Theodore R. Sizer, a renowned figure in precollegiate education, passed away last week, leaving a void in the movement to improve schools. He was widely recognized as one of the most influential thinkers in the field. His death occurred on October 21, at the age of 77, due to colon cancer.
Throughout his extensive career, Mr. Sizer held various key positions in academia. He served as the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and as the headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In addition, he founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, chaired the education department at Brown University, and was the founding director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. More recently, he played a significant role in establishing the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts.
However, it was Mr. Sizer’s "Horace trilogy" that truly propelled him into the spotlight. The trilogy, consisting of Horace’s Compromise (1984), Horace’s School (1992), and Horace’s Hope (1996), became a catalyst for a nationwide movement to revamp high schools. His books offered a vision of education that emphasized personalization, democracy, and engagement, countering the prevalent approach characterized by large, impersonal high schools resembling shopping malls.
In 1984, Mr. Sizer founded the Coalition of Essential Schools as a national reform network dedicated to promoting his vision. Today, the coalition boasts 150 dues-paying member schools and has numerous affiliated centers throughout the country. According to Lewis Cohen, the executive director of the coalition, Mr. Sizer’s work has influenced many prominent voices in the current school reform discussion.
Under the Coalition of Essential Schools, member schools adhere to ten fundamental principles. These principles advocate for students to develop strong critical thinking skills, be recognized as valuable contributors to their communities, and have teachers who serve as mentors rather than mere dispensers of knowledge. The schools prioritize in-depth learning, and each student must demonstrate their acquired knowledge to graduate.
Mr. Sizer’s impact was substantial and transformative within the education community. Despite being initially viewed as a radical figure, his ideas and concepts eventually gained mainstream acceptance. His legacy lives on through the continued progress of the Coalition of Essential Schools, as well as through the work of individuals like Dennis Littky, who co-founded the Big Picture Learning Company and College Unbound as a "next generation" iteration of the coalition schools. Mr. Littky attests to Mr. Sizer’s instrumental role in integrating groundbreaking concepts, such as the student as a worker, exhibitions, and advisories, into the education mainstream.
Theodore R. Sizer’s untiring efforts have left an indelible mark on the field of education and will continue to shape the way schools operate and evolve in the future.
Due to its democratic nature, the organization also included some schools that were not very effective. Studies conducted in the late 1990s failed to demonstrate that their approach was leading to measurable improvements in student test scores across the board.
Mr. Sizer, born in 1932 in New Haven, Conn., came from a family with a strong passion for education. His father was a well-known art historian, and his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer, is also an educator and writer. The couple collaborated on various projects, including the Parker charter school and books. In a 2005 interview with Education Sector, a Washington think tank, Mr. Sizer expressed that teaching and education were deeply ingrained in his life. He mentioned that his father and a German refugee, who lived with them after escaping Hitler, were both teachers. Furthermore, his own experience as a teacher in the Army reinforced his interest in the profession. Mr. Sizer obtained degrees from Yale and Harvard universities.
One of Mr. Sizer’s most renowned works was "Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School." This book was the result of a two-year field study of high schools across the country, in which Mr. Sizer encountered the frustrations faced by teachers due to bureaucratic constraints within the education system. The fictional character Horace Smith represented this compromise, where both teachers and students agreed not to cause trouble for each other in exchange for minimal demands. Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who was mentored by Mr. Sizer, praised the book for its ability to expose familiar yet surprising realities.
After establishing the coalition network, Mr. Sizer became the head of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. This institute, supported by a $50 million donation from Walter Annenberg, promotes various efforts to improve schools throughout the country. Mr. Sizer’s ability to engage with different stakeholders, including Exxon and college presidents, in a respectful manner was highly regarded. However, his influence on the national education discourse diminished as policymakers increasingly prioritized strict standards, student testing, and holding educators accountable for results. According to Mr. Cohen from the Coalition of Essential Schools, Mr. Sizer’s ideas were not aligned with the prevailing focus on standardization and testing. He believed in the necessity of truly understanding students and teaching, and holding schools responsible for meeting individual students’ needs rather than treating them as mere data points or widgets on an assembly line.
Despite this shift in education policy, major philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continued to pursue ideas that resembled Mr. Sizer’s thinking, particularly the establishment of smaller, more personalized schools. The foundation initially invested significant amounts of money to downsize high schools and drive reform. However, the outcomes fell short of expectations, leading to a strategic shift by the Gates Foundation. Looking back at the movement he helped initiate, Mr. Sizer expressed disappointment in the lack of progress and the limited number of schools that have significantly changed in the past 15 years.
In the later years of his life, Mr. Sizer co-founded the Forum for Education and Democracy, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the ideals of progressive education on a national scale. His final book, "The Red Pencil," published in 2004, voiced his concerns regarding standards, testing, and accountability. He argued that even charter schools were at risk of becoming overly standardized and influenced by political agendas.