A Tribute to Ted Sizer

The news that Ted Sizer has died did not come as a shock. His friends knew that he had been battling colon cancer for some time and exchanged messages regularly, always asking hopefully, ‘How’s he doing?’

Ted SizerWhile his friends, admirers and supporters are many, Ted Sizer’s influence reaches far beyond that group.  Make no mistake, Ted Sizer was one of the giants of American education, a force for good for more than 50 years.

He is well known as the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which in 1984 launched a wave of change based on the idea of engaging students in useful and challenging work.  He knew that seat time was a completely inadequate measure of learning, and he was highly skeptical of the value of multiple choice tests and conventional grading.

His seminal book, Horace’s Compromise, will be read for years to come, as it should be.

You can read more in the New York Times.  George Wood of the Forum for Education and Democracy has a thoughtful appreciation on their website. And Ted’s own organization is collecting tributes online.

Two personal memories that capture Ted’s spirit and approach to life.  Ten percent of Walter Annenberg’s $500 million gift to American education went to support the Coalition of Essential Schools’ effort to transform high schools.  That’s a great story for a journalist, and so I called him up and proposed that we follow, on television, the efforts of one school to adopt Ted’s nine principles. As my opening gambit for what I assumed would be serious negotiations, I told him that we would need full access, no strings. “Fine,’ he said.  ‘What sort of school are you looking for?’

We ended up filming in Woodward High School in Cincinnati for three years, and Ted had no problem with our reporting on what was clearly a ‘2 steps forward, 2 steps back’ process.

Openness was just one of his virtues.  He was also a true gentleman, full of humor and charm.  While he must have been tough (he ran schools, after all!), he was also gentle and optimistic, a gracious host.  When we were producing School Sleuth in 2000, I called him at his home in Harvard, Massachusetts, to see if we could meet him at his office for an interview. “Why don’t you come to our home instead?” was his response.  If I remember correctly, he and Nancy also offered us beds for the night. Ted, Debbie Meier, Don Hirsch and a few other thoughtful people brought that program to life.

Ted never sought the spotlight or worried about who got credit, which may explain why he accomplished so much.  In 2006 I was asked to speak at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Commencement, and before I flew east from California I wrote Ted and Nancy asking if we could meet for breakfast that day.  We met at a small restaurant and exchanged news.  Ted looked strong and waved away questions about the pump he had to wear as part of the chemotherapy.  When he left the table briefly, Nancy told me how excited he was to be back because this commencement marked his 50-year anniversary with the school. I wanted to know how Harvard was honoring him. Nobody knows, she said, because Ted doesn’t want any fuss.

Not on my watch are we going to fail to honor this great man, I thought to myself.  After we parted, I made a beeline for Dean Kathy McCartney’s office and told her.  Her powerful tribute to Ted, who was seated on stage with the rest of the faculty, produced a standing ovation that went on for many minutes.  There weren’t many dry eyes in the house, certainly not mine.

The greatest tribute we can pay to Ted Sizer is to keep alive his vision—that students must be respected, and that the highest form of respect teachers can show their students is to challenge them with work that stretches their minds.

Rest in peace, my friend.

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Back in 2000, I visited Ted and asked him to talk about his vision for creating excellent schools.  Listen to the interview online >>>

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23 thoughts on “A Tribute to Ted Sizer

  1. What an incredible man he was! I still remember the meeting that many of us were invited to in Chicago to discuss the Annenberg money.

    It was great fun working with him and being with him. He was as you say open, gracious, expansive and down to earth – all at the same time.

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  2. Thanks, John. I loved that man! He generously gave me a wonderful comment for the backcover of “Crossing the Tracks,” – a huge surprise to me at the time.

    I feel so fortunate to have known him, to have crossed paths with him. He’s one of the great educators and reformers of our generation — with John Goodland, Jeannie Oakes, Hank Levin and so many others you know well who never quite got adopted by the policy establishment (now including Obama).

    I think one of the greatest tragedies of this period in our public school history is that we’ve squandered the talents of these people — as important in their ideas and contributions as John Dewey — in favor of the testscores-equal-quality people.

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  3. Ted Sizer was very dear, longtime friend, loved and respected by all, and ever the gentleman’s gentleman. We stand on his shoulders.

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  4. Yes, Ted Sizer was amazing. The spirit that he, and his wife Nancy, brought
    to the national dialogue on education will live on forever. Thank you for
    this tribute.

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  5. Wow, how we have been lifted by Ted! We are lucky to have lived when he did, beneficiaries of his insightful vision, endless heart, and the constructive realities he created in education. Hopefully we will be able to live up to his promise.

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  6. I will miss Ted tremendously–I can feel the absence of Ted in my life
    already. Besides all of his school work, he knew how to relate, be
    kind, and all with a public service mentality. I never wanted this day
    to come. Thanks for your special recognition of Ted.

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  7. Just the other day, at the Arne Duncan event, I asked Jim Levy if he knew
    how Ted was doing. I had the pleasure of staffing Ted while he was
    Chair of the PAC, and earlier, worked with him when Karen and I helped
    coordinate Ted Sizer Week here at TC in 2002. I remember him as being
    always gracious, warm, and exceptionally good humored.

    I am saddened to hear this news.

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  8. Thank you very much for sharing these tributes to Ted Sizer, tributes that only touch on the impact he had on education. He made us all think because he was an intellectual risk taker, one of very few, sadly, in our profession.

    I appreciate your bringing together these links that show some of his many contributions.

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  9. I Was crazy about Ted. During my entire time at TC, from beginning to end he was there for me as a mentor and counselor. Whenever I asked him for help, he went out of his way to do it. He was a giant for the nation in leading a crusade for school improvement, serving as a model of what a leader should be and one of the wisest men and nicest guys I’ve ever known. Frequently, he counseled me against timidity, guided me in thinking about issues (what’s important and what’s not) and dissauded me from quixotic endeavors. He was generative and trained a coterie of the leaders in education. I loved that he would lead me to ideas and then claim they were mine. I would never let him get away with that. That invariably produced his wonderful laugh.

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  10. Your tribute to Ted is excellent, and thanks so much for forwarding the other three. You are right, his “best” book will carry on for a long long time.

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  11. A few years ago he revealed to me that he had started the NSF summer youth program where high school children were given a free, 6 week taste of college. I attended such a Columbia University-run program on farm land Columbia owned at the time near Litchfield, Conn. The program had a dramatic influence on me – and I’m sure on many others – and changed by orientation to college. As with so many programs, he received little credit for it but took great pride in realizing that I was one of the beneficiaries of his creativity.

    He will be missed indeed.

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  12. While I never worked closely with Ted, he and I had many long and wonderful
    conversations during the days I was developing the National Board and he was
    – well, he was being Ted – Essential Schools, yes, but so much more.

    Losing giants is very sad: my own list of inspirational mentors and
    colleagues includes John Gardner, Doc Howe, Greg Anrig, Al Shanker, and of
    course, Ted. All of these people saw the system as a whole, not just parts
    of it, and cared about all of it, not just some part of it. I don’t see
    people today operating at that level of quality, vision, inspiration, and
    integrity.

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  13. What too few of the tributes to Ted Sizer mention is that one of his greatest contributions to the reform of American public education were his efforts to help us understand that its main problems stem from assumptions, relationships, and values buried deep within its culture, and that successful reform will not come until we challenge and change these obsolete aspects of our thinking. The best way to remember him is to help spread that understanding, rather than just trying to “improve” schools without facing that challenge.

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