Walking in Our Students' Shoes: Reading Teachers and the Writing Project Model
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1
Summary: Kittle recounts his experience with reading teachers—in all disciplines—who are also learning and practicing new reading strategies to advance learning in their classrooms.
The cliché says that you can't teach old dogs new tricks. The teaching profession, with its seemingly endless stream of imposed changes—everything from state content standards to new requirements for complying with the No Child Left Behind regulations—would seem to be the least-favored occupation for old dogs. Those of us who teach know how to be flexible, how to adapt, how to make ourselves over in the image of the newest mandates from above. But these makeovers are often merely cosmetic in nature. After all, those who impose new standards aren't in a position to know a specific school's needs, much less a certain teacher's classroom population, so it should come as no surprise if teachers don't wholeheartedly embrace mandated changes.
This poses a particular difficulty for those of us who conduct professional development workshops. As teachers, we've been exposed to many outsiders who come in, give a spiel about the latest and greatest methods or ideas, and then disappear. We seldom have the opportunity to play with ideas over time, reflect upon their efficacy, and report back to others on our results. I have been lucky enough to codirect a professional development program that, due to its content, structure, and the high level of engagement from participants, avoided many of the hit-and-run pitfalls described above. In this article, I will detail the elements that helped this program, the California Professional Development Institute (CPDI), succeed.
Ironically, the CPDI program began precisely as a top-down, let's-fix-those-broken-teachers program put in place by politicians and bureaucrats. Former Governor Gray Davis initially made the bold claim that CPDIs would retrain 100,000 poorly-prepared high-school English teachers—even though there are fewer than 70,000 English teachers in all of California. The CPDI program mandated eighty contact hours, with an additional forty hours of independent school site work. The CPDIs' charge was to improve teachers' abilities to deliver the state-mandated content standards in English language arts, which included the ability to read and synthesize numerous writers' ideas and perspectives and critically write in response to multiple texts. Because these essential literacy skills dovetail with basic writing project goals, the California Writing Project (CWP) was one of the organizations selected to administer CPDIs through the CWP regional network. At the Northern California Writing Project's CPDI, participants were welcomed from across disciplines in the belief that "the literacy practices must be taught in all subjects."
My involvement with the CPDI program began when Rochelle Ramay, co-director of the Northern California Writing Project, invited me to codirect a new institute in Redding, a small city about seventy miles north of Chico, where I teach in California State University's English Education program. I was excited at the prospect of meeting and working with teachers outside Chico's somewhat insular, college-town environment. The opportunity to work with Rochelle, who chairs the English Department at rural Corning High School and directs teacher research at our writing project site, was also appealing. A smart, committed teacher, Rochelle is a dynamic individual, a veteran inservice provider, and an accomplished professional. I knew I would learn much from collaborating with her.
The participants in our CPDI were, I imagine, markedly different from those underprepared teachers the governor targeted. Unlike the highly-populated urban areas of Southern California, the Bay Area, and greater Sacramento, the nine-county service area of our writing project site is mostly rural. Our region has been less affected by growth and sudden increases in student populations than other areas of California. Hence, most classroom teachers here are fully certified. Despite a paucity of underprepared teachers, we had no trouble finding teachers interested in improving their students' abilities in reading and writing.
CPDI participants came both from large high schools in Redding as well as much smaller schools nestled in the rural and mountainous communities of Northern California. Along with the expected group of English teachers—around half of the 25 participants—we had teachers of art, social studies, science, math, special education, even metal shop. Some teachers made multihour commutes just to attend the sessions, which lasted four hours on Friday nights and all day Saturdays. We met two successive weekends each month, December through March. For this, each participant received a $1,000 stipend and was eligible for six units of professional development credit. Although these were certainly nice incentives, few of the teachers seemed to be there just for the external rewards. Rather, we all seemed linked by two shared concerns. First, we agreed that students need a wide array of strategies for addressing reading and writing tasks in the classroom. Second, we concurred that teachers need support as they investigate, experiment with, and share methods of disseminating such literacy strategies to their students.
The curriculum of the institutes arose from a number of sources. We provided each participant with copies of a variety of contemporary books on literacy theory and practice. Each of these texts complicated the notion of what it means to read, making the compelling assertion that reading is a context-specific cognitive process requiring diverse strategies for success. These books all discussed why students can have so much trouble when assigned the seemingly "simple" task of reading a chapter from a schoolbook—a concern shared by the CPDI's participants and leaders alike. Schoenbach, Cziko, Greenleaf, and Hurwitz's Reading for Understanding: A Guide to Improving Reading in Middle and High School Classrooms lays out a model schoolwide reading apprenticeship program, while Karen Feathers' Infotext: Reading and Learning focuses on the reading of informational materials like textbooks and workplace and consumer documents. Cris Tovani's I Read It, But I Don't Get It details the author's struggles and successes in teaching reluctant adolescent readers in Colorado; Jim Burke's The English Teacher's Companion similarly describes Burke's work with Bay Area students of all abilities. With the exception of Burke's book, the texts are discipline independent, examining the practices of successful readers and describing models of instruction that can help students attain those practices.
We also disbursed a binder containing brief summaries of various reading and writing strategies culled from books, as well as miscellaneous readings for use in practicing the strategies. We endeared ourselves to most participants by freely distributing office supplies like Post-it Notes, highlighters, and message flags. Our objective was to give participants the tools—pedagogical, material, and experiential—they would need to create, teach, and evaluate an "assignment sequence" that would begin with reading and end with writing. Before asking participants to do this themselves, we wanted to provide a variety of scaffolding experiences. We wanted them to take a walk in their students' shoes, so to speak, by asking them to do the kinds of literacy tasks they regularly asked their own students to complete. With this in mind, the CPDI began with a model assignment sequence that required the participants to read multiple, related academic texts and then write critical, engaged essays in response to the ideas in the texts.
We began our model assignment sequence with the basics: selecting a general topic. We chose education as a common touchstone for all participants and picked diverse readings on the subject. The readings ranged from engaging, provocative narratives by Jim Gray and Mike Rose to a complicated, convoluted essay by John Dewey. We included for good measure thoughtful and reflective pieces by E. B. White and Theodore Sizer. The readings reflected the same diversity of text—in terms of level of interest, ease of navigation, complexity of argument, and difficulty of vocabulary—that high school students would be likely to come across over the course of a school year. In having participants read these pieces, we wanted them to experience again the feeling of being confused and intimidated by text in order to empathize with their students' encounters with reading.
