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