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The Red Pencil: Convictions from Experience in Education

reviewed by Linda Greene - 2005

coverTitle: The Red Pencil: Convictions from Experience in Education
Author(s): Theodore R. Sizer
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300104588, Pages: 120, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the history of American public education over the last fifty years there has been a succession of national programs aimed at making major improvements without committing necessary resources.  We are now well into the latest of these programs, initiated by a president who once said he wanted to be known as the Education President, and it is perhaps time to pause and consider whether we are on the right track.  Theodore Sizers new book, The Red Pencil, Convictions from Experience in Education, is a good place to start.  It provides us with a focused overview of the current state of the American high school.  Part memoir and part critique, the book examines the roles of educators, schools of education, politicians, and everyone in the power structure who has allowed the status quo to exist.  That status quo, decried by Sizer, features an obsolescent high school that fails to meet the needs of many of its students.

As the author reminisces about his experiences as a student, teacher, private school headmaster, professor, education school dean, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and later principal of a charter school, it becomes clear that his extraordinary career is a lens through which most of the history of American education in the last half century may be viewed.  Sizer calls his book an argument wrapped in a memoir, (p. xx) and he makes that argument in print, as he does in person, in a low-key and modest manner.  It is important to note, however, that although soft-spoken, Ted Sizer is a man to be reckoned with, and the ideas in this book are revolutionary.

The first of his autobiographical segments, in the Preface, gives the name to the book, The Red Pencil.  It seems Sizers Latin teacher in high school, by rigorously, systematically and unforgivingly wielding his red pencil to grade the students translations, so instilled terror in them that they learned much about getting through class and trying to influence the red pencil but few of (them) gained much technicalnot to mention literary or historicalknowledge about Latin (p. xviii).

This vignette underscores the focus and thesis of the book, that the great barrier to improving the education of American children is our reluctance to change our fundamental notions of what a high school education isall of our thinking about grades, classes taught by a single teacher who delivers instruction, homework, much of which requires no thought and engenders no interest, 40 to 60 minute sequential class periods, classrooms within school buildings, and the other familiar trappings of the modern high school.  Educators and political leaders fail to think freshly about the implications of crucial words and all-too-familiar practices because, basically, to do so would be very costly and perhaps, even dangerous. They remain silent, and it is their silence that Ted Sizer addresses.

To this reviewer, also a long-time practitioner, Sizers descriptions of American high schools have always rung true.  In his series of books about the world of a fictional teacher named Horace, the protagonist must minister to 120 or more students in five or more very fragmented periods of instruction daily, then try to correct homework, plan lessons, develop tests, and communicate with supervisors, peers, students, and parents.  No wonder Horace is exhausted and frequently demoralized.  In The Red Pencil, the description of school leadership in which the principal must negotiate a series of treaties with no less than 14 constituencies in order to maintain authority hits the mark.  Beyond the school, Sizer describes many school critics, unwilling to spend the money and take the truly bold steps necessary to replace obsolete high schools with schools that would actually educate all of Americas youth, critics who settle for the simplistic notion that high-stakes tests will result in well-educated graduates who can compete in the world economy.

Sizer does not shy away from hard realities, although he accuses the powers that be of doing just that.  He points out that since the Coleman Report in 1964 we have known that The best predictor of a childs educational success always has been and still is the economic and social class of his family rather than the school that he or she happens to attend (p. xii). Success as conventionally defined, and ultimately graduation, depend largely on the chance of birth and income, embarrassing a democracy that pretends to offer equal educational opportunities for all (p. xii).

This book is organized around three silences that Sizer states are critical to school reform.  The first silence relates to the reality of learning versus teaching. Doing good things in a building called school is not enough (p. xvi), Sizer says.  Formal education schooling -  must adapt to and confront the exceedingly powerful education found beyond traditional classrooms (p. xvi).  Sizer notes that the second silence deals with authority versus power.  When a free society compels its citizens to do something, like attend school in order to achieve a specific result, the hand of the state needs to be informed, restrained, and nuanced (p. xvi), he says. Too often school-level educators have lost their idiosyncratic authority, and this results in good people leaving education.  The third silence relates to order.  When we reform our school systems, we leave most of their familiar routines undisturbed.  Sizer states that To shake up the system . . . apparently is too dangerous to contemplate (p. xvii).

