Thursday, October 22, 2009

Education reformer Theodore Sizer dies at 77

'The best we educational planners can do is to create the conditions for teachers and students to flourish and get out of their way.' Theodore Sizer

Sizer was so passionate about teaching that he never really retired, even as cancer ravaged his body, his wife said. He had returned to Harvard as a visiting professor before his death and taken a part-time position at Brandeis University."He did less" teaching, she said, "but he didn't ever stop, really."

Sizer served as headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from 1972 to 1981. He oversaw a successful merger of Phillips and Abbot academies as well as the introduction of innovative programs, including a summer outreach program to prepare minority students for careers in math and science.The nation has lost "a great visionary and an innovative leader of education reform," said Barbara Chase, the head of Phillips Academy.

"We always will be richer for what he has left us: a sense of how schools can be their best — centered, rigorous, and most importantly, inspirational places for our young people," Chase said. Sizer served in the U.S. Army as an artillery officer, and he later said the experience influenced his ideas about education.Sizer founded the Coalition of Essential Schools in 1984, which promotes comprehensive reforms envisioned in his book "Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School."

The program began with 12 schools and has grown to include more than 600 public and private institutions. Its principles include having students demonstrate mastery by performing tasks instead of regurgitating what they learned in lectures.The movement also encourages each student to master a limited number of skills and knowledge areas, rather than just covering plenty of content.The program emphasizes that teaching should be personalized and teachers should not be responsible for more than 80 students in a high school or middle school and no more than 20 in an elementary school.

"No federal regulation or court decision or encyclical from a state commissioner can change the colorful, often maddening, ever fascinating, inevitably noisy variety of kids that we teach," Sizer said in 2002. "That variety may be why our work is so hard, but it is also why it is never boring."

The Essential Schools movement also stresses fairness, generosity, tolerance and trust.

"His eloquent and fervent championing of progressive educational ideals has had a profound effect on hundreds of thousands of educators and students," the Coalition of Essential Schools said in a statement.