R.I.P. Theodore Sizer, Education Reform Pioneer, 1932-2009

Oct 22, 2009 at 5:00 pm
The New York Times just posted an obituary of Theodore R. Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, who reportedly died yesterday at his home in Massachusetts.

Writes Times reporter Margalit Fox:

Sizer was best known as the father of the Essential Schools movement, which he founded in 1984. The movement's umbrella organization, the Coalition of Essential Schools, spans a diverse array of public and private schools united by their adherence to a set of common principles.

The principles hold, among other things, 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 over the scattershot spate of electives the modern high school seems to favor.

R.I.P. Theodore Sizer, Education Reform Pioneer, 1932-2009
​What's that got to do with St. Louis? you ask. Well, a whole lot, on the one hand, and, on the other, not very much. We'll start with the latter: The St. Louis area is home to -- drum roll, please -- precisely one Coalition-affiliated school, the Whitfield School in Creve Coeur.

A pity, because we could use a lot more.

I know about Sizer thanks to my sister Liza, who taught at Whitfield in the late 1980s. She pretty much fell into the job, having fled a Ph.D. program in paleontology after going as far as a master's. That job, I'm sure she'll tell you, changed her life. When she left Whitfield it was to enroll in a doctoral program in education. She's either taught education or taught middle- and high-schoolers ever since.

When I somehow blundered my way into grad school at Brown University, Liza, freshly installed at Whitfield and in thrall to the Coalition, mentioned that a member of that august Ivy League school's faculty was none other than Ted Sizer. (She referred to him as Ted. You know, thrall and all.) And, she suggested, I could do a whole lot worse than squander one of my few required elective courses on a seminar with Professor Sizer.

So I did. And I read Sizer's seminal trilogy on education reform, beginning with Horace's Compromise. Though it's now a quarter-century old, that book and the two that followed are still a terrific read for anyone in search of enlightenment and inspiration regarding secondary education in this country.

P.S.: I did manage to wedge Sizer into one of our stories. When Ben Westhoff undertook a survey of St. Louis public servants in an effort to learn who among them sent their own kids to public schools in the city, I browbeat him into calling Sizer.