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Influential education reformer, Brown prof Sizer dies at 77

Theodore Sizer, the founding director of Brown's Annenberg Institute for School Reform and one of the foremost advocates for national education reform, died of cancer Oct. 21, leaving behind a legacy characterized by his innovative and provocative approaches to American education. He was 77.

Best known as the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools — a national reform effort headquartered at Brown and intended to personalize the American educational experience — Sizer, along with former President Vartan Gregorian, played an extensive role in the formation of the Annenberg Challenge grant, a $500 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation to reform education at schools nationwide.

The gift funded the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a reform initiative directed by then-lawyer Barack Obama near the beginning of his political career.

"Sizer was a wonderful man with a great sense of humor who loved his students," Gregorian told The Herald. "All his students across the nation are mourning him now."

Sizer joined Brown's faculty in 1984 after holding positions as the dean of Harvard's School of Education and as headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

After Gregorian was inaugurated as Brown's president in 1989, he and Sizer forged a lasting relationship centered on national school reform, the former president said.

Their joint focus, which culminated in the formation of the Annenberg Institute in 1993, sparked reforms to American high school education involving radical approaches to learning and student-teacher collaboration.

"Sizer was one of the first major prominent educators to advocate for educational reform," Gregorian said, adding it was "an act of war" against mediocre and inadequate American education.

Invigorated by the enthusiasm for reform that Sizer was generating, Gregorian said he turned to his friend when the billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg asked Gregorian for advice about an unprecedented national gift he was considering to support school reform.

"I always consulted Sizer," Gregorian said. "We were very good personal friends."
 

Annenberg Institute

In 1993, an anonymous donor gave $5 million to the University to start an institute dedicated to school reform. Several months later, the institute received a $50 million gift from the Annenberg Challenge grant — the largest gift to the University at the time — to further develop the center. Gregorian appointed Sizer the first director, a decision

Gregorian said was meant "to highlight the importance of educational reform."

"Democracy depends upon devoted and informed citizens," Sizer wrote in a statement after the University received the gift. "The secure future of a decent America depends upon schools which prepare such citizens."

The Annenberg Institute has contributed to initiatives involving arts and rural education and helped provide a platform for creating "strong partnerships" and "design principles" to improve the quality of education, said Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute, located on Benefit Street. The Institute also houses many of the archived files from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, including a correspondence between Annenberg and Gregorian and letters addressed to Sizer.

"Ted has left a powerful legacy that has really fueled the work and innovation for education reform," Simmons said, adding that Sizer "was a powerful force locally and nationally."

"He wasn't the kind of leader who said ‘follow me.' He was the kind of leader who brought people together," Simmons said.

 

Sweeping reforms

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released a report on American education called "A Nation at Risk." The report decried the failure of American institutions to uphold national standards in commerce, industry, science and education and stressed the "rising tide of mediocrity" threatening the future of educational prominence. In response, Sizer founded Essential Schools, a movement based on a model for American high schools outlined in his 1984 book "Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School."

"Ted wanted change to come from the schools within the schools," said Luther Spoehr, a senior lecturer in the Department of Education. "The distinct feature of Ted's approach is the confidence he has with people at the grassroots."

Sizer emphasized the concept of a student as a worker in charge of his own education, with teachers acting as coaches, Spoehr said, adding that Sizer was "taking on the given, conventional models of conventional schools." Sizer also advocated smaller classes, Spoehr said, along with helping "kids who fall through the cracks."

But Spoehr said Sizer never alienated people who did not agree with his proposed reforms.

"He would stand his ground in a way that invited further conversation," Spoehr said. "Ted was an old-fashioned Ivy-League liberal with a real sense of duty to society."

Despite Sizer's continued efforts — he worked for the Coalition even after he retired from Brown in 1996 — Spoehr said the nation's educational system is still focused on "top-down" accountability — a structure augmented by the No Child Left Behind Act introduced in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

The act emphasizes standardized test scores and the "factory-model school" rather than following Sizer's approach toward student-centered learning for learning's sake, Spoehr said.

"We haven't gotten the traction we hoped for," said Lewis Cohen, executive director of the Coalition of Essential Schools. "We have got a ways to go."

Even if Sizer's reforms haven't taken hold, Cohen said Sizer changed the national conversation about schooling.

"He really got everyone thinking about the difference between thinking and learning," Cohen said. "This man was a giant."


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