May 25, 2024

Morning Mourning

I landed in Paris to read the sad news that Ted Sizer has passed away. This is the second loss of great leaders the progressive education community has experienced in just a few days. Earlier this week, Gerald Bracey died in his sleep. May they both rest in peace.

If you don’t know whom I’m talking about or have not read their work, then ed school, we have a problem.

Dr. Theodore Sizer was a veteran school principal, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author, mentor and original thinker whose ideas on school reform led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a vital organization that brings relevant, common-sense, student-centered and practical reform ideas to schools wishing to do better by youngsters

Gerald Bracey (Obituary from the Washington Post)

It was easy to marginalize Jerry Bracey since his career was so deeply committed to using the tools of a hard-nosed researcher to expose their emperor’s lack of clothes. He was a university researcher – a wonk’s wonk willing to enter the arena and battle powerful forces and mythology without fear. Bracey fought standardized testing, the politicization of public education and demonstrated time and time again how the claims of public school failure are simply untrue. He was unafraid to expose the frauds who keynote our conferences and dominate professional development agendas.

Some of us speak out on issues of concern, but we relied on Bracey’s research to fortify our arguments. I recommend that you read some of his recent Huffington Post columns here to get a sense of Dr. Bracey’s genius. I regret that I never had the privilege of meeting him.

Ted Sizer (read obituaries from the Washington Post, NPR, Coalition of Essential Schools, Forum for Education and Democracy)

Ted Sizer was a different kind of radical. He was straight out of central casting – white, male, smart, articulate, soft-spoken, innovative, inspirational with a Patrician sensibility suited to running universities, government agencies or a think-tank. Sizer should have been the United States Secretary of education long ago, but American education policy is not a meritocracy. Instead, we have been saddled with a series of mediocre governors, talk show hosts, football coaches and Tasmanian minor league basketball players. Being right seems insufficient.

Unqualified is the new qualified. Many of our large urban school districts are run by woefully inadequate people (NYC, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans come to mind). Unlike such bloviating union-busting marionettes, Sizer was a learned man who had actually led successful schools and developed a set of principles for others interested in doing the same.

The Coalition of Essential Schools was built upon ten common sense and replicable principles. With all due respect, if you are a school leader who has not read Sizer’s three seminal books on high school reform, Horace’s School, Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s Hope, then I’m sorry, but you’re a pretender.

It is worth reading Dr. Sizer’s views on effective (or as he calls it “admirable”) teacher education on the heels of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s mean-spirited misinformed attack on the enterprise.

A collection of Dr. Sizer’s speeches for the Coalition of Essential Schools may be found here. The Coalition of Essential Schools’ Fall Forum (annual conference) is this November 5th-7th in New Orleans. You can still register.

Fewer shoulders to stand on

I wish I were optimistic that Sizer and Bracey’s work and spirit will live on and inform the future of public education, but even if ignorance is absent, amnesia will likely prevail.

Chris Lehmann and I often remind our easily excitable friends in the edublogosphere that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Ignorance of history and the great thinkers that came before us not only dooms one to repeat the mistakes history, but retards the progress that would be possible if we recognized that as Bill Clinton said, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Alas, we continue to slip backwards.

I get dismissed as an old crank if I suggest that colleagues read texts longer than 140 characters, attend conferences or think more deeply about fads. There isn’t a single discovery of an edublogger that Seymour Papert didn’t write in his 1996 book, The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap, but who wants to read books by experts when our PLN applauds our laziness?

Just this week, one of my graduate students in a Masters in Learning Technologies course expressed surprise that I asked students to read Papert’s 1993 book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. How could what Papert wrote in 1996 or 1993 or 1968 possibly be relevant? Animoto and Plurk didn’t even exist back then! John Dewey must have lived in a cave.

I am sorry, but Dan Pink, Tom Friedman and a boatload of Web 2.0 authors combined don’t know as much about teaching and learning as Ted Sizer or Gerald Bracey could share in an 800-word article or five-minute conversation. We must stop being so easily distracted by shiny web objects, rhymes and slogans.

Seymour Papert and I used to talk at length about how the edtech community needs to know more about learning and how the progressive education community needs to understand how computers can amplify their ideas and offer learners unprecedented opportunities. Unfortunately, Dr. Papert was in a terrible accident and the summit we envisioned never came to pass. I do my small part by writing, speaking, recommending books and organizing events, but there is still much more work to be done.

I created Constructing Modern Knowledge so that younger educators excited about learning with technology could situate those experiences within a context of powerful ideas – Deborah Meier, Lella Gandini, Bob Tinker and Alfie Kohn have been but a few such people who spent time inspiring CMK participants. I had really hoped to feature Ted Sizer in the future, but will redouble my effort to acquaint educators with powerful ideas and whenever possible with the originators of those ideas.

We all need to get busy and get smarter. Our children depend on us.