It's easy to forget that something like the related themes of idealism and naïveté in Julius Caesar—which are obvious to the teacher who has taught the play twice a year for a decade—might not jump out at a novice reader of Shakespeare. The same could be said for reading a history, science, or any other discipline-specific textbook: teachers of these subjects know how to read and make sense of them. The difficulty lies in figuring out how to tell our students how we construct meaning when we read these things, probably because we are often unconscious of our own processes of reading. Requiring CPDI participants to read unfamiliar and challenging material, in conjunction with strategies that help make explicit the ways effective readers construct meaning from text, encouraged lively discussions and careful consideration of the texts' potential meanings.
This idea of distancing the participants from their comfort zones served also to provide a forum for discussing ways to avoid repeating tired, if essential, old ideas to students who have already heard (and perhaps ignored) those traits that proficient readers regularly employ: having a purpose for reading, creating images while reading, seeing spatial relationships, filling in gaps through inference, recognizing constructions, making personal and intertextual connections, and developing interpretations over time (Pirie 1997, 33-49; Keene and Zimmerman 1997). The strategies we employed for first and subsequent readings helped make these traits visible and tangible. In other words, the strategies helped us all better understand, and be better able to articulate, what we do when we read.
We began with procedures for helping students with cold readings of new texts. The readings from Mike Rose and Jim Gray featured storytelling interspersed with moments of reflection on the significance of the stories being told. We asked participants to mark these pieces with highlighters, using one color to show the places where the writer narrated and another to denote the reflective elements. This strategy accomplishes two ends. First, it gives a person specific purposes for reading something—namely, looking for those elements suggested by the teacher. Second, it provides a visual indication of the structure employed by the writer. In the case of the Rose piece, taken from Lives on the Boundary, participants noted that nearly each narrated anecdote was followed by Rose's reflection on the story's significance. While this is unlikely to be any great revelation to a proficient reader, this strategy works by making that structure visible in color. Students who might not otherwise recognize a writer's organizational choices can suddenly see that Rose has taken pains to help his reader understand why his stories are important. Debriefing this activity with participants after its completion elicited the observation that the same strategy could be used any time a reading featured different structural elements. A persuasive essay might be highlighted for assertions and evidence, while a history text could be highlighted for facts and opinions. Whatever the specifics, the highlighting strategy assisted readers in their understanding of the text's content as well as its structure. Additionally, the strategy paid heed to the social aspect of reading; participants' interactions ranged from furtive glances at their neighbors' highlighting to vigorous discussions about what ought to be highlighted. These discussions, too, were fruitful in that they brought to the forefront the decisions made by readers as they construct meaning. The social interactions brought on by the highlighting strategy helped participants talk about their reading processes in concrete terms.
Along with approaches to first readings, we introduced ways to help students revisit texts they had already read once. Teachers know that asking students—especially reluctant readers—to reread a text is unlikely to elicit squeals of delight. One rereading strategy we used in the CPDI asked participants to create a visual interpretation of a text. The reading we selected for this activity was John Dewey's "From Traditional to Progressive Education," a complex essay featuring long, difficult, conceptual sentences with few concrete illustrations. After reading the piece through once, we asked participants to "draw" the argument made by Dewey. Drawings and diagrams were completed that depicted what participants felt were the most critical elements of Dewey's essay. Several featured central visual symbols like bridges spanning the gap between traditional and progressive education, although Dewey never suggested such a metaphor specifically; others represented contrasting school environs featuring regimented, lockstep learning juxtaposed with chaotic, unstructured classrooms. One math teacher initially commented that this activity seemed, in his words, "artsy-fartsy" and lacking in rigor. After he represented Dewey's two educational camps as boxers in a ring, he reconsidered, saying that drawing the picture helped him find a way to remember the argument much more clearly than he otherwise would have. Sharing the artwork with the group helped participants see different ways that Dewey's argument could be visualized, while also noting that the most important ideas featured prominently again and again in the drawings. In general terms, the drawing strategy requires readers to revisit a text and its ideas and find a way to express those ideas in a concrete, nonverbal fashion—quite different from the original writer's mode of discourse.
At the same time that these reading strategies were being introduced and evaluated, we tied in methods for helping students find an academic voice in writing. The CPDI readings were thematically linked, all offering professional, informed perspectives on educational issues. We wanted the ideas in the readings to lead the participants toward a position from which they would be able to become authors themselves, writing about the state of public education. Using their own experiences as students and teachers, they found their own voices as they navigated their way through the variety of ideas presented in the CPDI readings.
Our structure for the writing components of the CPDI focused extensively on linking the various reading strategies to prewriting activities. Before we even cracked open a text, we asked participants to create art projects that represented their own contributions to teaching. To facilitate this, we brought in a variety of art supplies—colored paper, clay, glitter glue, chenille sticks, even feathers—that the participants attacked with vigor. The projects they created were not as important as the conversations they facilitated. When presenting their projects to the group, each teacher talked in both concrete and metaphorical terms about what they saw as their contributions to education. This activity gave everyone a starting point against which the ideas about education found in later readings and discussions could be measured.
Furthering this work of preparing participants to write, we asked them to complete informal summaries and double-entry journals as they read. These activities allowed them to recall what they saw as the main ideas for each reading, as well as raise questions they had as they completed the reading. When all of the thematic readings had been completed, we asked participants to work in groups to create synthesizing charts for the readings that listed big ideas, provided key quotations, and articulated connections among the texts. The charts helped participants see the ways each reading treated the same subject, and made visible the range of perspectives a single topic afforded. Additionally, this work allowed us to emphasize not simply the ideas in each reading, but the variety of choices that the authors had to make in constructing their arguments. We kept pushing the participants to think about the readings as "text"—communications put together to convey ideas to particular audiences. Through looking at the work they had created, whether summary, response journal, or chart, we saw that each participant was also creating "text" in the CPDI.
Through combining these reading and prewriting activities, participants eventually were asked to produce drafts of an essay in response to the following prompt:
Bearing in mind all of the ideas in our readings, write about your own take on American education. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the schools you've learned and/or taught in? Are there potentials for education that seem unfulfilled? Are there compromises that you make as a teacher that frustrate you? Answers to these questions, which are implicitly asked in the essays we read, should help you show your reader where your voice fits into the discussion about education prompted by Gray, Rose, Sizer, Dewey, and White.
The essays produced in response to this were interesting, engaging, and informed. Of course, to reach final form, each paper went through a number of peer-facilitated revisions. During revision, we asked participants to treat their essays as "text." When reading each other's essays, they used the same reading strategies they employed when reading Dewey, Rose, and the other authors. Participants used different-colored highlighters to show voice, claims, and examples. They drew the arguments presented within their peers' papers. They cut their papers into pieces and rearranged words, sentences, and paragraphs. Writers listened to their papers being read aloud, for the first time, by other participants, who stopped and discussed their developing sense of the paper's argument.