To remedy the situation, Sizer calls for a list of changes, many of which those familiar with his previous books and the Coalition will recognize: reconstituting high schools that are dramatically different from primary schools; education that goes beyond the school building, advocating for each individual student, exhibited performance rather than single high-stakes tests, designing each students education around needs and potential and knowing each student well.  He recommends a system in which the state sets the terms and general rules and encourages variety, and educators design and operate programs, school choice is available to everyone, especially poor families, resources follow the child, and we protect the publics interest and claim over mass communication.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that for the past 17 years I have been a Coalition of Essential Schools wannabe, a frequent attender of the national conference of this organization, who never failed to say hello to Ted Sizer when our paths crossed, and a person who frequently recommended that colleagues read Horaces Compromise to understand better why we need to change high schools.  It is true that I could never convince my school district to join the Coalition, but that was not from lack of trying.  I am also a practitioner who spent many years trying to incorporate Coalition principles into my high school by instituting multidisciplinary teaching teams for ninth graders, advocating for the restructuring of the high school schedule into blocks, and implementing an experiential learning program for high school seniors that focuses on individual interests and strengths.

So, as a reader with a history of admiring Ted Sizer, I must admit that I very much agree with the solutions proposed in this book except those related to school choice and the concept that resources should follow students wherever they may go.  I understand that it fits in with his idea that it would be more effective to bundle public education funding with other funding for children and families, such as for housing and mental health.  In this political climate, to say its a good thing for public monies to be used for parochial and private school education is, in my opinion, dangerous. In any event he produces no convincing evidence or arguments to support the proposition that publicly funding parochial and private school education would be a more effective way of implementing the changes he is recommending.  No doubt his view of this stems from his own private school education, his experience with the G.I. Bill, his years as a headmaster, and his role as a charter school principal.  To be fair, Sizers view on choice goes far beyond the political hijacking of this concept and the volatile voucher controversy.

Throughout the book, Sizer voices disappointment.  After all that effort, what has been achieved?  How many schools are actually different forty-five years after Ted Sizer began his work?  As a practitioner who began to try to change schools a decade after Sizer started his reform efforts, and who tried for over thirty years, I too recognize that we have not made much progress.


Then again, I do see change.  As I visit high schoolsadmittedly, a somewhat skewed sample since I visit a much smaller number of schools than does Sizer, and the schools I visit are the ones interested in working on an experiential learning opportunity for their seniorsI find that teachers are much more learner-centered in these schools than they were when I began to teach.  There are more opportunities for students to do hands-on learning, richer primary source material, on-line and other computer-based learning experiences, and project-based activities for students.  To me, it does seem to be getting somewhat better. Sizer speaks of being a historian who understands that change takes time.  Those smaller, restructured, and new schools, including many Essential Schools, charter schools, schools funded by Walter Annenberg and the Gates Foundation, the Big Picture Co., Ed Vision, NYC Coalition Campus Project, and others are, indeed, very different and much better than the obsolete schools they replaced.

Despite the regretful tone that permeates this book, I believe Ted Sizer, too, wishes to end on a positive note.  This is underscored by his statement that our times are ambiguous, uncertain, and fraught with tension, and perhaps we should take heart from the existence of the ambiguity (p. 110).  Sizer states that he wishes he had a second lifetime to join in the trek (p.120) and concludes with Now let us start anew (p. 110).

Sizer calls this the end of my career (p. 111).  In summing up a lifetime of work in a field notoriously resistant to change, Ted Sizer should give himself more credit for his achievements.  Many professional colleagues have been influenced by his thinking.  Hundreds of schools have been started or redesigned using the nine principles of the Coalition.  Tens of thousands of educators have been influenced by reading his excellent books or by attending coalition workshops.  These are not happy times in the education world, but perhaps we will have cause to celebrate in the future.  When that day comes, we will think of Ted Sizers work on behalf of American high school students and be grateful for his many contributions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2490-2493
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11840, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:08:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Linda Greene
    Wise Individualized Senior Experience, Inc. (WISE Services)
    E-mail Author
    LINDA GREENE has spent 34 years in urban and suburban public school districts serving as a teacher, Junior High School and High School Assistant Principal and in several district-wide administrative positions. Dr. Greene holds degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University in Curriculum Development, Urban Education and Supervision of Curriculum and Instruction. She is currently the Executive Director of WISE Services, an organization dedicated to helping high schools develop programs of individualized, student-designed and interest-driven projects as transitions to college, work, and lifetime learning.
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