When Dr. Ted Sizer passed away this past October, I must admit I had never heard of him; however, for weeks following the sad news, Twitter was abuzz with educators extolling the virtues of Dr. Sizer’s contributions to education reform, specifically the books he authored known as the Horace trilogy: Horace’s Compromise, Horace’s School, and Horace’s Hope.
My interest piqued, I looked for these works in my school’s library. The only book that was available was the last in the trilogy, Horace’s Hope: What Works for the American High School. Going into it, I feared that reading this first would be a bit like watching Return of the Jedi before the other Star Wars films, but as I read on, I found the book stood just fine on its own as a series of case studies of school systems that have bucked traditional models of what the American public education system has been and developed more progressive, student-centered communities of learners. Re-reading that, I realize that sounds very tree-huggy and hippy-dippy, but the schools Sizer describes are not theoretical models of what could be – they are concrete examples of what has been done, and with great success.
The books of the Horace trilogy were published over a 12-year period from 1984 to 1996, and it genuinely shames me to say that it took me until now to discover them, as I think they would have been so beneficial to me when I was teaching high school English, especially early on in my career (which didn’t even begin until four years after Horace’s Hope was published) – they would have provided me significant insight and lessons I eventually had to learn the hard way (which isn’t necessarily bad for me, but for the sake of my students…).
I’m not going to write a book report here, but I do want to highlight a section of the book that impacted me so greatly that I actually made sure to jot down the information for personal future reference. Sizer noted 13 conclusions to which he came after a decade of working with schools through his reform advocacy group, the Coalition for Essential Schools (these are different from the nine common principles of the CES). Sizer annotates this list heavily in his book (so go read it!), but I will simply reproduce the list here:
- The leap from traditional school practice to commonsense reform is for most Americans a heroic one.
- Focus and Exhibitions are important.
- If students are to understand deeply, less is more.
- The students have to do the work. We learn when we engage, the more intensely the better.
- Human-scale places are critical.
- Practice caring rigor and rigorous caring.
- Adults must be interesting and confident.
- Control, autonomy, and choice are essential.
- Attempting too little is a recipe for failure.
- Start as early as possible.
- The relationship between the top and bottom of the educational hierarchy must be fundamentally rethought.
- Clusters of schools proceed more effectively than schools alone.
- Respect the persistent tortoise.
(Sizer, 1996, pp. 80-104)
I imagine most folks who read this blog have already started making mental comparisons between Sizer’s list and their own practice (yup, yup… nope, uh-uh…); I know I certainly did. I also thought about how the schools at which I’ve worked have measured up as systems against Sizer’s conclusions; after all, much of what CES advocates for favors cultural (in the sense of school & community culture) implementati0n over pockets of innovation in this classroom and that.
My recollection of reading this passage for the first time involves me laying on my couch, reading silently to myself, and occasionally nodding. Then the nodding grew more vigorous, punctuated with “mm-hmm”s. By the time I hit 11 or 12, I was upright and saying “Yes!” out loud to nobody in particular.
Whenever I read books about education, I find myself doing so through a very critical and skeptical lens, but my experience reading Horace’s Hope has been somewhat profound (and decidedly out of character for me). In Sizer, I believe I have found a posthumous mentor – someone who has already researched, articulated, and expounded upon the flittering, semi-formed ideas I have had about education, but done it far better than I could hope to. I’m looking forward to learning a lot more from his body of work and the ongoing work of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and perhaps one day earning the honor of contributing in some way to his legacy in education.
Sizer, T. (1996). Horace’s hope: what works for the American high school. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.