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Offering a Simple Premise To Build Good Schools

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.

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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. If you'd told me that would happen in 1985, I would have laughed out loud."

Does that mean schools should be largely autonomous - not controlled by a school district?

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"I have sensed now for 15 years, after listening to many teachers, that the frustration of the best of them about being distrusted is corrosive," Sizer says. "The more that somebody else decides how I teach, what I teach, what my salary is, what my conditions of work are, the less likely I am to take that job. That's why even in very tough parts of big cities, schools of choice, which have been given substantial autonomy by unions and school districts, have such stunning, positive records. They attract the kinds of people that you and I want our kids to be taught by."

Should teacher certification, then, be done away with altogether?

"Yes. One thing about most certification laws is that their specifics don't correlate with the quality of the teaching."

Asked if parents and others have become more alert to school problems since the dire tone of the highly publicized "Nation at Risk" report in 1983, Sizer is unequivocal: "Schools look quite the same today as they did 20 years ago" he asserts. "The polls suggest there might be some increased awareness, but I would say it's marginal."

What are the main obstacles to improvement?'

"Two things," Sizer says. "One is momentum of tradition in the bad sense - the inability to break old habits. With superintendents coming and going every three years or so, the leadership doesn't have the stability to provide the setting for a major change." The other obstacle, Sizer says, is political, involving the power of unions at the local level and other problems.

What's really needed, he says - reinforcing an argument in "Horace's Hope" - is a long-term commitment of teacher to student. One of many resulting benefits is students who have acquired what Sizer likes to call "habits of mind" that make them "respectfully skeptical" about any and all premises.

But can such habits of mind really be imparted in today's besieged and sometimes violence-ridden high schools?

"It's really not very complicated," he maintains. "Why is there so much less violence in small, simply organized schools where every kid is known by name? Because if a kid ... appears out of line, I know him, even if I may not teach him."

How does he propose to get more people to accept his ideas?

"The best way is to have a system of choice. Let the market operate," he says. "The next best way is to try to persuade people that many of the well-intentioned things we do in schools don't make any sense. So, why organize them on that basis?"

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