Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Offering a Simple Premise to Build Good Schools

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Offering a Simple Premise to Build Good Schools

Article excerpt

Looking every inch the prep-school headmaster he once was, education reformer Theodore Sizer walks out his front door to greet me as I drive up. He is a large man with a presence that is both imposing and friendly.

The gray-shingled house, perched atop a hill deep in the woods, seems an appropriate retreat for a renowned author, academic, and intellectual contrarian who spends so much time pondering educational problems - and coming up with solutions that some critics call impractical to the point of romanticism, and others feel hold the key to reform.

Dr. Sizer is a professor emeritus at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools. CES is an association of elementary and secondary schools striving to embody some of the reforms that Sizer and his colleagues feel need to be made, focusing on what Sizer calls "habits of mind" over memorized facts. Sizer has also been dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and later was headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., one of the country's best-known prep schools. It doesn't take long to learn that Sizer's answer to the problems of American high schools boils down to a few simple, hugely challenging premises: trusting good teachers to teach their students, and simplifying schools in a way that frees teachers to do this. With endless refinements, these ideas lie near the heart of Sizer's philosophy and figure prominently in his new book, "Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School" (Houghton Mifflin), the third in his "Horace" trilogy about high schools in the United States. "Is there a teacher who knows my youngster well enough to write a good college reference?" is how Sizer puts a key question in assessing a high school. "The answer in a lot of schools is no," he adds. And the way to make it possible, he says, is to strip away the distractions - however worthy - that get between a teacher and his or her student. Simplicity is the essence of good education," he says. "The point is to have a very flexible school with just a few essential domains of knowledge." He cites the Francis W. Parker Essential Charter School at nearby Fort Devens, Mass., which begins its second year this fall. Started by him, his wife, and a few colleagues, it has only two categories of study, Sizer points out. "One's called arts and the humanities" he says, "and the other's called math, science, and technology. Everybody studies Spanish." But aren't such solutions exactly what the debate over education is about? What about the resistance to school choice in some quarters? "It's like so many debates," he answers. "It's hot among people not close to the schools. Some of the ideas that were once bitterly fought, such as charters and choice, are now in some degree supported by both {teachers'} unions and by both political parties. …

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