were (and are) public schools--now including many charters--their intellectual and organizational heart beats arguably closer to Andover’s than to the assembly-line output of public policy and bureaucracy.
Some "essential" schools are a little loosey-goosey for my personal curricular taste but my chief anxiety about Ted’s approach to education reform isn’t that there’s anything wrong with the schools; it’s that this approach is not easily replicated or scaled. To which he, of course, would reply that no other approach will actually succeed, at least not when it comes to delivering bona fide education (which he never confused with embedding basic skills in scads of kids).
Yet one didn’t have to agree with Ted Sizer to appreciate and like him. Never was there a nicer, keener, more visionary, or gung-ho educator. With his wife and soul mate (and sometime co-author) Nancy Faust Sizer, they welcomed thousands of ed school students and others into their homes and their lives. I first arrived there in 1965, fresh from college, a 21-year-old MAT candidate brimming with dreams, certainties, and self-importance as well as inexperience. The War on Poverty was a year old; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act were creaking through Congress. Vietnam was ablaze. And America was just entering that period we not-so-fondly recall as the "late sixties and early seventies." That was the era of my graduate education.
I wasn’t a very good high-school social-studies teacher but Ted created an atmosphere at the Harvard ed school, and recruited faculty to it, that made almost anything seem possible, including my own shift from retail to wholesale education. When several colleagues and I resolved to seek newly-available federal dollars to launch one of the country’s first "Upward Bound" programs to serve disadvantaged Cambridge teenagers, he was happy to see this into being under ed school auspices. (It didn’t do the kids any visible harm; for me, it was an early lesson--Irving Kristol might have said a "mugging by reality"--in the limits of ambitious government programs seeking to alter individual lives. In retrospect, one might say Ted Sizer understood this intuitively.)
Among the new faculty he brought to HGSE was professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, fresh from the Johnson administration (and the uproar over his prescient report on "the Negro family"). Pat didn’t yet have any doctoral advisees, and I needed a senior faculty member willing to sign his name to the unstructured research-and-policy doctoral program I yearned to enroll in.
Ted facilitated this matchmaking and in time served on my dissertation committee, nudging me to get the damn thing done even though I was working ridiculous hours as a junior member of the Nixon White House staff (on the Moynihan team there). He participated in an exceedingly well-lubricated lunch-and-after "thesis defense" that Pat organized one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1970 when we all were in Cambridge. And a month or two later, clad in full regalia, he handed me my doctorate.
We saw less of each other in subsequent years--conferences, meetings, a few shared speaking platforms--but corresponded throughout, including trying to persuade one another of the merits of our differing approaches to education reform. (During this time, he and Nancy raised a large, successful, and loving family.) Neither of us changed the other’s mind but I gained a clearer understanding of how educator-led reforms could coexist with and reinforce the policy-driven kind--more comfortably, I would say, with choice policies than with standards-based reforms.
When I wrote a memoir two years ago, my publisher asked who might "blurb" it. Ted Sizer came immediately to mind. I emailed a request. Though he was already deep into the discomforts of chemo, he cheerily encouraged me to send along the page proofs. Of course he found therein an explanation of--as I saw it--the frailties as well as the virtues of the "essential schools" approach. At least a few paragraphs must have made him wince. Yet generous as he was to the very end, from his sickbed he sent via Nancy an apt and gracious jacket blurb.
This was one terrific guy and American education is much diminished by his absence.
Note: A previous version of this piece misidentified the outreach program at Harvard Graduate School of Education as "Outward Bound," a well-known outdoors program. The program was actually "Upward Bound," a federal college preparation program for low-income students and first-time college goers.