Our revision strategies didn't attempt to tell writers what to do to improve their papers. Instead, they aimed to provide the writer with information about how readers understood what the paper said. By doing this—treating student work not as sacred but simply as text—we wanted to obviate the problem of unproductive writing groups, which all too often feature feedback that simply says, in various ways, "I thought it was a really good paper." We wanted to give writers an understanding of what readers "get" from their essays. The onus of determining what to do to the essay next then lies where it belongs: on the writer's shoulders.
The completion of these essays marked the culmination of our model assignment sequence, which began with reading about education and led to the voicing of multiple interpretations of the state of public education. The success of this sequence sprang from a combination of factors. The topic was one that engaged participants both personally and professionally. The ideas in the CPDI's readings had been wrestled with and discussed thoroughly, individually as well as in small and large groups. The connections among the essays and the participants' experiences had been investigated and charted. The sequence of reading and rereading, coupled with concurrent prewriting, drafting, and revising activities had all prepared the participants for the task. In short, the structure of the assignment—which required reflection on both ideas and on processes—scaffolded participants to a position from which they had something to say and a voice with which to say it.
This sequencing of reading and writing became the next point of engagement for the CPDI's participants. After having experienced for themselves a model reading/writing sequence, the teachers were asked to create, teach, and document an assignment sequence of their own that relied upon the specific literacy practices of their classrooms. A number of teachers were concerned that such sequences would take time away from their classes' core curricula. We encouraged all teachers to see the assignment sequence not as an added burden but as a restructuring tool. We wanted teachers to rethink reading and writing tasks that were already part of the class in order to help students become better able to successfully complete those tasks.
As with the essay on education, most participants embraced this work and produced interesting, informed results. Sequences ranged from small, tentative steps taken over the course of a few class periods to larger, more ambitious assignment sequences that lasted weeks. Participants gave presentations to the CPDI that outlined the key components of their assignments and detailed student work produced from the sequences. This work, along with the essays they had written for the CPDI, was collected and published in a four-inch-thick anthology. Copies were distributed to the participants and their respective administrators and have traveled to local, regional, state, and national meetings of the National Writing Project.
Profiling a mere three of the CPDI participants cannot provide a complete picture of the group but will at least give a sense of the kinds of work participants produced over the course of the four-month institute.
Wendy Drury teaches freshman, sophomore, and senior English courses at Red Bluff Union High School in Red Bluff, California, a city of 13,000 people on the Sacramento River. Writing her essay for the CPDI, Wendy saw a clear connection between the current prominence of standardized testing and Dewey's critique of "traditional" education. While such tests seem to "comfort the masses of parents," they do "not truly prov[e] that students have what they need" to succeed in life, she asserts. The assignment sequence Wendy constructed reflects her essay's concern about student achievement and how it is measured. Focusing on "very low level" ninth-graders and a district-mandated reflective essay, Wendy put together a sequence of readings from Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Howard Griffin to complement To Kill a Mockingbird. Students read, highlighted, and drew aspects of the readings that related to personal values expressed by each text's speaker. This led to writing activities in which they brainstormed, highlighted, and illustrated episodes from their own lives that called into question their personal values. One of those experiences eventually provided the core for each of their reflective essays. While Wendy hoped the assignment sequence would miraculously transform all of her students into proficient readers and writers, such a panacea was not forthcoming. However, "the experiences the students came up with to write about were by far much better" than any she had had before. Wendy's work highlights the ways she helps her students find their way into a text as well as her attempts to articulate her teaching practices.
Science and Spanish are Paula Sanchez's teaching assignments at Yreka High School. Just thirty minutes south of the Oregon border, Yreka is a high-valley community of 7,000 in the shadow of Mount Shasta. Paula's essay on education took its inspiration from Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise, a text that denotes the many compromises teachers are forced to make. Paula's work focused on the many constraints "outside influences" place on educators, from ever-changing curricular mandates to ever-increasing standardized tests.
Paula herself has a vision of her work that does not allow for excessive compromise. She refined an assignment in her freshman physical science class to improve students' science literacy. Students had to build and sail a model sailboat of their own design to show their mastery of several principles of physical science. To get students prepared for the task, Paula required that they read, using strategies from the CPDI, a variety of texts: an encyclopedia article on sailing, textbook descriptions of historical ship designs and materials, and a recent Popular Science article on a radical new catamaran design. They also performed experiments on wind dynamics using Bernoulli's principle and documented their work in writing. This led to a quasi-creative writing assignment in which students were to imagine themselves stranded on an island in the Pacific, with ample basic necessities and a large hunk of canvas. Using the texts as resources, and referencing a minimum of six scientific terms and principles, the students wrote out mock diary entries detailing the building of a boat used to return them to civilization. Paula noted that the use of a variety of texts and text formats "helped [students] get material to use for their projects." The readings gave "depth" to the project, while the reading strategies from the CPDI helped her students to better "understand what they are reading. . . . Evidence of this was shown by [her] lower level students who were able to explain complex material to the rest of the class." Her sequence, in short, allowed her to help her students succeed in learning the science class's curriculum through structured reading and writing.
Pierre Peasha teaches drafting, networking, and metal shop at Central Valley High School in Shasta Lake, a community of 9,000 just minutes north of Redding, California. His choice of target class for his assignment sequence says something about Pierre's values as well. "As a CAD drafting and CISCO internetworking instructor, I get to work with some serious students; however, in the metal shop things can be quite different. This is why I chose this course" to implement the assignment sequence. His "main goal" was to "get students noses into some text. I wanted them to see some value in reading for content as well as reading for pleasure." He used a local community college's "valve-cover car racing" competition as the underlying assignment: students built model cars (whose bodies were made from old engine valve covers) and raced them at the event. But Pierre had students delve far deeper than mere fabrication of the racers. He had them read car magazines like Circle Track and Rod and Custom, and books about stock cars, and watch videos about hot rods and custom cars—all in the quest for an understanding of the discursive styles that characterize writing about such vehicles. After the race event, he asked his students to write, using the styles they had discussed, about the changes they would make to their valve cover racers for next year's race. Students drafted and revised, and the finished pieces demonstrated an understanding not just of the process of making the racers but also of the reading-writing relationship. Pierre's assignment helped his metal shop students—not widely recognized for their literate practices—understand the style and text features of reading materials that engaged them and employ those same features in their own writing.
