Sizer's Legacy

December 7th, 2011

I was one of that ten-person group of undergrads Shael Polakow-Suransky '94 describes working under Ted Sizer to create our own high school ("Upgrading Education," September/October). Almost twenty years later I still remember the frustration and challenge of the group-consensus process! (Surely part of the lesson Professor Sizer wanted us to understand.) So I really admire Polakow-Suransky for taking on the real challenge of working with the infinitely diverse, opinionated, and huge constituency of the New York City public schools. It's easy to criticize a huge bureaucracy from the outside, but to put on a suit and create institutional change from within takes more finesse. Professor Sizer would surely be proud of Shael's commitment to creating positive change for all students, from whatever position he has leverage.

Katie Silberman '94



"Upgrading Education" makes the bizarre claim that the twenty-four states participating in PARCC to implement the Common Core Standards are implementing "exactly what Ted Sizer was advocating at Brown." I wish that Sizer were still alive to explain how incorrect that statement is.

When Sizer played a leading role in building the Coalition of Essential Schools, he wanted not a national committee but the schools themselves to design tests based on knowledge of their own community and their student needs. Sizer warned, "Do we want a small group of people deciding what is supposed to go into our children's heads? I don't think so." His warnings are being ignored by PARCC and the Common Core Standards movement, which is why we have people writing policies stating that all eighth graders in the country should "explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and its converse."

As a teacher and parent in one of the twenty-four PARCC states, I believe this approach is about to have a negative impact on my work and my children. Let's not pretend that a great educator and Brown professor would have supported such nonsense.

David Reinstein '90
Buffalo Grove, Ill.



Like Shael Polakow-Suransky, I was a Ted Sizer student. I took all of his classes, TA'ed for him, had him as a thesis advisor, worked at the Coalition of Essential Schools, traveled to New York City to teach in a Coalition school, and have continued to work in school reform since. There were—and are—many of us who are committed to his vision of progressive education. I was also at the event Goodman describes in his article "Upgrading Education."

I listened that night as both a parent and an educator, and take issue with how Goodman has portrayed the meeting, Shael Polakow-Suransky's policies, and—above all—Ted Sizer's legacy. At a memorial service for Sizer in Manning Chapel another Brown alumnus—now a principal of a school in Massachusetts—said that daily she has moments when she thinks, "What would Ted do?" and it is his unspoken advice that gets her through the many challenges of her day with integrity.

As I reflect on the meeting Goodman opens his article with, and on the article overall, I find myself asking, "What would Ted say?" Goodman writes, "It's the kind of meeting educators hate: a hundred angry parents packed into a stuffy auditorium and squeezed into seats built for third graders." In fact, this is the just the kind of meeting educator Ted Sizer would have loved. Sizer believed in community input into education decisions and abhorred top-down policies. He would have loved the activism among parents in District 15, parents who have steadfastly fought U.S. Department of Education policies that further increase the stakes of standardized testing by using them to judge schools, teachers, and students. He would have also loved that there were many teachers there that night, several of whom teach in schools serving low-income populations who are unjustly disserved by New York's battery of tests.

Goodman also writes that Polakow-Suransky conceded at one point, "We don't yet really have a strong, robust evaluation system… At this moment in time they are the only tests available." Polakow-Suransky has been a welcome voice against the nature of many of the tests currently being used, but I think Sizer's critique of his logic here would be that the stakes of these flawed tests are simply too high: 85 percent of a school's evaluation in grades K through 8 is based upon it, an evaluation that could lead to the firing of a principal and teachers, and that could even shut down a school.

As Sizer argued in 2004 when commenting on No Child Left Behind. "It's not just that the tests are bad; it's the notion that anything as complicated as a young person's, or an older person's, grasp of serious intellectual stuff can be reduced to a score—to one performance—is simply untenable."

I hope Brown holds true to Ted Sizer's legacy by exposing its students and alumni to his ideas, and I hope those of us who were so deeply influenced by him and who continue to work in education continue to ask ourselves, "What would Ted do?"

Lori Chajet '93
Brooklyn, N.Y.


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Related Issue
November/December 2011