Remembering Theodore Sizer
[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, was Theodore R. Sizer's son-in-law.]
In late November, an estimated thousand mourners, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, gathered at Memorial Church at Harvard University to honor the life and work of Theodore R. Sizer, the internationally recognized education reformer who died this past October. (Sizer, a friend to this publication, co-authored a piece with his wife, Nancy, on the misguided emphasis on standardized testing for the July 2008 issue of Common-Place.) Sizer received his Ph.D. in History in 1961, writing his thesis under the directorship of Bernard Bailyn on the so-called "Committee of Ten" who sought to reform American education in the 1890s. Published by Yale University Press in 1964, Secondary Schools at the Turn of the Century became the first of eleven books Sizer wrote or edited. Over the course of the next 45 years, his productivity as a scholar proceeded alongside a career that included serving as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Headmaster of Phillips Andover Academy, Professor of Education at Brown, and spearheading a reform initiative that came to be known as the Coalition of Essential Schools. It was followed about a decade later by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a broader effort at Brown that sponsors research and analysis. Rarely has any figure in modern intellectual life so successfully harnessed the power of private institutions for public good, or achieved the fusion of thought and action, that Sizer did in his remarkable career....
Sizer 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. Sizer'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, who invited Sizer to the White House to discuss his ideas, no less than President Bill Clinton, who worked with Sizer as governor of Arkansas on Re:Learning, a progressive-minded effort to launch school reform at the state level, and who summond him to visit the White House as well....
To the end of his days, Sizer remained relentlessly focused on what actually works—and solutions that were the product of close empirical observation at thousands of schools. He was an early champion of vouchers so that public school families could vote with their feet, a position that put him at odds with some liberals. While determinedly opposed to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law of 2002, Sizer was never opposed to standards per se. What he insisted upon is that the standards for those standards be high, that those doing the evaluating did their homework no less than the students. The often unspoken appeal of standardized tests for those who champion them is the ease with which they can be administered rather than the value of what they measure. Authentic assessment is difficult; good work always is....
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