Not all experiences with the CPDI were perfect, of course. Two history teachers were, from the outset, uncomfortable with the CPDI's underlying assumption that teaching reading and writing is context specific and needs to happen within each class. These teachers claimed, quite understandably, that they hardly had time to cover their standards-specified content, much less give instruction in reading and writing. Others, including English teachers, had similar feelings about fitting literacy skills into already crowded curricula; still, when Rochelle and I offered a second-year CPDI for those interested in continuing the work, more than half signed on again.
The CPDI program, for which funding has been cut due to California's budgetary quagmire, was implemented throughout the state by a number of agencies. From talking to colleagues who also led CPDIs in other parts of the state, I have come to understand that not all of these efforts were as successful as the Northern California Writing Project's program. I attribute this success to three elements of our institute, only two of which were under our control. First, the content of our CPDI was directly relevant to teachers' needs, focusing on concrete, research-supported strategies for improving students' abilities to read and write, not just with competence, but with confidence. Second, the structure of the institute provided intense, focused time that didn't simply describe the teaching practices and theories, but allowed the participants to experience the effectiveness firsthand. Further, the time between institute meetings—usually no more than two weeks—allowed teachers to try out ideas, assess their viability, and bring back "real-world" results. While these two elements—content and structure—were things that Rochelle and I could manipulate as needed, the third factor—engagement—was due to the professionalism of the CPDI's participants. While the provision of such inducements as cash stipends and college credit may have accounted for the initial interest in the CPDI, the participants almost uniformly embraced the work. No one "phoned it in," as the saying goes; instead each took the work seriously, experimented with ideas, and brought a remarkable level of energy to the long weekend sessions. The overall combination resulted in a professional development model that Rochelle and I try emulating, not only in our writing project work but in our classrooms as well.
Burke, J. 1999. The English Teacher's Companion. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Dewey, J. 1999. "Between Traditional and Progressive Education." Reading Our Histories, Understanding Our Cultures, 298-304. Ed. Kathleen McCormack. Boston: Longman.
Feathers, K. M.1993. Infotext: Reading and Learning. Ontario: Pippin Publishing Co.
Gray, J. 2000. Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Writing Project. Berkeley: National Writing Project.
Keene, E., and S. Zimmerman.1997. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Pirie, B. 1997. Reshaping High School English. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Rose, M. 1990. "I Just Wanna Be Average." Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared, 11-37. New York: Penguin.
Schoenbach, R., Cziko, Greenleaf, and Hurwitz. 1999. Reading for Understanding: A Guide to Improving Reading in Middle and High School Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sizer, T. 1984. "Prologue: Horace's Compromise." Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School, 9-21. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Tovani, C. 2000. I Read It, But I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
About the Author Peter Kittle has taught English since 1987. A former high school teacher in Washington State, he now coordinates the English Education program at California State University, Chico. Kittle is a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project.
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Schools teach more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. And we’re not just talking electives. In the way teachers and administrators conduct themselves, in the work they do and don’t do, in what they expect and what they tolerate in student behavior, schools teach lessons far more powerful than any formal curriculum. So say Theodore R. Sizer and his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer, in The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract, published late last year.
The Sizers skip the static Boy Scout virtues that pass for character education today and counterpose a set of more active attributes of schoolhouse life that carry hidden moral meanings. Among them: “grappling,” the act of intellectual struggle that is central to both learning and moral choice; “bluffing,” necessary for making our way through demanding days but which entails compromises often made unreflectively; “sorting,” by which we end up in different towns, different schools, and different lunch tables, sometimes by design, sometimes by choice, sometimes by prejudice; “shoving,” which can be playful or aggressive when physical, funny or offensive when verbal. Taken together, these add up to “modeling,” and it can be done by institutions as well as individuals. “To find the core of a school, don’t look at its rule book or even its mission statement,” write the Sizers. “Look at the way the people in it spend their time–how they relate to each other, how they tangle with ideas.”
The book is the latest contribution from one of the most famous names in education, a name that is synonymous with reform, but not exactly the variety that is in fashion today, in Massachusetts or the nation. In his landmark “Horace” trilog–Horace’s Compromise, Horace’s School, and Horace’s Hope–Ted Sizer made the case, based on hundreds of school visits all over the country (and told through the eyes of a composite Everyteacher named Horace Smith), that schools, and high schools in particular, fail children in part because they try to do too much. Too many students pass through each teacher’s classroom to be known well–for Sizer, the starting point for learning. Too many students rush through too many classes in a day, skimming over too much material too quickly to learn anything deeply. Sizer’seducational mantra: “Less is more.”Though an author and education-school guru–he has been dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and chair of Brown University’s education department–Sizer is no armchair theorist. He is founder and chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a nationwide network of schools that follow a set of principles derived from Sizer’s writings, and he was founding director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Despite Sizer’s aggressive advocacy of child-centered education and performance-based assessment (through student “exhibitions”), educational change is now driven by broad-based curriculum standards and universal testing. Has time passed him by?
“Oh, I hope not,” says Sizer. “I’m disappointed that we keep reinventing the old reform devices, . . .avoiding the tough issues of the overload in schools, of the confusion of the curriculum, of the misuse of the talents of teachers. And turning just to jawboning, fiery speeches about standards in education for the 21st century and all this stuff. And then the imposition–at low cost, politically and financially–of a more standardized curriculum and standardized testing. I think the best word to describe it is denial.”
Nancy Faust Sizer is not the education-world household name that her husband is, but she is every bit his professional peer. She has taught history at Phillips Andover Academy, where he was headmaster, and at the Mary C. Wheeler School in Providence, RI. She has written two volumes for secondary school, China: Tradition and Change and Making Decisions: Cases for Moral Discussion, and is at work on a new book on the senior year of high school.
To spend time in the company of the two Sizers is to realize that they are partners not only in life–as parents of four, grandparents of nine–but in plumbing the depths of the educational experience. As they talk about schools, they finish each other’s sentences–and take each other to task. They speak separately, but almost with one voice–gentle, humane, and unyielding.
In 1996, the Sizers retired to the home in rural Harvard they have owned since Ted’s days at the other Harvard in the 1960s. But to them, retirement is an opportunity not for idleness but rather, as Ted puts it, “to do what you want to do,” and Nancy adds, “all of the time, instead of part of the time.” One of the things they have done is start a school, the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, with longtime friends and colleagues. Last year, they served as acting co-principals of the small but growing secondary school on the grounds of the old Fort Devens, not far from their homestead in north-central Massachusetts.
We sat in the conference room of what Ted Sizer accurately describes as the “vast, windowless building” that is the Parker school and talked about education, values, and what the Sizers are learning by reinventing school, once again, on an abandoned Army base. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length.
CommonWealth: Let’s talk about your new book, The Students Are Watching. Why this topic and why did you take it on together?
