Published July 31, 2017

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On this week’s show, educator and activist Debbie Meier cited Ted Sizer as a mentor in building the small schools movement, which today defines the approaches of many independent and alternative schools. But just who is Ted Sizer?

In 1983, a report from the Reagan administration entitled A Nation at Risk accused American public education of “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Ouch. The obvious solution seemed to be to weed out the failing schools and force them to come up to par.

Shortly thereafter, schools and teachers went into a frenzy, aiming to completely and quickly cover whole curricula mandated by state and federal governments. But in focusing on the curriculum, many teachers lost familiarity with their students, working with less and less time. Additionally, attempting to cast a wide net for knowledge forced teachers to cover material superficially and dip their hands across a variety of material.

Students didn’t master the material, but merely memorized it.

Then serving as a professor and chair of Brown’s education department, Ted Sizer came up with another answer.

He penned Horace’s Compromise the following year, calling for a complete upheaval of the American educational system. He championed for a sense of accountability between students and teachers.

That same year in 1984, he founded the “essential schools movement,” thus birthing the Coalition of Essential Schools.

What was this movement, essentially?

According to the Coalition of Essential School’s website, teachers are too often viewed as “deliverers of instructional services.” Rather, the coalition says, students should be seen as workers. This governing metaphor serves to outline two principles. First is that students will be held accountable to learn essential information. Secondly, students ought to be able to teach themselves.

Another governing tenet of the essential schools movement is that depth precedes breadth. Therefore, students should only aim to master a small set of skills, picking out their educational interests like in a cafeteria. This, they say, ensures that the pupil is invested and can take those interests off a pop quiz and out into the world.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of Sizer’s ideas was the “triangle of learning,” the relationship between student, teacher and subject matter. This delicate relationship requires responsibility and engagement at all three points in order to achieve meaningful learning.

Sizer was all about the personalization of schooling and autonomy for students — he tried to prove that when it comes to education, one size does not necessarily fit all.

Today, the Coalition of Essential Schools comprises more than 60 schools, including ones in far-flung places like Japan and Australia. But in many ways, “essential schools” have been surpassed in popularity by other alternative models of education, like Debbie’s “small schools,” which built on Sizer’s movement to emphasize child-directed learning and teacher governance.

What’s next in education? From project-based learning to “flipped classrooms”, many of the new frontiers in teaching reveal their debt to pioneers like Sizer and Debbie, who questioned the core values of the classroom and put kids at their center.

Curious about essential schools? Read their manifesto here. For more new approaches in teaching and pedagogy, including culture-based education (CBE), project-based learning and mindfulness education, head to our Degrees of Separation series page and listen to some of our past interviews.


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