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School Reform: True-to-Life Tale About Franklin High Continues

HORACE SMITH and Franklin High School came to life in 1984 with the publication of Theodore R. Sizer's "Horace's Compromise."

Veteran English teacher Horace Smith was wrapped in red tape and frustrated by the status quo at Franklin High, the public school where he'd taught for two decades. But he felt powerless to do anything about it.

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In "Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School," Sizer returns to the fictional Franklin High for an update on Horace's struggles.

In the intervening years, which brought much talk of school reform, Horace has been appointed chairman of the school's Committee on Redesign. This group of teachers, students, administrators, and parents is charged with reviewing "the purposes and the practices of Franklin High School."

Such an undertaking provides ample plot and conflict, and Sizer's clear, lively writing keeps the pace moving forward.

The book gives a step-by-step description and analysis of a typical American high school as it begins to think about changing entrenched habits. Such a change process is complex and often daunting. But this book can serve as a practical handbook for anyone - teacher, student, parent, or concerned citizen - who is interested in pursuing change at the local high school.

Sizer uncovers traps and warns of quicksand on the trail of rethinking secondary education. He's certainly qualified for the task. A former high school teacher himself and now professor of education at Brown University in Providence, R.I., Sizer has worked with hundreds of high schools in the throes of change.

"Franklin is a composite of many schools I have visited," Sizer writes. "We drive past Franklin High School every day on the way to work and never notice it."

Not surprisingly, the final recommendations from Horace's committee conform to the principles of Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, a group he founded eight years ago that is working toward structural reforms. The committee report, which Sizer provides as a chapter in the book, calls for a more focused high school curriculum emphasizing mathematics/science, the arts, and history/philosophy.

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At the new Franklin High, students would earn their diplomas through "exhibitions," requiring them to demonstrate skills by doing specific tasks rather than by taking traditional tests. The book includes seven examples of possible exhibitions. Accurately filling out a 1040 income-tax form is one suggestion.

To provide more individualized instruction, Horace and his colleagues suggest that teachers should be responsible for no more than 80 students overall.

"The typical secondary school teacher today is assigned anywhere from 100 to 180 [students], coming at him, rapid fire, in groups of twenty to forty," Sizer writes.

In general, Horace and his colleagues plead for a common-sense approach to educating today's students. An appendix outlines a budget and schedule for Franklin High based on the committee's recommendations.

"Horace's School" offers a helping hand to those who would like to make schools a more personalized, effective place for young people to learn. As Sizer writes: "Perhaps we no longer need common schools. Perhaps our future will be better served by uncommon schools."

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