N.F. Sizer: Well, there’s a couple of ways to describe why we took it on together. I guess the most real one is to say we’ve both been interested in this for a long while. We’ve puzzled about it, the whole issue of what kind of morality should be taught in schools and especially in high schools, for a long while. I mean, as parents of our children, as teachers ourselves, as people that looked at schools, it had been in the back of our minds. . .And 25-plus years ago there was a book put out by the Harvard University Press, Lectures on Moral Education, and we were the editors of it. . .Then we began talking about it more, Ted and I. And we began realizing that really in our hearts also was the whole notion of the structure of a school. It makes a lot of difference in the kind of lessons it gives out. We were doing a lot of trailing of kids as part of a Brown course we were giving, which means you spend the whole day as the shadow of a child. We began asking our students and ourselves to say what are moments here when there might have been a moral education, a lesson being given, and was it the one you wanted to be given? Because these kids are really taking in stuff about what the world is like and they’re doing that from their school, as well as from their home and their street corner and whatever. So what would you be thinking if you were one of them?
CommonWealth: I took the book very much as a rejoinder to the current fad around character education. You say it’s not about teaching the “virtues,” the nouns. It’s about verbs, and it’s about the way kids and adults function in schools and the moral meaning of what it is they do. . .And you come up with a number of these verbs–bluffing, sorting, shoving, and, finally, fearing. Tell me a little bit about how you see these verbs playing out in schools. What should we be thinking about in the attempt to improve our schools, not only in terms of their success in teaching but, as you say, in teaching moral lessons through school life?
T. Sizer: Well, take fearing. There’s kind of an oxymoron, “principled threat”–that if I know I have to go public with something, a paper I’m writing, and the teacher says, “You know, some strangers are going to read this and you’re going to have to explain it to them,” that teacher’s threatened me. I go home and say, “Boy, I can’t wing this one because I’m going to look foolish.” So that teacher is threatening me; he’s making me fearful. Full stop, new paragraph. I don’t dare go into the boys’ room because when I do I know there’s some bigger boys who could very well beat me up and take my money. That’s fearsome. So wise schools have to decide what kind of fear is principled and what kind of fear is. . .
N.F. Sizer: Just plain stupid.
T. Sizer: Just plain stupid. But you see, the fixed thing, declaring, “There Shall Not Be Fear,” doesn¹t work. The same thing with bluffing. Let’s face it, all of us cut corners. If we didn’t we’d go crazy. Most of us have more to do in a day than we have time to do. So we make judgments: I’m going to skim this; I’m really going to zero in on that. Now, we don’t like to bluff. Our principled selves never like to bluff. But in the real world you have to, some of the time. So the best we can do with young people is to be clear about it and to make a distinction between corrupt bluffing and necessary bluffing.
N.F. Sizer: But for now too much of it is based on just getting away with stuff, by being in the back of the room and looking wan and tired, as opposed to really being shown by one’s teacher. . .The only severe criticism we’ve gotten is in one review and they said we weren’t clear enough about a lot of our definitions. And I thought, Bravo. I didn’t want to be super clear. I want people to understand that there’s nuance. Ted’s answer about fearing just made the point that I want to make, which is that yes, we didn’t have a classic definition of fearing. Yes, we don’t think there’s only one kind of fearing in a school. Yes, we think there are some kinds of fearing that you actually probably do need to instill.
T. Sizer: That’s why our last little bit, the epilogue, is called “Thinking.” If you have to go with verbs, then you have to constantly be taking the measure of when the shoving is principled or not principled. So it’s an intellectual thing, and as Nancy said, a lot of people in this trade who talk about moral education like bright, sharp edges.
“A lot of people in this trade who talk about moral education like bright, sharp edges.”
CommonWealth: Well, you folks have been in an awful lot of schools. How do you think, typically, schools do with these moral lessons? Do they give much guidance? Do they give the wrong guidance? Do they send the wrong signals? Or do you think ultimately it works out in most schools, that the kids are learning the right lessons about bluffing and shoving and fearing?
T. Sizer: We’re talking high schools here, and middle schools, I think. While good people in such schools worry about these issues, the way those schools are organized makes it very difficult to act on them. One signal that kids in a lot of schools get is that they can’t be very important because no adult knows them very well–my English teacher has 150 kids and I see him for 42 minutes, five times a week. A certain number of kids are pretty well known in the schools because they’re either very bad or very good or very different. But the mob drifts through. And much of the mob likes that. I mean, “Hey, I can hide.”
N.F. Sizer: Or they think they’d like to.
T. Sizer: They think they’d like to and they wake up later. So my experience is that the problem is not the people; the problem is the system. If it was possible to reorganize schools so that each teacher had few enough kids so that she could get to know each one well and if she saw those kids in a variety of settings long enough each day or each week so that she could act on her knowledge of each kid, then you’d have a chance to do a lot of things, not the least of which is to say to the kid, I need to know what you think. And you have a mind. . .
N.F. Sizer: Which interests me.
T. Sizer: Which interests me so much that I’m going to push you. I’m going to make you fearful.
N.F. Sizer: There are just too many times in a day when you were saying to a student, if you’re an authority in one of those schools, “Well, this is just how it is. You’ve got to do it because this is how it is.” And I think that you have to do that with kids, but I think you should reorganize your life so that you only have to do it two or three times a day. If you find you’re doing it 10 times a day, you¹ve got to make some changes, because this is not the right way for a kid to be growing up. Look at the way people pump up their resumes. I’m writing about a book about high school seniors so I’m very aware of that. People pump up their résumés for college admission, so you’ve got to do it too. People go to their teachers to get their essays rewritten; you’ve got to do it too. People don’t take the course they might do poorly in during their senior year; you’ve got to do it too. Well that’s all right once or twice, maybe. It’s all right to sit down with kids and be realistic about making themselves into good candidates. But it’s not all right to essentially tell them the world demands that you be a different person than you are right now. Or that you look like a different person than you really are in order to get this thing that you want. I mean, that’s very dispiriting to somebody, even when he’s gotten into college. He doesn’t know if it was himself that got into college or the person he pretended to be.
T. Sizer: It’s lying. The college admissions process is, to use a fancier word, just rampant dissembling. It really is. Everybody knows it. It sends one signal to kids, that colleges really don’t know what I am. They know what I appear to be when the sun is out. And the same thing with the SAT, the test scores. I got a high score, therefore I must be a good person, very smart, when the evidence is the SAT has predictive value for only a few months in the freshman year. The more that the schools are so full of these deeply established traditions, which, in fact, send immoral messages, [is] the extent to which the students say, “Well, I guess that’s the way the world works. We don’t really have to tell the truth.” We can do as apparently the lieutenant governor [Jane Swift] did [in the wake of complaints about her use of a state helicopter and imposing child-care duties on her State House aides], when she defended her actions, defended her actions, and then all of a sudden said, “Oh, I¹m so sorry, I really didn’t mean it.” And you know the political pros were beating her around the ears.
