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Ted Sizer and Gerald Bracey – The Loss of Two Influential Giants

In late October, the educational world lost two disparate giants from the world of education. On October 21st, we learned of the death of the quintessential educational reformer, Theodore Sizer. A native New Englander, Sizer dramatically influenced the instructional practices of thousands of educators including those of yours truly.

One day earlier, we lost Gerald Bracey, a longtime education researcher who had the audacity to truly analyze statistics. Bracey, considered one of the foremost defenders of American public schools used long-term international comparisons to demonstrate that America’s public school actually performed much better than critics would suggest.

Ted Sizer

Ted Sizer was the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group that boasts about 600 members. These schools have adopted a specific school reform concept that construct learning experiences for students by focusing on a core set of principles.

Instead of the traditional comprehensive approach to high school Coalition schools focus on ten core principles:

  • Learning to use one’s mind well
  • Less is more, depth over coverage
  • Goals apply to all students
  • Personalization
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Demonstration of mastery
  • A tone of decency and trust
  • Commitment to the entire school
  • Resources dedicated to teaching and learning
  • Democracy and equity

Those of us who never taught in a Coalition school wondered aloud about some principles until we had the chance to read his groundbreaking book, Horace’s Compromise. Page by page, the book revealed the shortcomings of the 1980’s high school construct, offering a set of ideas that collectively had one wondering how we were able to accomplish anything of note in the factory model of education.

sizerThough I never met Mr.Sizer, after reading Horace’s Compromise and his later follow-ups, Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope, I felt somehow like I actually knew him, or at least had a sense of what he was all about. At times, Mr. Sizer took on the image of his character, “Horace,” the fictionalized English teacher doing his very best to provide a meaningful educational environment for some 100 plus students a day. At other times, I was Horace, the one making all the compromises to survive, and Sizer my administrator, deftly observing and pointing out that I too was often settling for good enough.

My understanding is that Ted Sizer was the epitome of what an educational leader should be. The former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover was a brilliant yet reflective practitioner. He clearly subscribed to the Robert Kennedy school of thought, seeing things as they could be and wondering why not.

People spoke highly of his style and his propensity to listen to teachers. His respect for the educational process also meant he spent time with students seeking to determine their views on school and what they had learned.

Most importantly, Sizer’s work represented the antithesis of the current NCLB push, that somehow educational reform can be simplified and codified. Sizer understood real learning was not linear and that mastery could and should be demonstrated in multiple ways.

The current emphases on making larger schools feel smaller and on high expectations for all students were fundamental to Sizer’s principles. Other concepts like the change in teacher role from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” were fueled by Sizer’s teacher as coach model.

Gerald Bracey

Reportedly fearless in the face of power, Bracey was often described in very different terms than Sizer. Adjectives like pugnacious and abrasive were generally used to describe the man who saw Washington as being ignorant and intellectually lazy.

In 1991 he founded the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency or EDDRA. To most folks it did not seem to matter the subject – whether it was charter schools, teacher merit pay, or high-stakes testing — Bracey stood in opposition.
Even when it came to the concept of standards, Bracey stood in opposition. He was reported as offering this as one of his last Tweets:

“Thinking that the light at the end of the education tunnel is a standards freight train coming our way. Gonna hurt bad.”
Bracey taught the non-statistical world about Simpson’s paradox and the concept of averages. The concept reveals the possibility that data collectively could contradict what happened within subgroups creating the total.

braceySuch was the case with American SAT scores. While minorities and white majorities were each increasing their scores, the large number of minorities now taking the test meant the overall average test scores were decreasing.

Once a person begins to understand Simpson’s Paradox, any thought of supporting NCLB and its various subgroup expectations goes out the window.

Bracey also pointed out in his book, Reading Educational Research, How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, the workings of former President George Bush and his tax cuts. Bush used the concept of average to create the illusion that Americans as a group were seeing significant tax reductions, about $1500 per person per year.

However, Bracey pointed out that was “on average.” Citing the work of the Washington Post, Bracey noted how the typical teacher would receive a tax reduction equal to the cost of a new television set while someone earning a million dollars a year received a tax break that was roughly twice as large as the typical teacher’s salary. But when these amounts were averaged, every American appeared to receive a substantial break.

Each year Bracey would offer his annual Rotten Apples in Education awards and with it he would take no prisoners. It must be noted that while an enormous critic of George Bush and a one time advocate and campaigner for Barack Obama, he was quick to call Obama to task earlier this year regarding his assertions that three-fourths of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma.

“Not really,” Bracey was quoted. “Look it up.”

It was classic Bracey who had one consistent response to many of the claims being asserted regarding public education, “Show me the data.”

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