Ted Sizer: Performance was the only test

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the late Ted Sizer. (24 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

Ted Sizer was a master teacher when he first kicked me into shape in the 1950s. He was just out of Yale and the United States Army. I was a driven, impoverished sophomore at the “Marine Corps of the Mind,” as we thought of our venerable, ancient Roxbury Latin School in Boston. He’d been a Yale faculty brat, son of the art historian and Old Blue legend “Tubby” Sizer, who’d hand-designed the heraldic flags of the several Yale colleges. But then Ted had joined the army and fallen in love with the other side of the street. At Roxbury Latin, my classmates and I plotted how to “break” the new teacher on his first civilian job. As it turned out, Ted Sizer broke us on entering the classroom, just by eye-contact, and then by demanding results.

Ted Sizer’s long, brilliant career as a school reformer was based on the notions we felt instantly. He had no doctrine and no gimmicks, but the democratic premise of his life’s work was that if the fundamentals at Harvard, Yale and Phillips Academy at Andover were good enough for him and his kids, they should and could be the model for public schools all over America. His peak experience as a student was being examined over and over for his Ph.D. by Harvard’s reigning American colonial historian, Bernard Bailyn. And so small-school eye-contact education for every kid became Ted Sizer’s standard – to be delivered by hands-on teachers until kids could speak and demonstrate all they’d learned. Ted Sizer was fighting the cancer that killed him this week when I drove out to the family house in the woods of Harvard, Massachuetts last year and we talked about what he’d taught, written and learned, about American schools.

TS: Well, the main ideas I came upon as an historian, primarily of American history but also of British and Commonwealth history, which were part of my PhD requirements. I was subjected to written and oral exams so it was a really rugged, typically Harvard effort, no expense spared, and my marvelous adviser, Bernard Bailyn, who now is a retired University Professor at Harvard, he would always say: well, do it again, do it again. Harvard allowed two distinguished philosophers to be part of my committee, these very thoughtful and devoted scholars who would ask the questions over and over and over, again saying do it again, do it again, do it again, until you get it right, by my standards. By the time they are your standards, you’ve learned something

CL: Is this the core of Sizer’s lesson, which is to say you don’t know it until you can perform it in a way, and you can’t perform it until you’ve done it over and over and over?

TS: Yes, absolutely, for everybody. Even the so-called swiftest student, who may be the sloppiest, who will say something that seems so plausible you forget to challenge it. And when you challenge it, you find he can’t explain where it came from. It just came with his toast in the morning. But of course that whole process slows everything down… Well, what I see at the work of this coalition of essential school is quite conservative. There’s language, our own and at least one other, there’s social studies, our own history, those of others. There’s math and science, which are easier to define, and then there’s art. That’s the most difficult to define. We spend, at our little school, a great deal of time explaining the importance of visual and performing arts and in public exhibitions, the kids show off their grasp and understanding of the importance of these.

Ted Sizer in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 11, 2008.

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  • Tom Neel

    Is there a memorial service being planned? Where, when?

  • The Sizer family has announced a memorial service for Ted at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard in Cambridge, MA on Saturday, November 21, at 2 p.m, with a reception afterwards.

  • Larry Casson

    Chris,

    My recollection was that he was a pompous adolescent prick!

    Would enjoy hearing from you!~

    Larry

  • William S. Callanan

    Chris,

    I am deeply saddened to learn of Ted Sizer’s passing. He was a fine person and gave me some wise advice when I was considering a teaching career. My prayers and sympathy go out to his entire family.

    Bill Callanan

    P.S. His wife, the former Nancy Foust,attended Oxford School West Hartford with my cousin Nancy Callanan Barker

  • Mike Plumer

    Ted was the ultimate school man; doing school well was his goal. I am grateful for his support as George Thomas and I set out to teach in a Boston Jr High school. We are diminished by his passing.