N.F. Sizer: I’m almost mad at her for taking their advice, because of what that makes me think about her, that’s she’s a “mode of the day” type person. And I would almost rather have a turkey for the entire week. Really, because at least she’d be a principled person. Her real self, I guess, is beleaguered and self-pitying and entitled and all these things, but at least it’s a way she gets through life. I mean, it’s all right to change your mind, if it’s a real change. We¹ll see.
T. Sizer: It makes us all cynics.
“We have to try to reorganize schools so good people won’t feel cheapened by working in them.”
N.F. Sizer: But what we’re trying to say about our schools is we have to try to reorganize the context of schools, so that good people won’t feel cheapened by working in them. I worked in private schools a lot of the time, mostly because I couldn’t find a school like this [one, where] my teaching load would be kept at the level that I feel I can function as a teacher. If I have 70 students or 65 students, I’ll probably only lose about 20. And that will probably be because of personality differences where we really weren’t going to connect too well. But the others will be a real factor in my life for that year and I’ll be a real factor in theirs. And it seems to me that’s really the honest way to do this job, to be a human being in somebody else’s life for a while. Because then when you say to them, “I puzzled through this second paragraph and I really tried to give it my best shot, but it still isn’t clear to me,” they¹re likely to say, “She’s right, she must be right, I know she tried.” I couldn’t do that with 150 kids.
T. Sizer: You just engage in crowd control. Schools are about crowd control.
N.F. Sizer: The good teachers are the entertainers and the bad teachers are the cops. But even the good teachers are really only doing crowd control. They’re just doing it through humor instead of through harshness. I mean, it’s a lot better than harshness but it’s still only crowd control and the final residue of education is in somebody else’s head.
CommonWealth: Tell me about the Parker school.
N.F. Sizer: We spend our money, as you can see, not on rent on a very high-priced building, but on keeping our [teaching] loads down. We keep them down to an amazing extent. We lose a little ground every year, but only a little. We lose ground when we [add] a college counselor. We lose ground when we get a second janitor. We lose ground when our teachers complain so much about the computers that we end up buying more and in getting a computer guy that will fix them when they break because kids use them. That’s when we lose ground, that’s why. But our guiding principle is that if you don’t know the students well, you aren’t “Parker.”
T. Sizer: No teacher has more than 65 students [in the course of a day], most teachers have 50. How do we do it on a budget substantially less than that made available to a typical senior high school in this part of Massachusetts? The answer is by having a young faculty. We essentially assume that we’re going to have a high rate of turnover.
N.F. Sizer: Which is awkward because knowing a student well means knowing him over years.
T. Sizer: We have, at this moment, four interns from Harvard University. Much of the teaching is done in pairs so you have a more veteran and a less veteran teacher. You do it by having very limited electives. For example, we believe very strongly that every kid graduating from high school should be bilingual. But here we can only afford [to teach] one language other than English. That’s Spanish. Everybody does it. The kids have choices, but within our two major subject areas: math/science/technology, and arts and humanities. Now, your particular interest can play out, but within the framework of a common curriculum. And the curriculum is highly focused so that it goes deep. But there’s not a thick catalog; the catalog of courses in this school is one page. . .So it’s a very simple school. There are only three periods, to oversimplify a little bit, three periods a day: two hours, break, two hours, break, two hours. There are variations in the middle of that, but the thundering herds don’t appear every 47 minutes.
N.F. Sizer: This is the goal and we keep to it as much as we can.
T. Sizer: Now, lots of people wouldn’t want to come to a school like this because we don’t have the rich variety [in course offerings]. That’s why I’m glad it’s a school of choice. Charter status is simply one of a number of mechanisms. Most schools like this in our Coalition [of Essential Schools] aren’t charter schools. They’re schools in districts where, for whatever reasons, sensible persons on school boards and in the administrations, have given running room to schools. We have it in the city of Boston. The pilot school program is first class, in the sense that the school committee and the administration says, “What we’re going to do is make incentives for some of our ablest staff to march to different drummers to some extent, and we’ll watch that.” It gives parents choices and we all can learn.
CommonWealth: Last year the two of you were principals of this school. That’s definitely getting your fingers dirty again. What did you learn from that experience?
T. Sizer: I’ll explain the reason for it and Nancy can give you the harsh details. We started the school small. We started with just seventh- and eighth-graders, 120 of them. We couldn’t afford a principal. We had a coordinator, part time, and the faculty essentially ran the place. That didn’t work very well. And so the trustees, of which Nancy and I were two members, said, “Okay, we’ll design a job called teacher-principal or principal-teacher.” And we got this wonderful guy, Jim Nehring, to leave a school outside of Albany, where he’d started a school-within-a-school, an experienced guy, to come here and to teach, and to be the principal. But the school kept getting bigger each year, and by the third year, Jim cried uncle—it’s too much, can’t do it. This was in April and we were staring down both barrels of the equivalently small budget and the need to re-charter the school–in the fourth year, you have to re-charter it–and we were applying for initial accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and we knew that the Donahue Institute study, under the [charter-school] law, would take place. . .So year number four was going to be tough. Nancy and I offered to take charge for the year. And we’d had some, having been around for a while, had some experience in these things. And so we just moved over from the board and did it. It’s a piece of cake, you know, easy running a school.
N.F. Sizer: It’s funny with a start-up school. You don’t think you need strong leadership but the fact is those are the very schools that do need strong leadership. Ted always likes to tell the story about how, in the first snowfall of ‘95-‘96, which was our first year, he came to school one day and he found there was a snow storm and the kids were outside totally creaming each other with snowballs and inside the faculty was trying to decide what their snowball policy was–by consensus.
T. Sizer: Big, you know, student rights and free expression and all that. . .
N.F. Sizer: And, you know, here we have ice things in the middle [of snow balls] and what do we do if we do [allow snowball fights] and what do we do if we don’t. I mean, it was such a funny thing. And that’s the point, we had almost nothing set. We didn’t even have our mechanisms for getting things set. We really just were crying for a Hitler or something. . .Anyway, so Ted and I said, “We will come and we will do this.” We will keep the place open for a year and we’ll try to convince the world of the great things that are going on here. And we’ll try to tackle some of the things that aren’t so great and change them as much as we can. But basically we want to just keep the place open and do the daily jobs that need to be done.
