An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2002

A better way

Theodore Ryland Sizer
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Theodore R. Sizer, dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 1964–1972 and headmaster of Phillips Academy from 1972–1981, is University Professor Emeritus at Brown University. He is the founder and chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools and recently served as acting co-principal of the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books on secondary education, including Horace’s Compromise (1984) and Horace’s School (1992). Sizer has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1995.

While it was unlikely to have been her intention, Diane Ravitch’s lively essay provides us with a powerful argument against centralized state and national control of the schools’ curriculum.

A neat, “rigorous,” and uniform American curriculum, with its accompanying assessments, is, perhaps, attractive to Ravitch and to me in the abstract – but in the particular only if my friends and I design and administer it. If other folks get their hands on it . . . well, I am not so sure, especially given the picture Ravitch paints. Under those circumstances, we had better not have detailed “national standards” from which all else would flow. We must find some other way to get American schooling up to snuff.

Ravitch accurately portrays our children confronted by a “curriculum without content,” this purveyed in a school that is an “Empire of Boredom.” It all reminds me of what Charles Silberman in his warmly reviewed book Crisis in the Classroom had to say in 1970: “. . . what is mostly wrong with the public schools is due . . . to mindlessness.” In the summary of his massive 1970s research project on American schooling, John I. Goodlad came to comparable conclusions. “Boredom,” he wrote, “is a disease of epidemic proportions.” The authors of the 1985 study The Shopping Mall High School zeroed in: “. . . Americans want high school to be genuinely accessible to virtually everyone . . . [but] Americans have profoundly different notions of what a proper high school education should be. . . . [I]n these circumstances the shopping mall is more than an apt metaphor. . . .” That is, an education can be pap if the people want pap, or it can be powerful if that’s what they want – and the definitions of “pap” and “powerful” are subject to debate by reasonable people.

David Tyack and Larry Cuban have recently made an important, related argument: “[S]chool reform is . . . a prime area for debating the shape of the future of the society.” That is, the curriculum, particularly if it is not pap and thereby has sharp cultural edges, is not likely to be found by the few and thereafter delivered without controversy unto the many. The curriculum as a statement of American priorities is something inevitably controversial. Ravitch’s primal scream about the mess we are in is a familiar one.

Of course textbooks are a mishmash. Publishers must not only meet their budgets but also make money for their investors. Development costs for textbooks are high and profit margins are narrow, making the scale of sales crucial. In this situation, the publishers do what they can. No section of the country can be slighted or offended. Every possible matter must be explored. Comprehensiveness in point of view as well as material covered is a virtue. Compendious, mushy texts result.

Groups assigned to produce “curriculum frameworks” for a large district, a state, or the nation have the same problem. Most such committees are large and carefully chosen, with every major interest group included. The members struggle mightily and fight often: witness the battles over history and literature standards that Ravitch mentions. Of course they struggle, and we should be thankful that they do. The ideas that are to envelop America’s children are important. Ravitch accurately sums up: “Any effort to prescribe content will provoke controversy.” If that is the case, which of us has the right in this sturdy democracy to say “this will be the curriculum and the rest of you must go along with it”?

Neither textbook publishers nor those developing “curriculum frameworks” are subject to the discipline that every teacher faces in a classroom, “discipline” in the sense of doing what is necessary for this group of students to meet this standard in a manner that displays not only these particular kids’ grasp of the “facts” but their ability to apply them in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Sweeping requirements are easy to list, and making the usually necessary choices among them is painful. Most committees stress the former and do whatever is necessary to avoid the latter. They do not have to live with their decisions.

Further, no two classrooms are ever quite alike. The largely Caucasian kids in my exurban public school are neither “better” nor “worse” scholars than the dozens of new Cambodian Americans in a nearby city. Should the history and literature offering and the method and pace of its presentation be precisely the same for all? I think not. However, how to respond to the differences is, again, a controversial matter. Abstract direction is easy. Dealing with the reality is something far more difficult. People who have never lived for a typical school year as an on-the-line teacher in a typical American high school are likely to oversimplify the work that must be done. Promulgated directives from afar are therefore highly likely to be simplistic and off the mark.

