Ted Sizer dies at 77; educator built enduring reform movement

Ted Sizer, a former prep school headmaster and Harvard University dean who built an education reform movement that has endured for two decades despite its unfashionable opposition to government- imposed standards and emphasis on deep learning over memorization and regurgitation, has died. He was 77.

Sizer died Wednesday at his home in Harvard, Mass., after a long battle with cancer, according to a statement by the Coalition of Essential Schools, the organization of 600 private and public schools he founded at Brown University in 1984 with the goal of restructuring the American high school.

The headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., before he became dean of the education schools at Brown and Harvard, Sizer was one of the most prominent education reformers of the latter half of the 20th century, whose progressive ideas about how schools should be organized and what students should learn helped drive the debates that rattled parents, government officials and the education establishment in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“Ted Sizer was one of the giants of American education,” who inspired a national movement to create smaller schools, New York University education historian Diane Ravitch told The Times. “He cared more about the quality of learning than test scores.”

He stood for an ideal of school as a place devoted to nurturing “habits of mind,” the ability to think deeply about the subjects that matter -- such as literacy, numeracy and civic understanding -- and connect that knowledge to students’ lives. Sizer believed that such intellectual habits could not thrive in the traditional high school, where 50-minute classes and low expectations produced what he called “friendly, orderly, uncontentious, wasteful triviality” and docile minds.

He wrote eloquently about the trade-offs and frustrations inherent in the system in “Horace’s Compromise” (1984), a book based on his five-year study of 80 high schools around the country. It was the first in a trilogy, followed by “Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School” (1992) and “Horace’s Hope: What Works for the American High School” (1996).

To the end of his life, colleagues say, Sizer remained committed to the progressive ideals embodied in his reform philosophy, even though his ideas “would not win a popularity contest among state education officers or most ministers of education,” Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner observed. But Sizer, Gardner said, “stands out among American educators of the last half-century” as “a brilliant leader of educational institutions . . . the creator of original and important ideas about schools; and a powerful, evocative and influential writer.”

Sizer detested “top-down” reforms, chief among them standardized tests, which offered, in his view, “at best snippets of knowledge about a student and at worst a profoundly distorted view of that child.” He favored bottom-up change, guided by nine principles that embraced ideas such as “learning to use one’s mind well” as the primary purpose of school; class loads of no more than 80 students per high school teacher and 20 at the elementary level; and replacing conventional tests with “exhibitions” in which students demonstrate their knowledge of a subject.

His critics often agreed with some of his goals but protested that his approach was inefficient, like “trying to clean out the Augean stables with an ice-cream scoop,” Chester Finn Jr., an undersecretary of education in the Reagan administration, once said.

Sizer was born on June 23, 1932, in New Haven, Conn. His father taught art history at Yale University. Sizer went to Yale, graduating in 1953, but was, by his own account, a mediocre student, hindered by what today might be diagnosed as dyslexia. He served two years in the Army before enrolling at Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in teaching in 1957 and a doctorate in education and history in 1961.

His dissertation examined the American high school of the late 19th century. He joined Harvard’s faculty, becoming dean of its graduate school of education in 1964.

In 1972, he left Harvard to become headmaster of the prestigious Phillips Academy, where his ideas about education reform began to percolate. Phillips had many scholarship students who, despite socioeconomic disadvantages, flourished in school. Sizer wondered why similar students in public schools fared much less well. In 1981, he gave up the headmaster position to puzzle out an answer.

He released his findings in 1984 during a period of high despair for American educators, who were under attack by blue-ribbon panels for fostering what one commission termed a “rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s schools. Sizer offered his analysis of the problems high schools faced in “Horace’s Compromise,” which was told through the eyes of Horace Smith, a fictional middle-aged teacher in a suburban high school who was based on real teachers Sizer observed during classroom visits. Horace’s “compromise” was working in a system that did not give him enough time or support to do his job well.

Some reviewers criticized the book for its pessimistic outlook, but Sizer never lost sight of what he considered the essential elements of education.

“Horace Smith and his ablest colleagues may be the key to better high schools, but it is respected adolescents who will shape them,” he wrote. “America must take its young more seriously . . . out of simple human courtesy and recognition that adolescents do have power, power that can be influenced to serve decent and constructive ends.”

Sizer is survived by his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer; four children; and 10 grandchildren.