T. Sizer: Give the school time to think through the principal shift and just kind of settle. Things were flying around.
N.F. Sizer: Whenever I feel badly this year, I feel badly about the stuff that we never really rolled up our sleeves and did. But then I remind myself that they didn’t really take us on that basis, that we would fix everything. In fact, they probably would have really resented it if we had. . .We had a fine time. I had never been a principal before. In fact, I’d been one of those teachers that, even though I was married to an administrator, never really quite saw…
T. Sizer: She was never respectful of the august level that a principal deserves to occupy.
N.F. Sizer: As a teacher, I took a briefcase home every night that was jam packed with work I still had to do. And a whole less in my paycheck, too. And he used to come home and talk about how tired he was, having earned a lot more money, and not still working at 9:30 or 10 o¹clock at night. So I was not respectful. And last year I discovered that a lot of my feelings were correct. I didn’t take home a briefcase last year–it was one of the best things about last year, I never took home a briefcase. I took home a bag of nerves. So I had to get used to a new working style and I enjoyed it, I think, a lot. Ted had to get used to running a school that was poor as opposed to one that was rich. I spent a lot of the first three months telling him this is not Andover.
T. Sizer: At Andover I never had to go into the boys’ room and push the ceilings up to make sure there wasn’t contraband up underneath the asbestos tiles. Had to do it here.
N.F. Sizer: But we had that kind of work once in a while. Here it’s just expected that you’ll be a person of all [sorts of] work.
T. Sizer: That’s its joy as well as its curse.
CommonWealth: This school is a product of the 1993 education reform law in the sense that it created this opportunity for charter schools. But in other ways Parker runs very much counter to expectations built into the education reform law, such as conforming to curriculum frameworks and using tests to determine whether the school is succeeding. On the other hand, your students have done very well in the MCAS tests to date. Is that because this school meets those expectations in a different way? Or is it because you’re able to get a better class of student, which is, of course, the easiest way for schools to do better on tests?
T. Sizer: There are a variety of answers. One is, our kids come [here] on the basis of a lottery. But you have to have a parent or guardian who’s concerned enough about your education to get your name into the lottery. So there are a whole bunch of kids who don’t have adult advocates–parents, grandparents, boys’-club directors–we never see here. That’s a flaw in the law–a solvable problem, but not solvable by the individual school. So whether or not the kid wants to come, there’s somebody out there who says, “I want an education for my kid where she is known and where she has to go public with her work, that is she has to be publicly accountable for her mastery. . .” But still, it’s counterintuitive [that our students should score well on MCAS] in that, while we are very respectful of the curriculum frameworks, and where we find them intellectually persuasive, academically persuasive, we follow them, we still believe that depth is more important than breadth. You forget most of what you learn in school. The residue is what we’re concerned about, and that means really working stuff over. So it’s counterintuitive for our kids to do well in tests which are tests primarily of recall and breadth. One of our teachers got the [results] for the first year testing and did an item analysis. These kids hadn’t studied this [particular material] but they seemed to have done pretty well. Why? Her conclusion, to me, was very encouraging. She said, “You know, they’re clever.” And it’s not that they were drilled on test taking, particularly. It’s just that they used their heads. . .And underneath, I like to think it’s more than just clever. It’s that they are in the habit of thinking hard.
N.F. Sizer: And I think in our first wave of kids, we got a lot of brave parents. I think there’s a tremendous amount of discussion at home about education. I think our kids have been made luckier that way and it doesn’t matter where that started. Although Ted is right, it’s not just that they would advocate for their children and put them in the lottery, they would agree to get them here.
T. Sizer: Again, solvable problem, but it is a problem, particularly if you’re out in the boondocks like we are. Our kids come from 35 different towns and small cities and it’s a honeycomb of car pools organized entirely by parents.
N.F. Sizer: If we got more transportation money, we would suddenly have a different social-class makeup, which would be great. We would also not have as many hurdles that you have to get over, which would mean that we might slip back into the same old, “Take care of yourself, kid, the bus is down the hall, there’s a cafeteria at school, and I don’t really need to be that involved in your life”–that kind of mode.
T. Sizer: But let me say something more about your question. I have limited confidence in statements about the effectiveness of schools, good or bad, on the basis of a single instrument, however virtuous that instrument is, because people are more complicated, scholarship’s more complicated than that, beyond the obvious kind of rudiments. So if we do well or don’t do well interests me less than what kind of people are these kids going to become. The real test of this school is what they’re like five years out. And that’s what I’ll be watching. Are they more thoughtful kids, are they more curious kids, are they more principled kids because of this experience?
“If we do well [on MCAS] or don’t do well interests me less than what kind of people are these kids going to become.”
CommonWealth: The challenges you’re grappling with at this school, trying to do things differently than at typical schools, are very different than the kinds of things that most high schools are worrying about right now. They’ve got a group of kids who are freshmen this year and who are going to be taking MCAS next year and will have to pass that test sometime before they get out of 12th grade in order to get a diploma. And they’ve got large percentages of kids, based on current performance. . .
N.F. Sizer: Who won’t pass it.
CommonWealth: Who will not pass it, won’t even come close enough to think about passing it if they try a second or a third time. What do you make of what most high schools are going through and looking at as they come into next year?
T. Sizer: Well, first of all, the policy rests on a false premise that everybody of the same age should be held at the same standard, eighth and 10th grade. It’s an early 20th-century factory-model idea. And the standard should be something that reflects towards the future, it should be a predictor. That is the standard that we should measure and the kids should meet, the standard of their intellectual habits when none of us are looking. What they do in the test room is fine, but what they do outside of the test room is the ball game. And that’s a very complicated assessment. So a system that says you have to ready people because of their birthdays to do this kind of test, which doesn’t correlate with very much [outside of school], means you end up just drilling them. And what scares me the most is that public schools will become Stanley Kaplan drill centers and I know, in fact, that that is happening. It’s, “Don’t learn science; learn how to pass the science test.” It’s corrupting the system, for well-intentioned reasons. And it’s not that all the tests are bad or all the frameworks are bad or that they’re good. It’s that the premise upon which everything rests is the wrong premise. . . You have to say, Look, the current system is well intentioned, it goes back 100 years, it doesn¹t work. Let’s change it. The General Court got it, to the extent that they set up charter schools. Now, some of those charter schools are not being set up to march to a better drum; they’re set up for some other reason, to drill people to get good test scores. So in many ways the charter movement’s being distorted, in my judgment. It should be the risk takers, it should be the places that say the current system doesn’t work as well as it shoul–it’s well intentioned, they’re good people in it, we’re not knocking anybody–but we have to find a way to get good people to try something new. But if I were the principal of Dorchester High School, I’d drill because that’s what the system wants.
