Sizer on National Standards: ‘A Wise Division of Labor and Separate Spheres of Influence’

In Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992) Ted Sizer uses the efforts of the fictitious Horace Smith and the faculty of Franklin High School as a framework for considering various aspects of school reform . The following is an excerpt from the book.

[One] obligation of the state is to solicit, assert, and assess the standards for students and for schools. This obligation arises at the simplest level from state constitutions-the requirement for “thorough and efficient” schools-but more is required, especially in a world far more complex than it was when the “thorough and efficient” doctrine was first expressed. In the last decade, most state governments have greatly expanded their testing programs-the preferred method of “setting standards”-because they are relatively inexpensive and can be kept neatly away from the hurly-burly of actual school operation. Most of the examinations programs swirl in politics. Few are properly funded, and they garner paltry academic results and rouse profound disrespect from the individuals involved, of all ages.

Not surprisingly, many political leaders are looking for some means other than standardized testing as a qualitative yardstick and as an instrument to encourage students and schools to meet that standard. They seek tests that are valid in the sense that they “measure” qualities we desire rather than items that are but tokens of those qualities. These leaders are also concerned that what is measured should be the real power of a child, that child’s enduring habits, not just what he has prepped for passing a test.

Questions abound. How can a school simplify and deepen its curriculum if the tests continue to reflect the description of the course of study as English-mathematics-science-social studies-language- physical education, each presented in isolation from every other? How is the school to press students to show us that they can resourcefully use knowledge, and to display the habit of that use, if there are on the horizon few tests of habit and, in many quarters, even now still little interest in pursuing them?

Most important, who is the state to tell families the substance and standard of everything provided by a school? When so many thoughtful people disagree about the shape and substance of key ideas in several of the areas of the high school curriculum, what group can properly claim that it speaks for us all, setting a national standard. ..? If schools are to be measured by that national standard, what does this say about the state’s respect for community standards? Do not families have some rights of control of a public service? To put it most bluntly, are there not proper limits to state power over the minds of adolescents?

Franklin High School’s plan suggests a wise division of labor and a separation of spheres of influence. The four-part system of accountability safeguards the proper interests of the larger community- the state-and those of the parent and student. There will be some limited standardized testing in certain areas. Portfolios maintained by and for each student will be accessible to teachers, the student’s parents, and representatives of the state, who will conduct “audits” of the students’ progress and, thus, of the school’s effectiveness. Horace’s committee desires assistance from the state’s staff-friends who know the school well enough to describe, criticize, and defend it on its own merits. In this respect, it implicitly suggests an American version of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools in the United Kingdom, at least in their role as outsiders supportive, critical, and above all informed about a particular school. Franklin will make substantial annual reports to the community and will discuss them in public session. Added to this local accounting is the influence of accreditation by regional authorities; their decennial reviews, if thoughtfully conducted, inform a community about its school’s merit and challenge individual schools to sharpen and defend what they believe and how they act upon those beliefs.

Also implicit in the report, however, is the conviction that matters such as the literature assignments, the shape of history and science curricula, and the very culture of the school are all of such importance, delicacy, and sensitivity to reasonable debate that they must be left to local discretion. Families must feel welcome to address their concerns directly to the people who have the power to make or change decisions affecting their children.

Of course, local discretion will always be and always has been affected, however obliquely, by a host of influences pressing toward “national standards”-by regional accrediting associations, by competitive scholarship programs, by specific requirements for admission to individual colleges, by employers who insist on evidence of serious preparation, by the ebb and flow of scholarship, by choices made in the textbook-publishing industry, by prevalent notions, whether sensible or nonsensical. Serious people at the local level are no more or less smart about these matters than people at the state or national level; they are influenced by no fewer or greater political pressures than found at higher levels of government. Differences across schools may be not only the price of freedom but an excellent vehicle to maintain openness within American education.

The changes will be messy. Democracy is messy. Those who want an orderly solution toy with democracy, that form of government beset with flaws but better than any of the alternatives. Those who assert that “the people” can never be trusted with setting standards sing an arrogant, dangerous tune.