Ted Sizer passed away last month. Bruce Smith, an LA teacher, sent this guest post about Sizer’s influence on what happened at Locke High School.
I’m not sure Ted Sizer ever even heard of Locke High School, or of what transpired there; and he probably never realized the influence he had in inspiring one of the nation’s most watched teacher revolts, which led to the secession of a traditionally managed public high school out of the nation’s second-largest school system and into the hands of a prominent, radical charter management operator, Green Dot Public Schools.
I was a prime instigator of that revolt. In 2001 I joined the English faculty at Locke, and in that same year the Los Angeles Unified School District hired Dr. Sylvia Rousseau, a reform-minded educator (and critic of chartered schools), as the local district superintendent overseeing Locke. Dr. Rousseau brought in a flood of reforms, one of which was hiring a consultant from the Coalition of Essential Schools, which Ted founded, to facilitate faculty meetings that were intended to make us see the need for change and to begin exploring together the ways to make these changes happen. Those meetings did get some of us thinking, and they did lead to long, meaningful conversations among colleagues, who found like-minded proto-reformers and formed lasting friendships. This is in keeping with the principles of the Coalition, which advocate “substantial time for collective planning by teachers” and “a sense of commitment to the entire school” (Theodore R. Sizer, Horace’s Hope, p.155).
I think Ted’s best-known works were his Horace Trilogy, the 3rd volume of which I’ve just quoted from. By sheer coincidence, the fictional hero of his trilogy and I share a common last name as well as a common academic specialization. The meetings with the Coalition’s facilitator led me to do some research on Theodore R. Sizer, and I eventually read 3 of his books. As a mid-career English teacher who had graduated from a very average, middle class LAUSD high school some 25 years earlier and who was now teaching in a truly desperate school in a long-neglected neighborhood, I found it easy to identify with Horace Smith, and to feel the urgent need for change. In addition, while I think it not so privileged a domain as Phillips Andover or Harvard University, I was living in (and am now writing this from) Irvine, in Orange County, California; so waking up in the morning, looking out my bedroom window at the peaceful sandbox, the available swimming pool, and the spacious park, and then driving to the scenes of dereliction and neglect in Watts every morning made me feel very acutely the inequality in American society and our very unequal educational provision, which Ted no doubt also discovered in the research for his study of the American high school; and like Ted and like Horace Smith, it made me want to do something about it.
Ted’s books are filled with useful ideas. One that especially appealed to me as an English teacher was his belief that, in order to make sure that students learned to write well, English teachers should have a maximum student load of 50 students—in their entire schedule, not in a single class. I mentioned this idea to the Coalition’s facilitator and to Dr. Rousseau, and the best they could come up with was investigating the machine scoring of student essays. This immediately suggested not the worthlessness of Ted’s ideas but rather the infeasibility of implementing them under the auspices of the incumbent contract between LAUSD and the United Teachers of Los Angeles, which was supposed to protect and support our teachers but was obviously failing to do so.
Ted was also a fan of chartered schools: he and his wife Nancy helped found one, Parker Charter High School, and they succeeded in staffing it with 40 teachers for its 300 students on the same per-pupil funding as is typical in Massachusetts. My friend and colleague, Chad Soleo, who at that time was also teaching with me in Locke’s English department (he is now a cluster director for Green Dot), knew of an interesting charter organization, Green Dot Public Schools, because he had heard its founder, Steve Barr, speak at his graduation from Loyola Marymount. The traffic in L.A. is notorious, so sometimes, when we were working late, we would hang out at Starbucks, wait for the traffic to die down, and fantasize about what it would be like to bring Green Dot in to help us reorganize Locke High School. Making a long story short, it wasn’t easy, but we eventually succeeded in doing so, and the families in Watts are today enjoying the benefits of having available the choice of sending their children to a professionally managed charter high school—the kind of choice they were long denied, but which Ted advocated and inspired.
When a stone is thrown into a still pond, the ripples extend outward, maybe forever; or at least they can extend into unsuspected back-bogs and stagnant pools, perhaps unseen by the initial thrower. Ted may not have known of Locke High School, but sometimes a portion of a rich legacy may be found to have been inherited even in distant, unlikely lots.
Bruce Smith is in the process of founding One World School, a chartered secondary school. He led the teachers’ revolt that led to the conversion of Locke High School from traditional public management to its partnership with Green Dot Public Schools.