N.F. Sizer: Well, one of the things that you said in Horace’s Compromise was that you didn’t even think people should be brought into high school until they had skills to let them do higher-order thinking and stuff that people in high schools should be doing. But let’s face it, it may be wrong to be [placed] in school because of your chronological age, but an awful lot of kids think of themselves in terms of the chronological age. And they know when they want to be out of school, too. It’s pretty hard for you to be honest with them, and tell them, “You belong in fifth grade. That’s the way you read, that’s where you should be.” That would be the best, but you’ll really be going up against human nature.
T. Sizer: You don’t infantilize older kids who do not have the academic competencies. My personal experience comes from the Korean War army, where it had a lot of semi-literates coming in at age 17. And we couldn’t afford for them to be innumerate, certainly not in the field artillery. But we didn’t say you have to go back to eighth grade and we didn’t say the test is this paper-and-pencil thing. It’s a little easier in the Army; it’s like a boarding school with a buck sergeant in charge of you. The analogy is not perfect but it is illuminating. We Americans have done it before. We have taken kids who have been abused and misschooled for years and turned them into self-propelled, demonstrably competent people in relatively short periods of time.
N.F. Sizer: They’re not very self propelled in the army, honey. The guy knew how to make sure that you didn’t get creamed by getting [the ordnance] to go over your head instead of through your head. That is wonderful and he never could have done it if he hadn’t had all that training.
T. Sizer: But they had to work on their own.
N.F. Sizer: Last year, right here, we were dealing with our first wave of kids that looked us in the eye when we said, “You move forward at your own pace,” and said, “My pace is lazy, my pace is slow, my pace is I’m not moving–what are you gonna do about it?” And they’re getting bigger and bigger and bigger and their hair’s sprouting off their chin and they’re just–What are we going to do about it? It was tough and we tried an awful lot of different processes for getting them moving. And they did finally wish that they were doing a little more and it wasn’t so much just outright defiance anymore. But I do believe that the example of those kids is what’s making that not a problem now, because the seventh, eighth grader that’s malingering is thinking, “Oh, I can only do this for a little while and then I have got to get to work because I don’t want to be in Division One forever.”
CommonWealth: If the state did have the money and the political will to do what had to be done to get schools moving and actually start to have success with those kids that right now look like they’re going to flunk MCAS next year, what would you have the state do?
T. Sizer: Not to overstate it, but make all schools like this one–in the sense that it’s a charter school, not that they should be run the same way. One of the major problems in the state is that public education is segregated by class. You can only go to Weston High School if you live in Weston. And you only live in Weston if you have enough money. So if you live in Fitchburg you can’t go to Weston High School. But you can go to Parker. If you live in Weston you can go to Parker. I’m a great believer in parental choice. Rich folks have always had it; I think poor folks would like it, too. If [we had the] political will, [we] would say we’ll have a variety of schools, which are public in the sense that they have full access to all the citizens, not just to those who can afford to live in a community. And we will put the responsibility on them; we’ll push it down to those schools. We’ll let them run for seven years but they have to be reapproved or they go out of business. And there won’t be one way of doing anything because the world is more complicated than that and our understanding of learning is not complete. So these schools will differ and, of course, that will give real differences for parents to choose among. But that doesn’t mean they just go on and on and on and on. If the school clearly does not meet the standard for its kids, and the school and the state agreed at the end of seven years, shut it down. So it’s drastic decentralization. It is the creation of a truly public system, not a restricted public system by class, by economic class. And it allows for the possibility that schools that don’t cut the mustard shut down, and that creates a market, though that’s a loaded term.
N.F. Sizer: But that’s obviously not helping that ninth-grader who’s looking like he’s going to flunk next year. And it is going to be very tough for him. I wish, though, that they wouldn’t put kids’ own careers at risk until they’ve got a set of standards for reading and writing and basic numeracy which we could all agree are really fair and that we would feel like we have the right to ask people to have met by the time they’re graduates of high school. If we were keeping them that pure and that straightforward–I mean, I can live with you as my fellow citizen when you don’t understand science as well as I do. And even when you don’t understand history and its nuances as well as I do, which means that you can’t tell the difference between the compromise of 1850 and 1820, I can live with you. You probably would be just as good a voter, even if you didn’t have that wonderful distinction.
T. Sizer: Well, maybe I don’t know the difference.
N.F. Sizer: I’m giving you one that’s close to my heart here. I’ve been an American history teacher for many years. But the reading and the ability to express yourself and think, which I think is so helpful in writing, [those] I would have to say are [absolute requirements]. Writing and numeracy, so that in fact you can do your work and you can keep your affairs and you cannot be fooled by the misuse of numbers and stuff like that. That, I think, is my right as a fellow citizen to ask of you. So if we had tests that, in fact, would lay that before kids as a hurdle from the time they were really small, that this is why you are at school. And we want to make clear to people why they’re doing things. It’s not just to be cruel to you and it’s not just to beat up on poor folks and it’s not just because you’ve already been in a bad school that we’re going to tell you that you can’t even graduate.
T. Sizer: Let me answer a question you didn’t ask.
CommonWealth: Go right ahead.
T. Sizer: There has been recently a good deal of criticism of charter schools for not having an impact on the larger system. Two responses: This charter school raises money privately to run a teacher center to make available all our work, the good and the bad. So to blame the charter schools, at least this one, seems really improper. However, the charge should be made in a different way: There’s no incentive for other schools to look at anything different than what they’re doing because there’s no indication that those other schools will be given the kind of freedom we have.
N.F. Sizer: In fact, there’s a disincentive. I mean, those teachers, instead of coming over here and doing workshops, have to be drilling their kids for the MCAS. I mean, there’s a disincentive.T. Sizer: The state has not given other schools the incentive to get away from drilling for the MCAS. The only incentive is, Those kids will meet our standard by our definition or else. So why come over here and learn about exhibitions and this kind of thing [that we’re doing at Parker], because it’s not on the state agenda. The other thing is it’s kind of human nature, we get more visits from schools 500 miles from here than we do from schools close by. You’re never a hero in your own land.
N.F. Sizer: Well, it has to do with [district schools] losing kids to [Parker], and our kids are not always that discreet about telling them why they left. I mean, our kids are being nasty and horrible in a lot of ways. They’re saying there’s better teachers over [at Parker] and stuff. It’s not exactly the way for us to be making friends, but these are our kids and they’re going to describe it the way they see it. So a lot of people are pretty, I don¹t know, miffed. We do our best not to come off like we think we’re better than they are.