Theodore Sizer died yesterday. He was one of a handful of writers whose central ideas have stayed with me throughout my career in education.
Horace’s Compromise, published in 1984, describes the tacit agreement between some teachers and their students. The agreement is basically this: If the student doesn’t give the teacher a hard time, the teacher won’t bother the student with expectations that he or she will learn much. I understood that idea immediately as a teacher. It explained why some of my colleagues never had any discipline problems with their students and were able to read the newspaper during their planning periods. It also explained why some of my students complained resentfully when I asked them to get their heads up off their desks and pay attention.
As a principal, I saw the compromise even more clearly except now I felt responsible to do something about it. It’s not easy to revoke that agreement with some teachers, especially veterans who had negotiated the deal early on and planned to honor it until retirement. They used the same (unwritten) lesson plans, sat in the back of the room during staff development and waited it out, and exhibited an unhealthy skepticism that all kids could actually learn. Frankly, I couldn’t change their attitudes, but I could change their behaviors.
Sizer believed that students needed to be involved in their own education, and the teacher’s role was to guide and mentor. This is still a tough sell for some teachers, especially during this time of accountability measured by state tests. If there is an up side to the testing mania, perhaps it’s that it makes the compromise even more untenable. Then again, you can always blame poor student performance on the test.
I twice had the privilege of hearing Sizer speak, once at a small gathering and another time at a large conference. Both times he talked about what American education could be. He, of course, had no idea how his ideas influenced the actions and beliefs of the entire career of an anonymous administrator listening in the audience.