8 thoughts on “Morning Mourning

  1. Thanks for expressing these important ideas and respectful sentiments, Gary. Although I don’t think “our PLN” is intentionally applauding “our laziness”, there is only so much time in a day and if quick and convenient bursts of information are the extent of our reading and writing, your criticisms here are indeed on the mark. Just this morning, as the mainstream media was highlighting the passing of a “great comedian” (Soupy Sales), I wondered if most folks would miss Ted Sizer. Would many out there even recognize his name, and even more importantly recognize his important contributions.

    Indeed, if only Duncan were standing on his shoulders…

  2. As much as I hate to admit to ignorance, I am one of those educators that until now, did not know who these gentlemen were. But thanks to my 140 character PLN I have now found two more people that I need to know about. I plan to begin my “new” education this weekend.

    I think we should remember there are a lot of educators that don’t know who some of these great minds, whose schools won’t send them to conferences and they can’t afford to pay themselves, that are isolated, but are good educators. I think about my first national conference just 3 short years ago, I attended the 1st Constructivist Consortium. I found a group of people I fit in with, from there my PLN has grown and I have learned much and continue to learn much. But what if I didn’t have that opportunity? Thanks for continueing to show me the light!

  3. Twitter is swell. Obviously, I’m hooked on it, but it’s an additive tool – no substitute for other deeper experiences.

    One of my students wrote today to say that Papert’s book, The Children’s Machine felt like a mentor to him and ideas others think are craazy.

    Arne Duncan should call for teacher-ed to be based on powerful ideas instead of being trained to manage small humans.

  4. Gary,
    With the exception of your dismissive paragraph (which you should have left out) about authors you don’t particularly like, I applaud your effort to share what was important about those who came before whose shoulders we stand on.

  5. Gary: Thank you for this reminder…and chance to re-visit the lives of two extraordinary human beings, educators, agents of change, icons.

    Ted (along with his wife, Nancy, who often reminded Ted — in front of their grad students — that the “kids were the point” when theory and big ideas were getting all the attention) was my grad school mentor, someone who took time to write letters of rec for me over the years, and simply one of the ‘good people’ I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with in my life. While I partially choose my grad school program because I would *possibly* have access to Ted (and his insight/experience/reputation), the truth was that a year later I simply came to value his smile, his calming way of answering questions, and his presence. One of the great highlights for me was to have spend time in his home tucked in the trees far from the intellectual bustle of Cambridge, eating soup by his fireplace, and hearing him (and Nancy) talk about their grandchildren.

    He will be missed by all of us who call ourselves educators (whether one has read the trifecta you mentioned or simply is the beneficiary of ‘human’ integrity within a school environment). He will be missed even more by those who had an opportunity to simply spend time with the man in off-the-record moments far from the horizon line of educational theory.

    And while you may be dismissed as an “old crank” at times, the balance you demand of others in the edu-blogosphere (and with your own students/audiences) is vital. No industry or segment of society is void of the worry you have. History — and the “will repeat itself” maxim that is so oft-bantered-about — tends to forget the shoulders of giants for the convenience of fast food thinking. That doesn’t dismiss the possible relevance of current/future-think projects, tools, or what-if’s, but it is a point that needs to be made time and time again by you, by Chris L, and by anyone else willing to be the “old crank” on occasion in service of the larger game/mission of education.

    While Ted’s memory is what resonates for me most while reading your post, I do nod in agreement with the following you said: “I am sorry, but Dan Pink, Tom Friedman and a boatload of Web 2.0 authors combined don’t know as much about teaching and learning as Ted Sizer or Gerald Bracey could share in an 800-word article or five-minute conversation. We must stop being so easily distracted by shiny web objects, rhymes and slogans.”

    Thank you for the honorable testament to both men. And thank you for the call for reasoned wisdom, too.


  6. A new teacher recently asked me for some books to read. I took some from my shelf and handed them over and almost felt the need to apologize that none were from the 21st century. My favorite book that I always find myself going back to was published way back in 1972, Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich.

  7. I agree completely with you about the importance of learning the history of education (and other areas for that matter) and reading what the pioneers in education have written. It is so valuable to read not ABOUT Maria Montessori or Jean Piaget or Herb Kohl or Ted Sizer, etc., but to read what they actually wrote themselves. If you pick up a book from a great author from 40 years ago or 100 years ago and read what was happening in education, you will be enlightening and energized, amazed and surprised that things are so much the same. Teaching is my second career, but I began reading about education many years before I started my formal education in the teaching field. It was just something that interested me as a new, young mother. Only just recently have I revisited some “old friends” and realized how, almost subconsciously, my teaching has been impacted by what I learned from those who left for us a collection of inspirational, historical resources.

    And as an extra – it is OK to get distracted by shiny web objects every once in a while when you feel overwhelmed by the huge job that we have to do.

  8. @ Gary
    You’re dead on about the impact of reading the actual book. A few months ago I asked your advice on some books to read. You kindly referred me to the recommended reading page on your website. I have to say I’ve enjoyed reading these works and learned more from them than I would have thought possible.

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