Finally, in reality it all comes down to the teachers. However brilliant the “curriculum frameworks” and however scholarly the textbooks, what the teachers do with them is most of the game. Ravitch surely would agree.

What, then, does it take to attract and hold the kinds of able people from whom we want our children to learn? Respect. A fair wage. Appropriate conditions of work. Authority.

The latter is crucial, as strong people do not take jobs that fail to entrust them with important things. The more that detailed decisions about my work as a teacher (or principal) are made by folk far from my situation, the less attractive that situation is to me. Treat me like a mere distributor of what you think my kids need and in the standardized manner that you deem necessary, and I will avoid your profession. I know my teaching task is far more sophisticated and necessarily more nuanced than that. You cheapen my profession by oversimplifying it. In other words, unrestrained top-down direction, however necessary it appears in the short run, is a recipe for mediocrity or worse in the long run.

Ravitch suggests – again perhaps without intending to – a remedy for these problems in her mention of the success of private schools and of the Advanced Placement program of the College Board. Those schools and that program are matters of choice – in practice, primarily parental choice. If the schools fail, they lose customers. If an AP program is sloppy, schools do not recommend it and students are not subjected to it. A “market” is introduced. Decisions are kept at an immediate level, in an arena that is of human scale.

However, what about “standards”? Indeed. But reasonable people disagree over standards; these matters, as Ravitch wisely reminds us, are controversial. It is more than likely that there can be all sorts of respectable representations of “rigorous standards” in most areas beyond the obvious rudiments. There is no One Best Way.

If there is no One Best Way, how can we compare schools? We can’t, at least not precisely. Students’ ultimate habits of mind and grasp of serious subject matter do not lend themselves to precise assessment and authentic ranking. There is no magic metric of serious learning. Scholarship, happily, is more complicated than that. That complication should not make us shy away from judgments. It should, however, push us to make those judgments with caution and restraint. And so, are we thus left with the mindless policy of letting all those flowers – and weeds – bloom?

No, absolutely not. If we do shy away from making any judgments, then many schools and school districts, especially those whose parent constituencies are not organized enough to insist on rigorous work, will cease to have reasonable “standards,” save the visible routines of school attendance. The children will effectively be warehoused, not energetically taught. The historical record is sadly clear on that point.

So, what then? Again, the remedy is visible in what Ravitch suggests with private schools and Advanced Placement programs. Private schools are actually the least of it. Choice is the most of it, and wealthier citizens exercise that choice by selecting residence in communities that have reputations for “strong schools.” Are those reputations always deserved? No, largely because their evaluation is heavily the result of gossip. However, regular state inspection (such as that crafted in Massachusetts for that state’s Charter schools and for all public schools in Rhode Island under its School Accountability for Learning and Teaching program) does provide a fair balance between local authority and state-level accountability. Are “choice with inspection” programs without flaws? No. They just have fewer flaws than top-down detailed direction and standardized testing of that which has been directed.

What about that “boredom” of which Ravitch writes? It is unlikely to be primarily, much less exclusively, a “curriculum” problem, especially one that can be remedied at a level of government far from classrooms. Rather, it is a problem with teaching; its antithesis is also teaching’s joy. The teacher’s wonderfully demanding trick is to catch each student’s attention with something of powerful intellectual or artistic merit, and to hold it. The problem in most high schools (revealingly, less likely in private schools and the Advanced Placement courses of public schools) is that each teacher is assigned too many students to allow him or her to “catch” each youngster in a caring and thoughtful way.

Serious reform will have to start with each school itself. A first priority must be to ensure the conditions necessary to attract and hold the best and the brightest teachers. Everything else pales in importance. A legion of good teachers would not stand for the hollowness that Ravitch describes. While fiddling with texts and scripted curricula cannot necessarily hurt, such reform will not solve the problem Ravitch illuminates – and may indeed make matters worse.

Citations from sources other than the preceding essay by Diane Ravitch: Charles E. Silberman, Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (New York: Random House, 1970); John I. Goodlad, A Place Called School: Prospects Toward the Future (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984); Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen, The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985); and David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).