All of us at Beacon Press are saddened by the passing of Theodore R. Sizer this Wednesday. Sizer was a powerful and thoughtful voice for educational reform in America. Beacon Press had the honor of publishing two of his books: The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract (co-authored with his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer) and Keeping School: Letters to Families From Principals of Two Small Schools (also co-authored with his wife along with Deborah Meier).
The New York Times, in its obituary for Sizer, explains the Essential Schools Movement, which was inspired by Sizer's book, Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.
The movement’s umbrella organization, the Coalition of Essential Schools, spans an array of public and private schools united by their adherence to common principles.
Among the principles are that a school is an egalitarian community and that the student is a valued worker in that community, with the teacher in the role of mentor or coach. Depth of knowledge is emphasized over breadth, with the mastery of a few core subjects preferred to a scattershot spate of electives.
Begun with 12 schools, the coalition now encompasses several hundred across the country, and a handful overseas. Essential Schools active today include the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Fenway High School in Boston, the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in Manhattan, and University Heights High School in the Bronx.
ROBERT: Let me begin by asking you what is wrong with the American high school.
SIZER: It tries to do too much, and it puts too much of the work on the teachers rather than the youngsters. Most high schools are a blizzard of opportunities, most of them really exciting, but they're all jammed together and the youngsters change what they think about, change where they're working every hour on the hour. And so much of the teaching--rushed necessarily--is teacher talk. It's efficient in theory, but in practice it doesn't make much sense. Schools that I admire look more, in many ways, like studios where there is very serious and focused questioning, answering, considering, where the kids are necessarily drawn in to finding the answers to what they believe are important questions.